Out and About: Spring Cultural Highlights

David Sokol

New York is the center of gay culture—and of culture in general. A trove of must-see and must-be-experienced destinations and arts institutions resonate with the sensibilities of gay pride, or simply with the interests and convictions that many members of the LGBT community have in common. When living in or traveling to New York, enthusiasts of arts and culture have the luxury of curating their own itineraries from an extraordinary palette of options. While some locations have a more overt connection to LGBT identity and history, other destinations take on an additional significance due to the contributions of feminist icons, gay role models and straight LGBT advocates who work in the arts.

Overlooking New York Harbor from the shore of Staten Island, the farmhouse-cum-museum Clear Comfort is an important architectural site in New York City: although the house now boasts a whimsical Victorian aesthetic, the original structure underlying it dates to 1690. The building is equally notable for its most illustrious occupant, Alice Austen. In 1877 a young Austen was given an early-model camera, and she immediately took to the technology. Though a self-proclaimed amateur, Austen's photographs of daily New York life, and especially of new immigrants, sharply contrasted with the posed portraits shot by other women in the era and presaged the subject matter and aesthetic of documentary photography. She is also well known for her portraits of lesbian life, which include couples in domestic settings and also show Austen with her lover. Her earliest images document Clear Comfort, and those photos helped City officials restore the house to its Austen-era glory after they purchased the building in 1975. The location is now a museum dedicated to Austen and the thousands of photographs she produced.

Brooklyn Academy of Music (aka BAM) is Brooklyn's preeminent performing arts venue. Although its programs are too numerous to count, BAM's jam-packed cultural schedule includes several beloved regular events. The institution devotes autumn to the avant-garde, with the well-established Next Wave Festival presenting new works in multiple disciplines. Even longer-running is Dance Africa, a 32-year-old annual celebration of African culture; the Memorial Day week event revolves around traditional and contemporary dance performances hosted in the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, and it also includes the outdoor DanceAfrica Bazaar and film screenings in BAM Rose Cinemas. Also look for BAM's annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.; "Between the Lines" programs of innovative storytelling; the Muslim Voices series, which features music and theatre performances; and the newly minted Bridge Project collaboration between BAM and venerated British theatrical institutions.

The Bronx blooms many times over at the New York Botanical Garden, with gorgeous flowers and fragrant branches showing off their finery throughout the year. Spring unfolds, first in fields of daffodils bursting with yellow, white and various shades of pink. This choreography of color is accompanied by magnolia trees unfurling their lusciously velvety petals. Look for tulips, cherry trees and crab apples later in spring, a season that culminates in June in an aromatic eruption of roses. Fall foliage is just as dramatic, and autumn goes out with a bang, thanks to the garden's parade of chrysanthemums. The Benenson Ornamental Conifers collection and the geometric boxwood patterns in the Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden stimulate the senses even in the depth of winter, as does the annual blockbuster orchid show, held annually from late winter through early spring.

The exhibitions staged at the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation are in-your-face—these shows display works with erotic and romantic imagery, as well as pieces that focus on political and social themes. Such provocative exhibitions and accompanying artist and curator talks, readings, workshops and other events have been the mainstay of the nonprofit foundation, which Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman launched in 1990 as a venue for unambiguously LGBT-oriented artworks rejected by the mainstream art establishment. As part of its mission, the foundation has amassed a permanent collection totaling more than 2,500 paintings, drawings, photos, sculpture and prints, and it publishes a quarterly journal called The Archive, which is devoted to the genre.

Robert Moses' influence on New York is often hotly debated, but most agree that the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts—now celebrating its 50th anniversary—is a work of genius. The cultural oasis, located at the elbow between Hell's Kitchen and the Upper West Side, resulted from one of Moses' urban-renewal schemes, and it is urban America's most important cultural campus. Lincoln Center broke ground in 1959 and opened in phases beginning in 1962; its resident performance companies include some of New York's most illustrious institutions, including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York City Opera and New York Philharmonic. (Jazz at Lincoln Center mostly performs a few blocks downtown, in a special facility that juts out from Columbus Circle's Time Warner Center.) Since 2006 the complex of buildings has been undergoing a dramatic
renovation—again in phases—overseen by the edgy architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The refurbished and reconceived Alice Tully Hall debuted in February, and the building and its acoustics have garnered plaudits from architecture and music critics alike. The ongoing transformation of the urban arts campus has an interesting architectural, and musical, footnote: the tenement buildings and brownstones that were once here provided the setting for the musical West Side Story, which itself is now having a revival on Broadway.

Behind the Beaux-Arts facade that famed American architect Richard Morris Hunt designed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art lays miles of galleries and a crown jewel at almost every step. Every year, more than 5 million people visit the Met for its famous holdings of Egyptian antiquities, European paintings, permanently installed exhibitions, captivating blockbuster shows and the semiannual showcases created by the popular Costume Institute. Fridays are particularly good days to explore the museum: guided tours begin every 15 minutes, a weekly free lecture starts at 6pm and visitors can enjoy the day's extended museum hours by surveying Central Park at dusk from a rooftop bar. Go farther afield on the weekend and check out the Cloisters and Gardens, a quilt of centuries-old European buildings and Medieval cloister gardens assembled in northern Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park, and the home of the Met's stunning collection of medieval art.

The New York City Gay Men's Chorus does not rank as America's first gay men's chorus; that distinction goes to San Francisco. Yet it was the first gay musical group to receive a recording contract, and it has released seven albums since its founding in 1980. The chorus also is known for its work in the LGBT movement, which has ranged from filing lawsuits to commissioning more than 100 choral compositions to mentoring the teenage and young-adult members of the Youth Pride Chorus. The performances themselves serve up touching sentiment, silly camp and full-bodied melody in equal measures. The group's multi-borough tour this June will celebrate the musical heritage of Spain and South America.

Opened in 1985 and renovated in 2004, the Noguchi Museum may be one of the most idyllic spots in Long Island City. The courtyard of this converted photo-engraving plant is a tranquil garden dotted with various basalt and granite sculptures designed by the museum's namesake, Isamu Noguchi. Indeed, the spot is an outstanding resource for learning more about the artist. The former factory building's galleries display Noguchi's artworks in a variety of media, his models for environmental installations and dance sets, examples of his interior design and his famous Akari Light Sculptures. Since the 2004 reopening, the museum has begun showing temporary exhibitions, many of which highlight Noguchi's collaborations with similarly luminous talents like Constantine Brancusi, Buckminster Fuller and Martha Graham.

At the Brooklyn Museum, in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art hosts a trove of art and has developed an extensive online database. One room at the Sackler Center houses Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, an extraordinary installation consisting of a triangular dinner banquet table with 39 place settings, each of which pays homage to a feminist leader, activist or mythological figure. The porcelain floor features gold-luster inscriptions of the names of 999 women who also played important roles in herstory. In addition to the Dinner Party exhibition area, the Center has additional gallery space and research facilities. The Brooklyn Museum's wide-ranging offerings include a large collection of ancient Egyptian art, new exhibitions of contemporary work and an extensive showcase of American art displayed in the Visible Storage/Study Center. During the first Saturday of every month, the museum is open to visitors free of charge from 5pm to 11pm and holds special music performances and artists' discussions.

Directly adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden showcases masterful horticultural artistry throughout the grounds, a collection of bonsai trees, one of the country's most diverse rose gardens and a greenhouse that re-creates a variety of temperate zones suitable for a cornucopia of exotic plants. The Garden's annual Cherry Blossom Festival, featuring arts and music performances in addition to cascades of flowers, is a major draw for out-of-towners and local residents alike.