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Masterpieces, hidden treasure, absolutely free. These are just some of the accolades of New York’s Hispanic Society, a museum that shockingly only gets 25,000 visitors a year. The uptown Manhattan institution houses the private collection of Archer Miller Huntington whose intense passion for Spanish and Latin American culture lead him to amass an incredible cache of artworks and found the Society in 1904. With a roster of artists that includes rock star names like El Greco, Velázquez and Goya it’s hard to swallow that the museum gets so few visitors a year. Why is the collection so underrepresented? What in the name of Goya is going on here?
For starters, it largely has to do with location, location, location. Placed miles from Museum Mile in — gasp! — Washington Heights, the Society’s biggest challenge is getting visitors to venture up to 155th street to see the collection. Daniel Silva, the museum registrar, notes that “the public seems to perceive the museum as being farther away than it actually is.”
Yet if New Yorkers and tourists could only tear themselves away from the Discovery Times Square and hop on the 1, they would be in for a truly shocking discovery of what fills the Hispanic Society’s expansive two floors. Once at the site, there is no secret to what’s in store. Upon entering the building my pulse quickened as I greeted Goya’s magnificent “Duchess of Alba” (1797) standing proudly in the center of the main room. The haughty duchess is surrounding by several religious sculptures from the medieval period, as well as an intricate processional shield from the seventeenth centuries that has recently been restored and brought out of storage. The piece is part of the Society’s free monthly gallery talks in which one of the museum’s curator lectures on a new object from the collection. Visitors are few to this event and the website reveals that there hasn’t been a lecture since June 4 when the shield was presented. Yet the chance to converse with a curator in such an intimate setting is one of the many rarities the institution offers that you would be hard pressed to find at any blockbuster institution.
A glance up to the museum’s balcony reveals a breathtaking procession of paintings that range from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. This is an impressive grouping where Velázquez, El Greco and Goya make appearances. In the nearly empty gallery getting up close to these masterpieces is a real treat, but I was also taken aback by the beauty and monumentality of the space itself. The interior of the main room mimics a courtyard with decorative terracotta archways, while an immense skylight above douses each work in natural light.
One guard mentioned that many visitors have complained of a glare on the paintings, but I relished the rare chance to see the pieces illuminated by the changing sky. At one point a cloud shifted in front of the sun, sucking some of the light from the space and adding an element of drama. Suddenly I felt like I was in a period film and the Spanish Inquisition was about to burst through the doors at any moment.
Narrow hallways on the second floor hold an extensive assortment of ceramics that rivals some of the largest collections both in the U.S. and in Spain. Arranged chronologically, the display begins with works in the Hispanic-Moresque style made in Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia) during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Several of these ceramics will soon be on loan to the Met for its new Islamic wing. Proceeding through the gallery, other plates hint at the appearance of Christian ideology and arrive finally at a piece from the twentieth century adorned with flapper and art deco zeal.
While the Society gets a number of school groups, Spanish visitors and scholars to its grounds, the rest of the New York art world is sadly MIA. I probed a few employees about the possibility of mounting large-scale temporary exhibitions that might engage with different audiences, but learned that attracting a younger, art savvy demographic to the museum has proved difficult in the past.
A collaboration between the Dia Foundation and the Society between 2007 and 2010 did bring in visitors from the trendy contemporary art crowd who came to see installations in the Society’s courtyard by artists such as Francis Alÿs, Zoe Leonard and Koo Jeong A. While some of the works responded to pieces in the Society’s collection, Silva told me that, “The Hispanic Society’s involvement was limited solely to providing a space within which they could take place.” He also noted that visitors to the Dia programs seemed less than interested in exploring the rest of the Society’s collection, many of them not even stopping into the main building to view the galleries. It’s a shame that these crowds didn’t take time to appreciate the Society’s treasure trove, which was right under their nose. Possibly if the Society had been given a more active role in the collaboration that would have made a difference, but it seems that the more popular Dia came out on top.
While the employees I spoke to said they would welcome the chance for future collaborations and temporary exhibitions, the possibility looks slim due to another crucial hurtle for the museum: money, money, money. In fact recent financial troubles, as well as limited visitors, have caused the Society to shut down its North Building, which houses a massive collection of nineteenth and twentieth century Spanish paintings. The neoclassical courtyard with bronze sculptures created by Huntington’s wife Anna Hyatt, is also closed off as renovations to fix structural defects have been stalled.
Yet the Society has still made headway with its newly refurbished Bancaja Gallery on the first floor that stands true to the Society’s mission to further Huntington’s preservation of Spanish culture. Recently opened after three years of renovation, the space was rebuilt to celebrate the return of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida’s Visions of Spain mural series to the Society after a widely popular tour throughout Spain. A Huntington favorite, Sorolla was the first to exhibit at the Society when the building opened in 1908 and attracted almost 160,000 visitors.
The new Bancaja Gallery is not without its problems. In order to avoid a similar fate as the paintings on the balcony, a makeshift ceiling was placed over the skylight in the room, lending the gallery almost a corporate feel. Yet it’s still worth sweating it out on a subway ride uptown to see Sorolla’s exquisite murals. Pastoral scenes of Spanish markets, peasants and festivals sprawl across every wall, each panel painted in a style that could easily be confused with the best of the French impressionists. Although the murals were painted in 1919 at the height of industrialization, the works are bereft of any signs of it. But ignorance is bliss. I was drawn to the gallery several times during my visit in an attempt to take in every brush stroke of vibrant color and movement. It’s an experience that only reaffirms the Hispanic Society’s unique treasures and the need to bring more visitors to appreciate their history and beauty.
The Hispanic Society is located at 613 West 155th Street and is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10 pm- 4:30 pm and Sundays from 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm. The Society offers free 45-minute tours of the building and collections given by museum curators or the Education Department at 2:00 pm on Saturdays.