While New York City is home to a plethora of major art museums, galleries, and exhibitions, some of the city’s best cultural gems are easy to miss. Some cultural gems hide in plain sight, and pedestrians caught up by the city’s sights and sounds may pass by without even realizing. Some installations hide in lofts, warehouses, or down discreet alleyways.
Here is a guide to some of the best kept cultural secrets in the city, ranging from street art, to sound installations, to tiny, hidden museums.
Animations hidden in train tracks
One of New York’s cultural gems is hidden underground within the city’s subway system. Masstransiscope, a 300-foot art installation conceived by Bill Brand in 1980, spans part of a train tunnel, and although the artwork is a painting, it gives the illusion of an animated film for passengers viewing it from the window of a fast-moving train. Brand created this effect by placing the painting within a black box and cutting out half-inch wide slits every 15 inches of the box. That way, commuters sitting in a train car would look at the piece through the slits as if they were watching a quick slideshow.
“When you look at something, or when light passes through your eye, it creates these chemical changes and it persists for a period of time,” Brand said in a podcast for Science Friday. This effect is also called the ‘phi phenomenon’.
If you take a Manhattan-bound train on the B or Q line from Dekalb Avenue, you can see the installation in action.
Murals take over Brooklyn
The Bushwick Collective is a collection of murals scattered throughout the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Situated about 30 minutes away from Manhattan by train, it could be easily overlooked by those visiting New York for sightseeing who stick to the bustling streets of downtown and midtown. Bushwick native Joe Ficalora conceived the collective in 2011. It features a mix of local, national, and international artists, including Chilean muralist Dasic Fernandez. Ficalora said he began the collective in hopes to revive the neighborhood, according to the New York Times.
Hidden messages from famous artists
Keith Haring painted this mural on a wall in a public park in Harlem in 1986, when New York’s crack cocaine epidemic was having a major effect on the city’s lower-income neighborhoods. He originally put the piece up without the city’s permission, but it was quickly put under protection by the City Department of Parks. Located alongside Harlem River Drive, cars pass by the mural every day, most probably without understanding the important message it holds
If you like what you see on the city streets, have a look at the Keith Haring collections that can found in both the New York MoMA and the Museum of the City of New York.
Soil since 1977
Imagine 3,600 square feet of prime real estate in the heart of NYC’s Soho and now imagine it being covered wall to wall in over 280,000 pounds of soil... This is the New York Earth Room in a visual nutshell. Open to the public since 1980, the minimalist installation by Walter De Maria has stood for decades and is a subtle reminder of the difference between the concrete jungle that is NYC. The soil has not been moved or touched since 1977.
The only home he worked on in New York is the Crimson Beech, a house located in the neighborhood of Lighthouse Hill in Staten Island. Originally built in 1959, its current owners are Jeane and Frank Cretella, who bought the house in 2004. The house includes some unique features such as folding pocket doors and built-in cabinets, all designed by Wright.
A mini natural history museum in Chinatown
Tucked in an alleyway near Chinatown, behind the tall, metal doors of an old freight elevator, is a miniature museum the size of a walk-in closet. Mmuseumm was created by Alex Calmen and filmmakers Joshua and Ben Safdie. It is a natural history museum that specializes in found objects, including disposable products such as toothpaste tubes and plastic clips. According to its website, the exhibit is a form of “Object Journalism,” and it explores modern humanity and current events through objects.
Poetry for the public
More than just an art space, the City Lore Gallery's first 1986 exhibit focused on preserving living cultural heritage through education, and the theme stuck. This Lower Manhattan gallery’s work promotes cultural equality through public advocacy programs throughout the city. One such notable incentive is the People’s Poetry Project which takes poetry to the streets, preserving the oral traditions of NYC artists.
A dream house in TriBeCa
Dream House, a sound and light installation run by the Mela Foundation, is something like a hidden meditation space. It is a large room bathed in purple and pink neon light with sound-insulated walls and sculptures, created by composer La Monte Young and visual artist Marian Zazeela. The room’s speakers have played the same intricately-designed sound composition since 1993. It’s located on 275 Church Street in the neighborhood of TriBeCa. No photos or videos are allowed inside the exhibition, so you would have to go in person to experience the room yourself.
The Dream House was reproduced for the Biennale de Lyon in 2005.
The (literal) sound of the street
Disguised as an innocuous subway grate, Max Neuhaus’s Times Square sound piece is hidden right under the noses of pedestrians in one of the New York’s busiest spots. Installed originally in secret in 1977, Times Square is a harmonic sound piece, resembling a steady hum, that is piped out from a metal grate in the ground. It’s located at Broadway between 45th and 46th streets. Visitors today can stand over the installation and try to make out the auditory textures coming from beneath them. That is, if they notice it’s there.
Max Neuhaus’s work challenges his unsuspecting audience by having them question their sense of perception, playing with the interaction between sight and sound. His background as a classical musician made him sensitive to the slightest variations of sound and he would document their visual counterparts in drawings too.
So, next time you’re walking down NYC streets, take a closer look because there is art hidden all around you.