Located in the heart of Queens, New York, the Queens Museum has long been a hidden treasure of the city’s cultural landscape. With its iconic Panorama of the City of New York and its dedication to contemporary art, the museum offers visitors a unique blend of historical insight and cutting-edge creativity. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating history of the Queens Museum, explore its remarkable Panorama, and discover how it has become a vibrant hub for contemporary art in the Big Apple.
The History of Queens Museum
The Queens Museum is located within the historic New York City Building, originally designed by architect Aymar Embury II for the 1939 World’s Fair. It gained historical significance as the temporary home of the United Nations General Assembly from 1946 to 1950, witnessing pivotal moments in the UN’s early history.
In 1964, architect Daniel Chait led the building’s renovation, restoring it as the New York City Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair, featuring the iconic “Panorama of the City of New York.”
Originally adjacent to the Trylon and Perisphere, central monuments of the 1939 fair, the pavilion later became home to the Unisphere for the 1964 fair, which still stands today.
In 1972, the north side of the New York City Building was adapted into the Queens Center for Art and Culture, later known as the Queens Museum of Art. In 1994, architect Rafael Viñoly transformed the structure into galleries, classrooms, offices, and an ice skating rink.
In 2009, the museum embarked on a $69 million expansion project, doubling its size to 100,000 square feet and fully occupying the New York City Building. The museum reopened in November 2013 with a new entrance at Grand Central Parkway.
In 2016, the Queens Museum temporarily closed due to security restrictions during the US Open tennis competition at the nearby Grandstand Stadium. The impact of future sports events on the museum’s accessibility remained uncertain as of 2017.
Contemporary Art at the Queens Museum
While the Panorama of the City of New York is undoubtedly a captivating attraction, the Queens Museum has also earned a reputation as a prominent institution for contemporary art. The museum’s commitment to showcasing the work of emerging and established contemporary artists has propelled it to the forefront of the city’s art scene.
Collections and Exhibit
The museum’s permanent collection comprises approximately 10,000 items, with over 6,000 of them being documents and artifacts associated with the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. Some of these items are on continuous display. Recent additions to the collection, acquired through either purchase or donation, include works by artists like Salvador Dalí and Mark Dion, Andrew Moore’s photographs from the “Robert Moses and the Modern City” series (featuring 20th-century photographs from the 1964 World’s Fair Kodak Pavilion), historical crime scene photographs from the Daily News Archive (spanning the 1920s to the 1960s), and nearly 1,000 drawings by William Sharp, a court reporter and political cartoonist.
Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass
Since 1995, the museum has been in a partnership with the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany glass. Portions of this collection are consistently on view, sourced from a vast private collection of Tiffany glass assembled by Dr. Egon Neustadt and his wife Hildegard, commencing in the mid-1930s. This collection encompasses windows, lamps, and related items, and additionally houses an archive comprising nearly 300,000 pieces of flat and sheet glass previously held by the Tiffany Studios. A carefully selected subset of the collection, featuring representative examples of each type, color, texture, and pattern of this glass material, is being curated for both exhibition and scholarly exploration.
The museum’s exhibitions also delve into the history of Tiffany’s artistic creations. Notably, Tiffany Studios and Furnaces once operated from studios in Corona, which were ultimately shuttered in the 1930s.
View this post on Instagram
Panorama of the City of New York
The Queens Museum is renowned for its signature permanent exhibit, the Panorama of the City of New York, commissioned by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair. This extensive architectural model spans 9,335 square feet and meticulously replicates every pre-1992 building in all five boroughs, at a scale of 1 inch to 100 feet.
A team of 100 individuals from Raymond Lester Associates worked tirelessly for three years leading up to the 1964 World’s Fair, constructing the model in 273 sections, encompassing a remarkable 895,000 individual structures. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, the section portraying the Far Rockaway neighborhood was never installed.
During the 1964 Fair, the Panorama became a star attraction, with “millions” of visitors paying 10 cents each to enjoy a simulated 9-minute helicopter ride over the city. After the Fair, the Panorama remained accessible to the public. It received updates from Lester’s team in 1967, 1968, and 1969, but substantial changes were infrequent until 1992. At that time, Rafael Viñoly oversaw a two-year museum building renovation, and Lester Associates was once again hired to bring the model up-to-date by altering over 60,000 structures.
In March 2009, the museum revealed plans for ongoing Panorama updates, allowing individuals and developers to contribute accurate scale models of post-1992 buildings in exchange for a minimum $50 donation. The museum also considered adding more detailed models of smaller residential buildings and homes.
As of February 2021, the original twin towers of the World Trade Center still appear on the map, retaining their presence until the site’s full construction was completed.
Mechanical “helicopter” vehicles, once used to transport exhibition visitors, were removed before the 1994 reopening. The current installation, designed by Viñoly, offers accessible ramps and an elevated walkway encircling the Panorama, allowing viewers to explore at their own pace. Tiny scale model airplanes still take off and land at LaGuardia Airport, guided by long wires.
The Panorama of the City of New York has been featured in two fictional works: the movie “New Year’s Eve” directed by Garry Marshall and the book “Wonderstruck” by Brian Selznick. The Queens Museum also hosts the annual “Panorama Challenge,” a trivia contest where contestants identify New York City landmarks using the Panorama.
In a separate section dedicated to World’s Fair exhibits, visitors can explore a scale model of the 1964 New York World’s Fair site, showcasing all the buildings and pavilions from that era.
Relief Map of the New York City Water Supply System
For the 1939 World’s Fair, city agencies were invited to create exhibits for the New York City Pavilion. The Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity (a precursor to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection) commissioned the WPA’s Cartographic Survey Force to construct a large Relief Map depicting the New York City Water Supply System and watershed. This project began in 1938, with a team of map builders, supported by a substantial budget of $100,000 in depression-era funds.
The extensive map, covering 540 square feet, proved too large for the allocated space in the New York City pavilion, leading to its exclusion from the World’s Fair. A decade later, it made its first public appearance at the city’s Golden Anniversary Exposition in Manhattan’s Grand Central Palace.
In the early 21st century, the map, consisting of 27 pieces, required urgent restoration. In October 2006, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Queens Museum collaborated to send the historic display to the McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Lab in Oberlin, Ohio. Over 18 months, conservators and technicians meticulously removed decades of dirt and repaintings, uncovering much of the original geography and details. Road maps and satellite images aided in restoring lost sections of the model.
Around the 70th anniversary of the map’s creation and the 100th anniversary of the Catskill System’s construction, it was fully restored and found its permanent home in the former New York City Building, now the Queens Museum, on long-term loan for public viewing.
World’s Fair Visual Storage and Gallery
Situated on the second floor of the Queens Museum, this exhibition showcases memorabilia from both the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. The special connection between this exhibit and the Queens Museum lies in the fact that both of these historic events took place at Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, and the museum building itself stands as the sole surviving structure from those memorable celebrations. The online catalog encompasses a comprehensive collection of over 10,000 items from both fairs.
Within the exhibition gallery, visitors can explore a detailed scale model of the 1964 New York World’s Fair site, encompassing all its buildings and pavilions. This model is safeguarded under a transparent dome, offering a close-up view of each significant structure, each labeled with a small flag for easy identification.
In addition to its permanent collection, the Queens Museum hosts a rotating series of special exhibitions that highlight innovative and thought-provoking contemporary art. These exhibitions often explore pressing social and political issues, providing a platform for artists to engage with critical topics and challenge conventional thinking.
The museum actively engages with the local community, organizing outreach programs, workshops, and events to connect residents with contemporary art. This emphasis on accessibility and inclusivity has made the Queens Museum a beloved institution in Queens, promoting art as a catalyst for social change and dialogue.
Notable Contemporary Artists at the Queens Museum
Over the years, the Queens Museum has featured works by an array of influential contemporary artists, contributing to the global conversation surrounding art. Here are a few notable artists whose works have graced the museum’s walls:
1. Yayoi Kusama
Renowned for her avant-garde and immersive installations, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama exhibited her iconic “Fireflies on the Water” at the Queens Museum. Her work explores themes of infinity, obsession, and the relationship between the individual and the cosmos.
2. Tania Bruguera
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has been a pivotal figure in contemporary art, utilizing her installations and performances to address pressing political and social issues. Her work has been featured at the Queens Museum, sparking conversations about immigration, displacement, and power dynamics.
3. Fred Wilson
American artist Fred Wilson is known for his thought-provoking installations that challenge conventional museum practices and the representation of history. His work has been exhibited at the Queens Museum, encouraging viewers to reevaluate their understanding of cultural objects and narratives.
The Impact of the Queens Museum on Contemporary Art
The Queens Museum has had a profound impact on the world of contemporary art in several ways:
A Platform for Emerging Artists
The museum’s commitment to showcasing emerging artists has provided a crucial stepping stone for those seeking recognition in the art world. It offers a space for experimentation and innovation, allowing new voices to be heard and celebrated.
Located in one of the most culturally diverse boroughs of New York City, the Queens Museum actively promotes inclusivity and multiculturalism through its art programs and exhibitions. It serves as a model for museums seeking to represent the rich tapestry of cultures that make up their communities.
The museum’s emphasis on engaging with social and political issues through art has fostered critical discussions and activism. It demonstrates the power of contemporary art to inspire change and address pressing societal concerns.
The Queens Museum, with its iconic Panorama of the City of New York and its dedication to contemporary art, stands as a testament to the dynamic cultural landscape of New York City. From its origins at the 1964 World’s Fair to its current role as a hub for creativity and community engagement, the museum continues to evolve and inspire.
As visitors explore the miniature cityscape of the Panorama, they are transported through time and space, gaining a deeper understanding of New York’s history and development. Simultaneously, the museum’s contemporary art exhibitions challenge, provoke, and inspire, demonstrating the enduring power of art to shape our perceptions and conversations.
In an ever-changing world, the Queens Museum remains a constant source of cultural enrichment, celebrating the past, present, and future of New York City through art and imagination. Whether you are a local resident or a tourist, a visit to this remarkable institution is an opportunity to connect with the essence of the city and its vibrant artistic spirit.