Category Archives: United States

Art Museum Book Clubs

There’s been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the decline of reading, diminishing book sales, and the “death of print,” but there’s no doubt that books clubs are thriving. It’s hard to know precisely how many book clubs there are because they are often informal groups. However, according to Publishers Weekly there are an estimated seven million such groups in the U.S. and that number is rising.

Art museums across the country are offering book clubs that combine literature with tours through their galleries. Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl is on the reading list at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Some organizations, art museums in particular, recognize the power of book clubs and the potential of readers in general as a huge target for their marketing efforts. From the Delaware Art Museum to the Art Institute of Chicago (I love the name of their group, “Reading Between the Lions”) to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, museums are conducting book-based tours and book clubs that capitalize on the notion that reading can make other aspects of life come alive.  Debbi Hegstrom, associate educator for the docent program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) says, “There are unlimited connections between art and literature. This is another way to promote the vision of the MIA, ‘Inspiring wonder through the power of art,’ to a specific but potentially very large audience. With the current popularity of book clubs, it seems like a logical way to tap into the existing interest and bring more people to the museum.”

Formats vary.  Some art museum reading groups revolve around special exhibits or a featured work; others focus on art-related reading in general, be it fiction or non-fiction. Some require museum membership; others, such as the MIA, are open to anyone. All provide great reading ideas and opportunities for book club field trips. At the MIA, museum tour guides have been presenting book-related tours for four years, as requested by organized book clubs, but a newer program, which is open to anyone on a drop-in basis, has been running for three months. Men, women, young adults to seniors participate.  Says Hegstrom, “The titles usually have something art-related but not necessarily. Guides can use artworks in the museum to explore themes presented in a book. Our goal is to include one fiction and one non-fiction title each quarter, with at least one of the books relating specifically to art or artists.” This summer they’re tackling The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, and Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a fantastic Minnesota writer.

What’s the common thread between books and art? Hegstrom says, “Literature and the visual arts are both creative expressions of the human spirit. To experience both media based on related topics and to share the experience with others brings depth to both. Books become the reason to get into the galleries and talk about a shared experience—in this case, the literature. I think it’s a way to reach some people who might not otherwise visit, but also to strengthen existing relationships. On tours, we are very interested in how people make personal connections to works of art. This is another avenue to help people build those connections.”

So, if you’re a local or a book lover on vacation, you’ll feel welcome at the MIA’s book tours which take place on first Tuesdays of every month at 11:30 a.m. and first Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. Also, for a list of what museums are reading and more information on the connection between art and literature, check out the Hol Art Books site.

Says Hegstrom, “We hope to expand titles, age groups, and partnerships in the coming year. Sometimes the subject matter and discussions can be serious, but in the end what we love to hear is, ‘Wow, that was really fun.’ “


A Literary and Culinary Trip Across the Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge
Manhattan to Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks in New York City and  walking its span over the East River (just over a mile) is one of my favorite things to do there. A dedicated pedestrian walkway, the Promenade, runs over the center of the bridge and below an estimated one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles cross the bridge every day, which makes it hard to imagine what it was like before the bridge connected the two cities of New York and Brooklyn.  How did the Brooklyn hipsters get to the other side? By boat.

Hike along the wooden Promenade… Cables composed of 3600 miles of steel wire weaving like a spider web around you, the 276½ feet foot towers rising above, the Statue of Liberty standing guard over the harbor to one side, and the view of the city’s massive skyscrapers all around combine for an experience that makes you feel humming with energy.

Reading David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge – The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, adds an extra dimension to a walk across the bridge. McCullough tells the story of the fourteen-year effort of building the bridge, which finally opened in 1883. It was at the time an unimaginably daring feat of engineering, exemplary of America’s Age of Optimism. As someone who lives not too far from the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis four years ago, the enduring solidity of the Brooklyn Bridge seems even more impressive.

I was particularly fascinated by McCullough’s description of how caissons (used to plant the footings of the huge towers) work.  But, The Great Bridge is more than an explanation of civil engineering. McCullough also weaves in the politics and personalities of New York’s movers and shakers at the end of the Gilded Age, particularly the remarkable designers of the bridge, John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, who was tragically debilitated by “the bends,” known as caisson’s disease, during the building of the bridge. For a nice discussion of the book, see the Past as Prologue blog.

Bridge-walkers disagree about which is the best way to go, Manhattan to Brooklyn or vice

Street art in DUMBO

versa.  Some recommend taking the subway to Brooklyn and walking back to Manhattan, which offers fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline.  However, I enjoy going the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn route, with the incentive of all the great food that awaits near the end of the bridge on the other side. So, find the pedestrian walkway near City Hall in Manhattan and stroll across the bridge to the DUMBO neighborhood. That’s an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” but DUMBO is also under the Brooklyn Bridge.

From the end of the bridge it’s a short walk to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, under the Brooklyn Bridge at 19 Old Fulton Street.  There’s almost always a wait, but it’s worth it.   Then, it’s time for more carb-loading, which you can justify with all that exercise you’ve done walking across the bridge. Almondine Bakery, 85 Water Street, which New York magazine calls the best bakery in the city, is a great place to stop in for coffee and pastry.  It’s especially cozy when the weather’s bad.  Or, pick up amazing chocolate-packed cookies, or homemade ice cream sandwiches at Jacques Torres  at 66 Water Street and head over to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The Cove section of the park lies between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge and offers an terrific Manhattan view.  It’s also one of the few places on the New York City waterfront where visitors can actually get down to the water. Its a rich habitat for fish, crabs, and birds of the New York Harbor Estuary.

New York, bridges and chocolate…what could be better?

McSorley's Old Ale House-Glad to see this NYC institution still going

I was happy to read in the New York Times that McSorely’s Old Ale House is going, even if its without the old chicken bones. Writers (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Menken, the McCourt brothers), artists, and politicians have whet their whistles here since forever.  e.e. cummings wrote a poem about the place

I was sitting in mcsorely’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil…

Some things just should not change.

A Glimpse of The Devil in the White City

Last weekend I spent a really cold but delightful couple of hours wandering around Jackson Park in Chicago. I’ve wanted to go there ever since I read Erik Larson’s bestseller The Devil in the White City. Jackson Park is where the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 took place and that’s the subject of Larson’s non-fiction book. In The Devil in the White City, he weaves together the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, the legendary architect responsible for the fair’s construction (and later the Plan of Chicago) and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. He crafts the story so dramatically that readers often wonder if the book is a true story or a gripping work of fiction.

I’m not the only one who has wanted to see where the story takes place. “When I finished The Devil in the White City I got in my car and drove to Jackson Park,” says Mary Jo Hoag, who is now tour director for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Devil in the White City tours. “I just wanted to see where it all took place.” So many readers have come in search of the White City that a host of tours have sprung up (given by CAF, the Chicago History Center, the Art Institute and other organizations) catering to readers who want to see first-hand where the plot thickened. Word has it that a movie version of The Devil in the White City is finally in the works, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as H.H. Holmes.  That will create even more interest in seeing the real place where it all happened.

Almost nothing remains of the famed White City, though it was the greatest tourist attraction in American history, hosting 27 million visitors. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed Central Park) began to lay out the fairgrounds in 1890. It took three years and 40,000 workers to construct the fabulous Beaux-Arts style fair buildings and monuments…out of plaster. The historic fair opened to visitors on May 1, 1893. It closed six months later and within a year almost every structure from the fair was destroyed by fire, demolished or moved elsewhere. Only the Palace of Fine Arts, on the north end of Jackson Park, remains. The building is now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It’s sad that such beauty was so ephemeral; I’d love to have seen it. Hoag says that, at the time, the fair’s huge white buildings– illuminated by the amazing new technology, electric lighting–were so dazzling that people who arrived at night got off the

The fair at night-- "like a sudden vision of heaven."

train and simply fell on their knees they were so astonished at the sight. One fairgoer described it as “a sudden vision of heaven.”

A one-third scale replica of Daniel Chester French's Republic, which stood in the great basin at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

It’s good that at least the Museum of Science and Industry survives (as the Palace of Fine Arts it held some of the world’s most valuable art and was built extra strong and fireproof) because it gives a frame of reference for what the other buildings at the fair looked like. That, along with Hoag’s collection of photographs and her great descriptions, helped kick start my imagination as we strolled through Jackson Park. Over here the Agriculture Building…over there the gigantic Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building…a replica of the iconic statue of the fair, The Republic…. the Wooded Island where architect Frank Lloyd Wright took inspiration from the Japanese pavilion… Modern life creeps back in, though. Over there is the basketball court where Barack Obama used to shoot hoops with Michelle’s brother.

Looking north down the lakefront from the Museum of Science and Industry, one has the sense that though the White City is gone, one of the best legacies of the fair endures: the idea that cities can be well planned and beautiful places. Jackson Park and Chicago’s long string of parks and open lakefront (part of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago) that make this city so special are examples of that great idea. Still, I look forward to seeing The Devil in the White City movie and how its special effects bring the White City back to life.

An Immigrant Tour of Lower Manhattan: Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Reading– Part 2

New York City is one of the best places in the country to taste (quite literally) the 
immigrant experience, particularly that of the great wave of newcomers who arrived in America at the turn of the last century. Prep for your trip with books such as Jane Zeigelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families In One New York Tenement, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, or Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. Plan to start on lower Manhattan’s west side at Battery Park and work your way across lower Manhattan for an immigrant history “trifecta.”

First, board a Statue Cruises ferry (operating out of Battery Park) for a trip to Ellis Island and turn on your imagination. The Statue Cruises ferry out of Battery Park in lower Manhattan stops at Liberty Island first. From there, the boat stops at Ellis Island, then returns to New York City. You can choose to stop both places or just go to Ellis Island.

This small island in New York Harbor was originally part of the harbor defense system. Its size belies its importance in U.S. history; it was used as an immigration station from 1892 to 1954 and over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Its main building was restored after 30 years of abandonment and opened as a museum on September 10, 1990 under the management of the National Park Service.

It takes some effort to imagine these gigantic halls filled with people, but an array of tours, movies and exhibits fill in the picture. This is where steerage and third class passengers underwent medical and legal inspection. The day I went with my family to Ellis Island the weather took a nasty turn after we arrived. Awaiting our return ferry, the waves were crashing on shore and we felt like part of the “huddled masses,” so close, but yet so far.

The return trip to Manhattan offers a fantastic view of the city and you can imagine the excitement and trepidation new arrivals must have felt as they finally reached their destination. Yet, for many new arrivals, America wasn’t exactly the “land of milk and honey” that many anticipated.  The Tenement Museum offers a glimpse of what life was like for Irish, Italian and eastern European families once they landed. It takes a little effort to get there and don’t look for a big museum a la MOMA. The office where you purchase tickets is at 108 Orchard. Then your tour group walks to the actual tenement building at 97 Orchard.

The Tenement Museum is one of my favorite places in New York City and provides a vivid contrast to today’s Fifth Avenue and Times Square. No Gilded Age J.P. Morgan opulence here. They’re not kidding; this is a real tenement. You can only see it with a tour (book ahead, the fill up). I visited  “The Moores: an Irish Family in America.”   I also spent quite a bit of time afterward visiting the gift shop, which ranges from literary to funky.

Part three of the immigrant tour brings a reward for your trek across Manhattan:  food. Of course ethnic food abounds in New York, but for me a nibble in one of these lower east side establishments is an authentic way to cap off the tour. Katz Deli (205 East Houston) is just around the corner from the Tenement Museum.  It’s one of the last of the delis that used to fill the neighborhood and was also the location of Meg Ryan’s famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally. The food is worth every artery-clogging bite.

Or try your hand at eating for some soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai (9 Pell Street). If you haven’t sampled soup dumplings, there’s an art to eating them which you can view in Joe’s rather lengthy “Kill Soup Dumpling” video.  (Skim through it.)

Joe’s is in the heart of Chinatown, which has been a hub for numerous waves of immigrants in the city. This is the “Five Points” neighborhood, the setting of Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book The Gangs of New York and Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie of the same name. (I love the names of the Irish gangs of the era: the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, the Short Tails, the Slaughter Houses, the Swamp Angels.)

Not full enough? Loosen your borcht belt with a little Ukranian food at Veselka (144 2nd Avenue). You can rationalize all this eating with the fact that you’re gaining not only weight, but also a greater cultural perspective.

Just Kids: Touring the Lower Manhattan Art Scene with Patti Smith and Robert Maplethorpe

I just finished reading Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, the story of her life with the artist and photographer Robert Maplethorpe, a life dedicated to art and to each other. Smith and Maplethorpe met in New York in the late 1960s, while they were in their early twenties and through most of their journey together they lived like stereotypical starving artists—homeless, jobless, hungry, and itching from various vermin.

Of all her talents—art, punk rock, poetry—I’d say Smith is best at writing, which she demonstrates in this beautifully crafted memoir that’s hard to put down. I’m always fascinated with how writers, particularly memoirists, pick and choose the details they include in their stories.  Smith offers less a photographic view than an impressionistic view of their lives, weaving together some (mercifully not all) of the seemy side (she seems surprisingly unfazed at the possibility of contracting gonorrhea from Maplethorpe) with fascinating encounters with the artists of the day including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg.

The book offers not only a fascinating and tender look at their relationship but also a tour of the Manhattan in the last period of 20th-century artistic ferment. Many hot spots such as Max’s Kansas City are long gone, and gentrification has pushed the art scene into the Meatpacking District, Brooklyn and beyond. Yet, there are still places that carry on the bohemian tradition, though like most of the parts of the city, they’re cleaner, nicer and more expensive than in the 60s. The biggest change has been in the Times Square area, which now fills with crowds of tourists and Disney characters instead of hustlers, addicts and panhandlers.

Ditto for the iconic Washington Square Park, which was refurbished over the last couple

Washington Square Park has been refurbished....
...but still has its share of crazy people.

of years. Not to worry, there’s still enough questionable activity there to make it seem bohemian.  Smith tells the story of a couple of tourists who saw her and Maplethorpe hanging out there.  One asked the other if they were artists and hence people they should photograph. The other said no, they’re “just kids.”

You can still go to Coney Island as the pair did when they could only afford one hot dog at Nathan’s. And, if you’re particularly dedicated to experiencing the life at the Hotel Chelsea where Smith and Maplethorpe lived for many years, you, too, can stay there.  The rates are exponentially higher than in the early 70’s, but from what I can see from TripAdvisor reviews, you can have an authentic Chelsea Hotel experience—complete with the bugs, stains and loud music and with the same furniture and carpeting from Smith and Maplethorpe’s day.  Better, perhaps, to fork out $40 for the occasional tour the Chelsea offers and actually sleep in another hotel.

The St. Mark’s Poetry Project where Smith performed is still going strong. To get another taste of the poetry scene, head to the Bowery Poetry Club and Café, especially on Tuesday nights for the Urbana Poetry Slam. If you get a chance, eat dinner at DBGB, across the street (by contrast, new and very trendy).

Looking for more of the history of Greenwich Village? Take a Big Onion Walking Tour, which travels into the tiniest and most charming streets of Manhattan, so unlike the concrete jungle beyond the Village borders.  These are the haunts of William Faulker, Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac and his Beats buddies. Some of the buildings, which date back to colonial times, served as slave quarters and servants’ houses but are now the most expensive pieces of real estate in the city.

Top off your walking tour with a latte and a giant cookie at the cozy Grey Dog Coffee Shop on Carmine Street.   I love that they serve my latte with the froth in the form of a dog’s paw print. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes to be a starving artist.

A Literary Walking Tour of Midtown New York City

For most visitors to New York, Midtown means the theater district and shopping.  But, it also offers great strolling opportunities for lit lovers.  I often start my mornings in this area with breakfast at Pain Quotidien (40th and 6th).  It’s a chain, but very cozy, especially on a blustery New York winter day, and they offer great bread, pastries, fresh OJ, and killer oatmeal.   If it’s warm, get coffee and croissants to go and eat across the street in Bryant Park.

Carb-fortified, I started my walk at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd, adjacent to Bryant Park and gave a nod to Patience and Fortitude, the lions that guard the entrance.  They’ve had several names since the library was dedicated in 1911, but Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gave them these names in the 1930s because these were the qualities he felt New Yorkers needed during the Great Depression, qualities we need now, actually.

Books aside, the building’s colossal Beaux
Arts architecture and majestic ceiling frescos make the library worth the trip. Yet, for book lovers, the sheer size and solidity of the place, with its grand staircases and the giant Rose Reading Room, give a feeling that books—in  whatever form–will never go away.  They also have a great gift shop. Check the Web site for current exhibitions.  When I was there, among several others, they had a exhibit on Mark Twain, “The Skeptic’s Progress,” held jointly with my next destination, the Morgan Library & Museum at 225 Madison (at 36th ).

Financier and book/manuscript collector Pierpont Morgan built this library to house his collection (If this was his library, I’d love to see his house!) and the library has been adding to the collection ever since.  They also added a modern wing.  The original section of the library was restored this year.

When I was there Charles Dickens’s hand-written manuscript of A Christmas Carol was on display. And the Mark Twain exhibit, in honor of the 175th anniversary of his birth, was a treat for any Twain fan, loaded with photos and original hand-written letters and manuscripts.

Then, I hiked and window-shopped my way back up Fifth Avenue.   Since it’s the holiday season, the tree at Rockefeller Plaza (at 46th) and the store windows along Fifth Avenue are worth the exercise.  Pay homage to Holly Golightly at Tiffany (at 57th) (see also the story of Summer at Tiffany) and check out the jewelry boxes in the windows at Cartier (at 52nd) from which truly breath-taking jewelry emerges. I spent quite a bit of time gazing at the crazy gorgeous windows at Bergdorf-Goodman (at 58th), which are works of art every year.   Then, with Eloise in mind, I wandered by the Plaza Hotel. If you’re feeling wealthy, stop in for lunch or afternoon tea (including a Tea with Eloise menu) at the Palm Court. If you’re feeling really wealthy, you can stay in the Eloise Suite, which starts at $1125  a night.  If not, looking around is free, which is what I like.

And, if you can’t make it to New York during the Christmas season, it’s also free to take a video trip to see Bergdorf’s windows, entitled “Follow Me.”