Arts Guide: NYC’s Lower East Side

The west side has the Whitney Museum and the Chelsea gallery area, the High Line and the soon-to-open Little Island, Barry Diller’s $250 million dollar project.

But what about the Lower East Side? Once an infamous hub of artistic freedom and creative expression, home to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Allen Ginsberg, the Lower East Side is hardly the ugly stepsister of Manhattan’s west side. Read on for where to get your cultural fix on the eastern end of lower Manhattan.

Visual Arts:

Lower Manhattan has an aesthetic all its own, and the eastern edge is a distinct visual experience. From the street art murals dotted throughout the neighborhood to the mix of pre-war and brand new architecture, the area is a hodgepodge of style that becomes, in a way, its own character. Beyond the many galleries to peruse or museums to visit, just walking around the LES can delight and inspire on a visual level.

Rae Maxwell for MoSA
Rae Maxwell for MoSA

Two gems of the area are conveniently located right across the Bowery from one another, and art buffs could make a day of it hopping from one to the next. The New Museum, a silver structure that slightly resembles a teetering pile of legos, is the only museum in the city to focus exclusively on contemporary art. Visitors can expect an extremely varied rotation of exhibitions, with several in-house at any one time. Because the museum does not have a permanent collection, there is always something new for interested parties to explore.

The Museum of Street Art, relatively recently opened, is an interesting link to the New Museum. Described as “a love letter to The Bowery and the Lower East Side,” MoSA pays homage to 5 Pointz, the famous unofficial graffiti hub in Queens that was destroyed in 2013, while also supporting a new era of street and graffiti artists.  MoSA is an interesting take on a museum, one that is a bridge between the standard building of white-washed gallery walls, and the gritty, undefined sprawl of 5 Pointz: a 20-floor staircase of graffiti art within the citizenM New York Bowery hotel. While the New Museum is an exclusively contemporary space, MoSA celebrates artists of today while paying homage to a lost piece of New York’s artistic soul.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

The Brant Foundation, farther east off Avenue B, is another relative newcomer to the area. After opening with a landmark Basquiat exhibition last March, the foundation established itself as a jewel in the area’s cultural crown. The current exhibition, Third Dimensionwhich features selections from Peter Brant’s personal collection, is no less impressive. Visitors can expect a star-studded roster of artists represented across the foundation’s four floors, including Andy Warhol, Urs Fischer, Cady Noland, Claes Oldenburg, Julian Schnabel, and more. The exhibition will run through September with no plans announced yet for what will follow.

Fans of photography will also not be disappointed by the LES. The International Center of Photography, or ICP, is not only a museum with acclaimed exhibitions across many photographic mediums, but it is also the world’s leading photography institution. The center has not only championed emerging and established artists, but has helped launch the careers of many other photographers over the years.

Performing Arts:

Dance? Check. Stand-up? Check. Theater? Check. There’s something for everyone in the neighborhood. Fans of modern dance will want to familiarize themselves with Paul Taylor‘s studios on Grand Street.

Paul Taylor Dance © Paul B. Goode

The space might not be where the Company frequently performs, but PTAMD offers frequent pre-professional classes, master workshops, and bi-annual intensives for students to learn about Taylor’s signature style. And Taylor is not the only performances to catch in the area. The historic Connelly Theater offers high-quality theater to audiences at an affordable price, and the East Village’s Orpheum Theater is residence to the iconic ‘STOMP’ show.  Just north, at Performance Space New York, rotating shows by boundary-pushing artists are fostered and performed through the organization’s incubator program. If you’re looking for something ultra contemporary and thought-provoking, these shows are a must-see.



Over-achievers could even attempt to squeeze all the culture into one day. This map shows an easy loop throughout the neighborhood, beginning at MoSA.

Screen Shot 2020-02-27 at 4.32.38 PM

For gallery enthusiasts, use this map below as another overlay to the route above.