Ben Davis Selects New York’s 10 Best Secret Art Sites

Find the subway ride that suddenly transforms into a psychedelic film.


New York’s a tough city, and one that encourages a gloomy view of the future for erratically paid creative types (see Why I Believe New York’s Art Scene Is Doomed). Still, it has a storied history, and one of the things that makes it worth the struggle is not just the major mega-hubs of culture—MoMA, the Met, the new mega-Whitney (see Exclusive Look Inside the New Whitney)—but the endless discovery of new, unexpected, and wonderful things.

Here’s a video tour of 10 of these art spots to remind you why the city is worth the struggle:

1. The Freedom Tunnel
This Amtrak tunnel hidden under Riverside Park earned an important (now partially painted over) place in graffiti history, and has been a continuous site of pilgrimage for fans of the art. Last year Mathew Ramirez Warren followed Chris “Freedom” Pape—the guy who gave the “Freedom Tunnel” its name—back to the scene, giving a sense of what real “underground art” looks like.

2. Holocenter
Did you know that New York has its own institution “dedicated to promoting and developing holographic artwork?” Well, it does! The Holocenter (aka the Center for the Holographic Arts) has a space on Governors Island (the “Holocenter House”) and offices at the Flux Factory in Long Island City (another great under-the-radar New York art group to know about, incidentally).

3. Masstransiscope by Bill Brand
Installed in 1980 in an unused subway station, and restored in 2008, Brand’s ingenious series of paintings transforms the subway ride unexpectedly (if you happen to be on a northbound express train leaving DeKalb station) into a bit of guerrilla psychedelic film. A good reminder that in NYC, if you blink—or stop to fiddle with your phone—you might miss something neat.

4. Mellow Pages Library & Reading Room
This Bushwick space claims to be “the best source for small and independently-pressed books, including zines and chapbooks, on the East coast,” and stands out as one of the more lovably nerdy community resources around.

5. Mmusseumm
Hidden in a Tribeca alley, an elevator-sized cabinet of curiosities featuring a rotating program of “artifacts that illustrate the complexities of the modern world.” Upcoming contributors include Radiolab, Freeman & Lowe (see Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe Present Their First “Light Show” at the Ace Hotel), Maira Kalman, and Casey Neistat—but why not enjoy a concert by theremin maestro Llamano, from last year.

6. Morbid Anatomy Museum
A true passion project that grew out of the success of Joanna Ebenstein’s blog (founded in 2007), Morbid Anatomy is now an actual Gowanus-based space for enthusiasts of the macabre. Among other things, you will find a resource library and exhibitions such as the current “Do The Spirits Return?,” about the history of stage magic.

7. Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space
Open since 2012 (it was almost knocked out by Hurricane Sandy before it could begin), this volunteer-run space on the Lower East Side is both a tribute to the neighborhood’s proud history as a haven of squatters and urban homesteaders, and counter-programing to the city’s ongoing super-gentrification. It has offered inventive attractions including the lively “Direct Action Fashion Show” (above), demonstrably contributing to keeping New York scrappy.

8. New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden
Some 40 artisans toiled to create the eight pavilions, and spot-on details, in this Staten Island garden, which claims to be one of only two authentic Chinese scholar’s gardens in the United States. Staten Island Live touts it as the borough’s best place for a first date.

9. Times Square by Max Neuhaus
It may look like nothing more than a grate in Times Square. Yet standing above sound-art pioneer Max Neuhaus’s installation Times Square, you are hit by mysterious sounds emanating seemingly from the guts of New York. The work is Neuhaus’s only remaining installation in the United States (maintained since his death in 2009 by the Dia Art Foundation). It is currently “temporarily unavailable due to area construction,” but you can get a taste in the above video.

10. The Life of Christ
Finished just weeks before his death of AIDS complications in 1990, Keith Haring created this 600-pound bronze triptych finished in white gold leaf, telling the Christ story via his signature ebullient stick figures. Haring’s memorial was held at St. John’s, and the altar donated to it shortly thereafter by his estate; seeing it in context, therefore, is quite moving.

The United Nations Meditation Room

The United Nations Meditation Room

Bonus: The United Nations Meditation Room
Fifties-era UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld himself supervised the details of this non-denominational worship room at the United Nations, tapping his fellow Swede, the artist Bo Beskow, to create Infinity, a painting whose forms are supposed to suggest divine order without specifying its details (except, perhaps, a vaguely Ikea-like quality?). It certainly counts as a hidden art gem of New York—yet I am unable to find any videos about it that don’t theorize that it is proof of the UN’s connection to the occult. So, I leave you with a picture.

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