Ah, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Known around the world for its glorious art collection, which features everything from Hellenistic vases to modern-day canvases, The Met–located on a part of Fifth Avenue known as “Museum Mile”–offers the chance to catch a glimpse of a lot of very famous paintings. Since moving to New York City, I’ve been a frequent visitor, taking tours one to two times a semester. Forget the paintings themselves: who wants to miss a chance to see the glorious façade of the American Wing or the reconstructed courtyards? Simply being in The Met, from the moment you walk up that long, grandiose staircase, is intoxicating. Cherubs swoop from the tops of pillars, lampposts that once graced Parisian streets pop out of every corner. And in the more modern galleries, every inch is perfect, right down to the color of the paint on the walls.
What I didn’t know, though, my first few trips to The Met, was that there are paintings that aren’t on display in these brilliantly-staged rooms. If you find your way to the elevator tucked away in the back of the American Wing and get off on the Mezzanine level–which few people do–you’ll find yourself in Luce Center Visible Storage. Inscribed on the wall at the entrance to the “gallery”–and the only thing that really looks staged–is a quote by Vik Muniz:
“The Luce Center is transgressive in that you’re being empowered. It makes you think about the mechanisms of this place: how things get shown and how things do not get shown. And it’s quite refreshing. It’s like the anti-museum.”
Once you enter the Luce Center, you’re greeted with something completely different: no perfectly-lacquered walls, no paintings with their tags placed in just the right position next to them. The sections aren’t really even marked off. It’s here that The Met stores a plethora of objects and paintings that are still on view to the public, but not part of any staged exhibit. Among the canvases featured in the Luce Center–those pieces not deemed “worthy” of being displayed as a part of the regular collection out in the rest of the American Wing–are three belonging to Childe Hassam, an American impressionist whose 1917 painting, The Avenue in the Rain, hung in Obama’s Oval Office.
Clearly, Hassam’s work has some worth. Yet as I looked at the paintings, I was struck by how carelessly they seemed to be hung in comparison to the others on display in staged galleries: one of Hassam’s paintings, Broadway and 42nd Street, had the light set directly above, where it glared off the paint and made it impossible to fully make out the flurries of snow in the sky. Many of the paintings were placed higher than eye-level, and shorter patrons had to crane their necks and get up on their tiptoes to try and see the art.
Viewing these paintings in the Luce Center almost, as Muniz says, takes the museum-ness out of visiting. There are no informative plaques, save a little white slip that informs you of the artist, the title, and the date. There’s no wall to offset the colors, and there’s no apparent order to guide you through a particular artist or period. Visiting the Luce Center lets you see the paintings as you see them, apart from the visions of any docent, tour guide, or museum curator. A painting in the Luce Center must stand on its own, unaided by lighting or pizazz or a large banner draped on the front of The Met endorsing its brilliance.
Even though there’s no place to sit, little decent information on the pieces (although that’s always available online), and frankly awful lighting, the Luce Center has quickly become one of my favorite places in The Met. No one is going to rush you if you spend an hour or more staring at one painting. No one is going to stand behind you and comment on the “genius” of a particular painter promoted by the museum. No noisy tour groups will come through, shunting you to the side and making you crane over heads and cameras to see the image.
It is in Visible Storage that you can see the painters whose names aren’t tossed around on the street and who art critics don’t rave about in the New York Times. The Luce Center in many ways offers a clean slate: there is nothing to influence your perceptions of a painting, nobody to tell you whether your opinions are “right” or “wrong.” No one arranges the paintings, letting you know that one has more value than another. All the art is equal. In taking the museum out of the equation, the “anti-museum” becomes one of the few places visitors can truly experience art.