A Germanic Museum On Manhatten's Upper West Side

At one time in his life Serge Sabarsky was a circus clown in Vienna, Austria. Besides making people laugh, he was a set designer for the theater. His departure from the Austrian capitol occurred in May of 1938, just a few hours before Nazi patrols rolled into the city. Serge Sabarsky made it to New York, where he held a variety of jobs before turning his interest back to the styles of art he saw growing up in Austria and Germany, where he attended school.

In New York during the 60s Serge symbolically returned to his youth and began buying, selling and collecting 20th century modernist European art. Years later he collaborated with an associate, Ronald Lauder to create a Germanic art collection that would form the basis for the prestigious uptown gallery space, located at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, just across from Central Park.

Together these two collectors held quite an array of paintings, drawings, prints and photographs. Aided by the financial investments of Lauder,these art works would eventually become the nucleus for starting a German art museum in uptown New York.

Located just a few blocks down the street from the majestic Metropolitan Museum of Art, the art collection now has a home in a swank three-story apartment, which is part of the historical William Starr Miller House. After the famous industrialist died, the house was occupied by another aristocratic New York family, the Vanderbilts, and then served as offices for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Lauder and Sabarsky actually purchased the building in 1994 and began an extensive renovation before Serge's death in 1996.

Besides the amassed canvases, prints, drawings, sculpture and photographs the restored architecture of the art space merits just as much attention as the art. As soon as you enter the building from the 86th Street entrance you realize you are in a very special place. By the time you ascend the alabaster-colored marble stairs, pass underneath 14-foot ceilings and walk next to ornate walls covered will hardwood paneling and wainscoting, you quickly realize that the two museum founders have selected a very unique place to house this remarkable art collection from the early years of the 20th century.

If dining is your speciality be sure to visit the high-style Fledermaus cafe on the first floor, which boldly tries to recapture the days of 1900 Vienna. Also there is a book store and design shop on the first, both specializing in German art and design. However, after forking out 15 dollars for the admittance fee (cheap by NY standards), some visitors might want to skip the classy cafe and headed upstairs to view the art.

Because of limited space this museum focuses primarily on hanging engaging and informative shows, concerning the development of modern art in German-speaking places. Before the Nazis came to power, modern art flourished in such places as Berlin, Munich, Dresden and Vienna. Over the course of the museum's ten year history, public presentations here at the galerie have focuses on these different places as well as the various movements of Germanic modern art.

Most recently the galerie held an informative and striking exhibition, entitled Birth of the Modern: Style and Identity in Vienna 1900. The show covers the second and third floor of the building and features the wildly, sweeping and colorful canvases of Gustav Klimt. Front and center is a large, stunning Portait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt. Also included are other “Fin-de-Siecle” (end of century) Vienna painters such as Josef Hoffman, Koloman Moser and Otto Wagner. The show continues with the development of Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, Oskar Kokoschka and other painters, who flourished in the decade before the outbreak of WWI.

Over the course of the last ten years, the staff of this Manhattan museum has curated and hung many fine exhibitions, focused on the art of Germany, Holland, Austria and Switzerland. Some of the titles are War/Hell, Klee in America, Egon Schiele and Van Gogh & Expressionism. In between shows visitors can expect to view fascinating art works from the extensive collection of Sabarsky and Lauder. 

Interior view of the Neue Galerie

Interior of the Neue Galerie in New York
Credit: Hans Nielsen