Unsung Museums of the East Village
Since its heyday as the white-hot center of the cutting-edge art scene in the early 1980s, the East Village has been home to numerous contemporary-art galleries. Less well known are the neighborhood’s specialty museums. These home in on niche—but engrossing—topics such as organized crime, community activism, and Ukrainian culture.
214 East Second Street (between Avenues B and C)
Joe Overstreet and his wife, Corinne Jennings, founded Kenkeleba House in 1975 as a gallery and studio dedicated to African American artists. Along with a collection of paintings and prints, the gallery has an outdoor sculpture garden. Across the road at 219 East Second Street, Kenkeleba’s Wilmer Jennings Gallery (named after Corinne’s printmaker/jewelry designer father) hosts not just exhibitions but also panel discussions and hands-on workshops.
80 St. Mark’s Place (between First and Second Avenues), Second Floor
The second floor of the building used to be a brothel; the basement includes a series of tunnels leading to what had been a speakeasy. This certainly makes for an appropriate setting for the Museum of the American Gangster. Rather than a paean to mobsters, the museum is a collection of artifacts that show, among other things, how Prohibition was critical to the rise of organized crime. The museum itself consists of two rooms of semi-automatics, sensationalist magazines, the bullet that killed “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and death masks of John Dillinger, among other objects. The guided tour, included with the price of admission, takes visitors down to the former speakeasy as well as provides further context to the collection.
155 Avenue C (between East 9th and East 10th Streets)
The Museum of Reclaimed urban Space. Image: TobocmanonABCatMorus/Flickr
Though founded in 2012, MoRUS harks back to the 1970s, when community activists took it upon themselves to improve blighted neighborhoods and make use of boarded-up buildings and untended lots. In fact, the building that houses MoRUS was formerly known as C-Squat, one of the city’s best-known squats. The museum’s exhibits show how residents transformed vacant properties into thriving community gardens and residences. MoRUS gives weekend walking tours of the neighborhood as well: The Radical Alphabet City Tour touches on everything from the 1860s Draft Riots to Occupy Wall Street; Squats and Gardens focuses exactly on that.
38 St. Mark’s Place (at Second Avenue)
Swiss Institute is dedicated to the contemporary arts—not only visual art but also performance, cinematic, and multidiscipline art. For instance, in February the institute hosted a series of talks and dance performances from Offshore, “an itinerant performance company and pedagogical structure.” On exhibit through March 10 is Cally Spooner’s “Sweat Shame Etc.,” incorporating prints, sculptures, choreography, sound, and writing. Ongoing through April 7, “Centinel” is the first-ever solo show by Jasper Spicero, featuring sculptures, a video, and a soundtrack.
222 East Sixth Street (between Second and Third Avenues)
The East Village used to be home to a sizable Ukrainian population; now it is home to the largest museum in the country dedicated to Ukrainian culture. Its folk-art collection includes more than 8,000 objects, including richly embroidered apparel, kilims, ornate metalwork, and pysanky, Easter eggs lavishly decorated via a wax-resist method. There is also a fine-art collection encompassing more than 2,000 paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Ukrainian artists such as Alexander Archipenko and Lev Getz, along with a vast archive of coins, stamps, maps, and photographs. The museum hosts temporary exhibits as well. Beginning April 7 is “Full Circle: Ukraine’s Struggle for Independence 100 Years Ago, 1917-1921.”