New York is a gigantic conglomerate of flowing artistic genius. Not just the cinemas, theatres, music, comedy and visual arts that come to you when you walk the streets. But history, architecture (seen in everyday buildings as much as famous landmarks), town planning, landscaping, parks, gardens, food, wine and atmospheric restaurants permeate life here. Even in the shops there is art, particularly at this time of year when retailers do what they can to impress with Christmas decorations, many of which are surprisingly lavish and tasteful. Beyond Christmas, many shops have devised interesting and original ways to view their wares so that you are not just “shopping”, but you are “experiencing” exclusive trade in original settings. Which I guess is really commercialism at it’s most extreme, as you might expect for a city of this magnitude, wealth and reputation. The Wall St area is also a centre of art, history and architecture, courtesy of it’s life-sized charging bronze bull, historical churches and buildings such as the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, making the financial district far more than just a fiscal mecca.
Central Park stretches from a southern border at 59th St, more than 50 blocks north to 110th St which is effectively lower Harlem. It also runs from Eighth Avenue on it’s western boundary, four blocks east to Fifth Avenue. It is just under 1km wide and over 4km long, translating to 843 acres of green recreational space. Within it’s perimetres are many beautiful features, from monuments and fountains to ponds and lakes, walking trails, baseball fields, an outdoor theatre, Central Park Zoo, and so many other sights that it is impossible to mention them here with any justice. It was created between the 1850s and 1870s by landscape-architects who were commissioned to create a park for the purposes of ensuring outdoor space for the rapidly-growing city population. The location choice is an essay in itself but has to do with the fact that Manhattan as a city grew north from it’s trading origins at the tip of the island, more than 10km north to the park’s southern perimeter and beyond.
You could visit Central Park every day of the year for a lifetime and never be bored by it’s landmarks, seasonal landscape changes (from spring flowers to winter snowfall) and the activities of both tourists and locals, who use it as their garden space and outdoor gym. Walking through a comparatively small area of the park today, I saw rollberladers, skateboarders and cross-country skiiers share the roadways with horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and cars; hundreds of people on the outdoor ice skating rink; others sitting in the Boathouse restaurant on the edge of “The Lake”; buskers playing instruments, singing and dancing; artists painting; friends and families walking; tourists posing on or beside monuments; children in playgrounds; squirrels dotting in and out between trees and birds watching from branches or the tops of statues.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, known here as “The Met”, is one of the world’s ten largest art museums and the largest of it’s kind within America. It is an indescribably huge building which spans four blocks along the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue, embedded into Central Park. It was established in the 1870s by a group of Americans who wanted to “create a national institution and gallery of art to bring art and art education to the American people”. Four years ago I visited New York with a well travelled Australian friend who wrote to me a few days ago, part of his email saying: “The Met is still my favourite museum anywhere – in fact, I ordered some stuff from the Met store for Mum and myself for Xmas!” This week I joined The Met as a member in order to visit as many times as I like over the next year without worrying about entrance fees (which are in fact only recommended charges, and it is encouraged but not compulsory to pay). I have been four days in a row now, staying between one and three hours each time.
As yet I doubt I have seen even a fraction of what is on offer. In fact, it is so big that it is disorienting and yesterday I got very lost despite asking for directions on four separate occasions! I fared better today as I rented an audio program and was guided a little through my chosen exhibit of the day. Narrated by the Director of The Met, he begins by saying “you could easily spend a lifetime here, exploring an encyclopaedic suite of time, cultures and styles”. Thousands of visitors attend The Met daily, mostly entering via The Great Hall, which he describes as “an awe-inspiring space of monumental proportions, soaring arches and domed vaults <which> do a lot to prepare you for the experience that awaits you within”. He is right – it is awesome and it definitely gives you an impression of the magnificence you will find further inside. It is difficult to count how many exhibits are displayed in The Met at any one time, as there are temporary displays which can last for months at a time as well as the permanent collections.
Today I spent two hours exploring the Art of Ancient Egypt gallery – an immeasurable area of rooms and halls displaying tombs and temples as well as smaller artefacts such as statues, mummies and coffins. Not only did I look at these things but I learned about Ancient Egyptian culture and archaeology along the way. One of the most interesting revelations was that of exploratory excavations which have been led in Egypt by academics employed by The Met, who have been sending American educated archaeologists to Egypt since as far back as the 1920s. Not only have they made groundbreaking discoveries, but they have also formed important relationships with Egypt’s leaders in order to preserve significant cultural heritage which may otherwise have been lost.
Yesterday as I floundered to find my way to an Exit, I walked through an area being used by a group of young school children who had each found a specific display to sit at and sketch. I couldn’t help but think about the quality of an education that is obtained on the doorstep of such imposing and accessible culture. As a high school student in New Zealand I quite enjoyed Art History, a highlight being our class trip to see a Claude Monet exhibition in Auckland when I was about 16 years old. Compared to what is on offer in this one American city, that exhibition was a drop in the ocean. I do also remember wondering at the relevance of knowing about such olden day and far away times and places. At the age of 20 I visited the National Gallery of Art in Trafalgar Square, London and this question was answered immediately as I felt dwarfed by, and a part of, the history and culture I was standing amidst. I somehow doubt that any child learning art or history in New York, or any large European city for that matter, is ever tempted to wonder such things! Wandering behind a father with two very young children this afternoon, who were complaining of boredom, Dad responded patiently with “He was a King in Egypt, which is a place that I’ll be very happy to take you to oneday, if you ever become interested. But today I think it’s time for us to go and play in the park”. Central Park, that is! I hope his sons grow up with an appreciation of their extreme privilege!
My day consisted of time in perhaps the best park in the world and one of the best museums in the world. A difficult experience to beat, but it’s highly likely that tomorrow will at least be a match. I am in New York, after all!