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Hispanic Treasures, Awaiting Discovery


January 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The expansive and unusual array of Spanish art exhibited at the Hispanic Society of America, at 155th Street and Broadway, includes Velázquez's "Portrait of a Little Girl," above left, and his portrait "Camillo Astalli."


THE Hispanic Society of America, lonely up at 155th Street and Broadway in Washington Heights and tired of having a world-class art collection that almost nobody sees, has found one solution: send the work where the audience is. So in March the museum is lending seven prize paintings, including two El Grecos and a Velázquez, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a show examining the effect of Spanish painting on French artists. In September the society plans to exhibit prints and drawings based on the Don Quixote story at the Prado in Madrid.

That's all fine but is no substitute for the strange delight of visiting the museum itself. The Hispanic Society provides the pleasure of being a tourist abroad, stumbling into an arcane treasure, less than a half-hour subway ride from Times Square. "It's one of the great well-kept secrets of New York," said Samuel Sachs II, director of the Frick Collection.

On the rainy Friday before Christmas week began, I was the only visitor over a three-hour period. "We usually have some people," Margaret Connors McQuade, the assistant curator specializing in ceramics and furniture, said apologetically. But not many. Only 20,000 visitors make their way to the society each year, compared with the 257,000 who entered the Frick, a specialized museum of similar scope on East 70th Street, in 2002. On that same rainy Friday the Frick had an attendance of 1,031. The next Friday, a holiday crowd of 2,307 showed up there; a handful at the Hispanic Society.

Location is the main problem. When the National Museum of the American Indian, once next door to the Hispanic Society, moved downtown to Battery Park in 1994, its attendance increased more than tenfold, to 472,827 in 2000 (though dropping off to 349,020 in 2002, in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere).


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Goya's "Duchess of Alba" (1797) at the Hispanic Society of America.


"People are afraid to come up here," Ms. McQuade said, even though the area's crime rate is no longer alarming the way it was a decade ago. From most parts of Manhattan's West Side, it is easier to get to the Hispanic Society by public transportation than to the Metropolitan Museum. But it feels like an expedition.

That's because you must be going to see the museum — not to stroll, eat or shop and then incidentally catch some culture. The neighborhood is mainly residential, with functional shops like hair salons, fast-food joints and grocery stores.

There is no enclave of delicious, inexpensive restaurants comparable to those surrounding the Museum of Modern Art's temporary location in Queens. (There is, however, a worthwhile detour a few blocks away, to the Morris-Jumel Mansion and the row houses on Jumel Terrace, near Edgecombe Avenue, between West 160th and 162nd Streets. The venerable Georgian-style mansion, George Washington's New York headquarters during the Revolutionary War, offers nine restored period rooms and fabulous views.)

By failing to venture uptown, people are missing a grand opportunity to examine up close an expansive and unusual array of Spanish art, including not only fine examples of El Greco's work, but also quirky rarities like a painting by his son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos. There is a striking collection of neo-Impressionist Spanish paintings, among them the greatest assembly of work outside of Spain by the early 20th-century realist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida.

More surprising, however, is everything else. The museum and its equally important library also serve as a repository for Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American history and literature, brought to life through a vivid and wide-ranging collection of maps, furniture, ceramics and more than 175,000 photographs, the vast bulk of them architectural and ethnographic. Through art and objects, the museum genteelly explores the effects of Spanish colonialism.

Classics and Coyotes

Recently the society put on prominent temporary display — next to the magnificent "Duchess of Alba" (1797) by Goya — a relatively obscure Mexican painting called "Mestizo and Indian Produce Coyote." Attributed to Juan Rodríguez Juarez, it depicts the marriage between a Spaniard and a native Mexican, and their mixed-race child, "the coyote." This new acquisition provides a fascinating example of the 18th-century Mexican canvases called "castas," series of paintings that chronicled the social reality of interracial marriage in colonial Spain.

"The Genealogy of Macuilxochitl," a 16th-century pictorial manuscript written and painted by Indian artists in Mexico, portrays the lineage of 15 generations of Zapotec rulers. Located in the library (a handsome relic that is itself an artifact to behold), the genealogy is especially significant because the Spanish had destroyed many such documents in the New World to cut the indigenous people off from their past.

Regal and fusty, the Hispanic Society carries a very different mandate from the crackling search for identity at El Museo del Barrio at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue. El Museo was founded in 1969 as a community-based organization in response to demands by Puerto Rican artists who felt underrepresented in New York's culture scene. El Museo, with a new director from Mexico, has recently expanded its scope, now seeking to be a world-class institution for anything Latino. Its recent Frida Kahlo exhibition drew more than 70,000 visitors over four months.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in a city that thrives on discovering the next thing, the Hispanic Society is far better known abroad than in its hometown. New Yorkers represent half — or less — of the museum's visitors. When Queen Sofia of Spain visited the city in 1998, she skipped the Jackson Pollock show at the Museum of Modern Art in favor of the Hispanic Society. When the museum sent a traveling exhibition of works to Spain two years ago, the lines were long. Scholars and museum curators praise the collection and staff, which is led by the society's director, Mitchell Codding, and its curator, Marcus Burke. Marjorie Trusted, senior curator of sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has been visiting the Hispanic Society and using its resources for 20 years. "I feel it is like a version of the Victoria and Albert, but focused on Spain," she said.

Obscurity, for the visitor, has its advantages. At the Hispanic Society, it doesn't take a giant leap of imagination to catapult yourself into an earlier time. The society is set off from Broadway, part of a grouping of Beaux-Arts buildings that open onto a brick-paved terrace. This anomalous classical enclave sits behind an iron gate, aloof from the bustle of the street. The inside, regal and somber, only reinforces the feeling that you've infiltrated a PBS production of a Cervantes novel (though wouldn't you know it, "Law and Order" was up filming on the terrace recently). This quaint palazzo has an archaic charm, unencumbered by the trappings (or comforts) of a contemporary museum. No dining room, no gathering place for school groups, and no one designated to lead student tours. No charge, either: admission is free.

A Memorable Portrait

Strolling into the main room, designed to resemble a Renaissance Spanish courtyard, you come face to face with "The Duchess of Alba," Goya's memorable portrait of the Ava Gardner of Spanish nobility. The duchess, though dressed in black in deference to her husband's death, looks far more sexy than mournful. It's thrilling to see her in this setting, which becomes an extended backdrop for the painting.

While picturesque, the antiquated facilities have their drawbacks. Much of the society's impressive ceramics collection is displayed at knee level and below, in handsome old glass-and-wood cases more suited to their original intended function, storing pharmaceuticals. They are on the balcony, along with some of the most intriguing paintings, including the luminous "Portrait of a Little Girl" by Velázquez. The room, originally intended as a library, has a glass ceiling, which leads to erratic lighting. To get a good look at many of the paintings, you have to stand at an angle.

There is no access for disabled people. Don't bother checking out what's happening at the museum on its Web site: it, too, is stuck in time — the year 2000, to be exact, when its designer went out of business. Research in the library takes place the old-fashioned way — without computers.

Unlike most museums, whose gift shops have become almost as fussed-over as the exhibitions, the Hispanic Society sells only a few items, primarily in-house publications and books related to the collection, as well as postcards, posters, some jewelry and scarves. The "shop" is a counter in the room dedicated to the display of Sorolla's "Provinces of Spain."

These 14 expansive murals devoted to colorful, folklorish visions of Spain were specially commissioned for the society by its founder, Archer M. Huntington. Huntington (1870-1955) was a romantic figure, a character out of an Edith Wharton novel. He is believed to have been the love child of the railroad magnate Collis Huntington, one of the richest men in the United States. His mother, Huntington's mistress, the appropriately named Arabella Duval, possessed a probing interest in the arts, which she would pass on to her son.

Eventually Huntington's wife died, and he married Duval. Archer took the Huntington name, though it is unclear whether the boy was officially adopted. At the age of 12, Archer read a book by George Borrow called "The Zincali," an account of the Gypsies of Spain.

He was hooked, in a serious way, even taking the trouble to learn Arabic before he took his first trip to Spain. His early stab at creative writing was a chivalric novel inspired by the adventures of the heroic knight "Amadis of Gaul," parodied by Cervantes in "Don Quixote." He later burned it, page by page. (Huntington's obsessive interest in Spain is described well in Mitchell Codding's essay in the preface of the museum's catalog.)

Hard to believe now, perhaps, but in 1904, when Huntington decided to proselytize his personal quest for Spanish art and culture, he envisioned a thoroughly modern museum. It even had an innovative air-conditioning system, which operated by forcing air over ice. He bought the rural estate of John James Audubon, the naturalist, anticipating the opening of the IRT subway line that year with a station stop two blocks away. It wasn't a big leap for the railroad baron's son to expect easy access by public transportation to transform this patch of countryside into the city's next Gold Coast.

In the Beginning, Dreams

The building was completed in 1908, and a year later its first big exhibition opened, a showcase for Sorolla, whose work Huntington had discovered on a trip to London. The show's success seemed to confirm Huntington's concept of an uptown cultural center as Manhattan expanded north. Almost 160,000 visitors made the trek.

Over the next few years, other small museums and research institutions joined the Hispanic Society on Audubon Terrace, all designed by Charles Pratt Huntington, Archer's architect cousin. They included the National Museum of the American Indian, the American Geographical Society and the American Numismatic Society. (Huntington's second wife, the well-regarded sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, produced the bronze figures on the Terrace: an incongruous grouping of an imposing El Cid, a deer, a doe and a fawn.)

Some dreams work, some don't. Huntington's vision of becoming the premier champion of Spanish art outside of Spain has been fulfilled. He was an honorable collector, for the most part keeping his vow not to plunder works from Spain but to buy only from outside the country, except for works he commissioned from living artists like Sorolla. He was determined to chronicle Spanish culture, and hired photographers to document life in the provinces.

One of these photographers, Ruth Anderson, came to the society in 1921 and for the next 50 years produced an exquisite body of work, 14,000 photographs taken throughout Spain but focusing on the regions of Galicia, Extremadura and Castile-León. They are available for viewing by appointment.

But the Gold Coast hasn't yet materialized on what is now the border between Harlem and Washington Heights. The neighborhood attracted new immigrants rather than old money. Many locals are Spanish-speaking but not generally interested in the art of the conquistadors, tending to be descendants of the conquered. People who lived farther downtown became afraid of exploring the area, which became better known for crime than art in the 1970's and 80's. Between the late 1960's and 1988, annual attendance at the Hispanic Society dropped to 10,000 from 35,000. The National Museum of the American Indian moved downtown; the American Geographical Society relocated to Milwaukee. Still in the neighborhood is the American Numismatic Society, which possesses the 40,000 Spanish coins that Huntington lent in the 1940's.

Sharing the Wealth

Mr. Codding, the society's director since 1995, said the society had considered moving the museum, as well as other possibilities for expanding at its current location. Nothing is likely to happen soon. "I would expect within the next 10 years," he said of the anticipated changes, whatever form they take.

Since Mr. Codding took over, however, the Hispanic Society has taken steps to raise its profile. The institution hired a fund-raising consultant and established, for the first time, a Friends of the Hispanic Society. In 1996, the society bought the building that housed the National Museum of the American Indian for $2.1 million, with hopes of using it for expansion. Meanwhile, it is being used for storage.

The museum began creating a computerized record of its collection five years ago. Most of its 15,000 rare books and manuscripts — those dating before 1700 — have been installed on a database. "Our problem is that we have an awful lot of books," said Mr. Codding — about 250,000. "It's a slow process." This year, to encourage school groups, the society began training teachers to lead their own tours, since there isn't a big enough staff to do it — 24 full time workers, including guards, and 36 altogether. The budget is small, about $2.5 million on an endowment of $50 million, most of it from Huntington's largesse. The Frick's annual budget, by comparison, is $12 million on a $200 million endowment.

So far, then, the most successful step toward putting Huntington's dream on wider display has been to ship it out. After decades of hoarding its valuables, in part because of Huntington's own wishes, the society began organizing exhibitions in Spain a few years ago. These worked so well that when the Frick asked to borrow three Velázquez paintings in 1999, the society agreed to spread the wealth closer to home, making its first loan of those pictures to a New York institution.

Mr. Codding hopes that this outreach will change the refrain he often hears about the society. "People who are interested in things Hispanic know about it, but not the general population," he said. "We constantly get visitors who say, `I've lived in Manhattan all my life and I didn't know this museum was here.' "

El Greco, Uptown

The Hispanic Society of America is at Audubon Terrace, Broadway at 155th Street, Washington Heights. Hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m. Free. Information: (212) 926-2234. It can be reached by taking the No. 1 train to Broadway and 157th Street. The 19th-century painting "Fishing" by Emilio Sánchez-Perrier is on view this month in the museum's "Piece of the Month" series; a free lecture about the painting by Marcus Burke, the museum's curator, is planned for Jan. 18 at noon.

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