by William Beavers
Even before Mrs. Astor ruled over “The 400” of New York’s society, the city’s elite belonged to closely guarded, private clubs. These days, however, such organizations for the select few are far outweighed in our grand metropolis by those whose missions are all about democratic openness and inclusiveness. The few we’ve chosen to highlight here are arts and culture based, but there are loads more just a Google search away.
The Victorian Society New York is the Metropolitan (NY) chapter of the Victorian Society of America. Founded in New York in 1966, it fosters the appreciation and preservation of our 19th- and early 20th-century Victorian heritage. It offers lectures on architecture, decorative art, fine art, landscape design, literature, and cultural history. There are also exhibitions, neighborhood walks, visits to historical sites and private local homes only rarely open to the public. The members get invitations to opening receptions, annual meetings, and other special events, along with reduced admission fees. Recent events have included visits to some of the architectural wonders of Troy, New York; a lecture on 19th-century New York theater; and visits to homes decorated for the holidays. Please call or check the website for upcoming events.
Fee: From $40 a year for adults; $30/year for those 65+ and students. Tel: (212) 886-3742.
Starting as a subscription library in 1754, NYSL is the city’s oldest cultural institution. It was once the de facto Library of Congress and George Washington used it. Since 1937 it’s been housed in a landmarked Renaissance Revival building at 53 East 79th Street on the Upper East Side. Its lively public events include book discussion groups, lectures, children’s programs, and other events. “Tea and Trollope,” for instance, is an informal reading group of the Victorian novelist and his peers. “Wiggles and Giggles” is a song and story time for babies and toddlers. The library is best known for its delightfully idiosyncratic collection of 300,000 volumes.
The public is welcome to visit the Exhibition Gallery (their current exhibit is the literature of WWI). The rest of the spaces (stacks, reading rooms, quiet work spaces, Children’s Library, etc.) are available to members only. Please call or check the website for upcoming events.
Fee: The library offers six months and one year memberships. $225 for an individual for one year/$175 for six months; $200 for a one-year student membership. Tel: (212) 288-6900.
One of the city’s great unsung treasures, the Asia Society is a lively institution offering an exhaustive slate of events at its handsome modern building on Park Avenue (at East 70th Street). Recent shows have included “Nam June Paik: Becoming Robot,” and “Korean Ceramics.” Other events have ranged from “An Evening with Writers of Myanmar,” to a screening of a documentary film on Vietnamese cross dressing, and soprano Renée Fleming discussing musical exchange between China and the U.S. There’s also a series of lectures on Asian/U.S. policy issues and the current political environment. With branches around the world, the Asia Society is the one-stop shop for all matters social, cultural and political touching on our Pacific Rim neighbors. Please call or check the website for upcoming events.
Fee: From $75 a year for individuals; $60 for seniors and students. Tel: (212) 288-6400.
A must for serious movie buffs, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is housed in the Walter Reade Theater at 70 Lincoln Center Plaza on the Upper West Side. Its programs range from national film series to retrospectives highlighting the accomplishments of outstanding directors, actors, cinematographers, and screenwriters. The Film Society seeks to demonstrate the range and breadth of film and video, attracting audiences from broad segments of the community and providing artists from diverse backgrounds with a meaningful venue in which to show their work. FSLC also hosts popular “Dinner and Movie” evenings for the members, where for $25 you get a soup-and-sandwich meal and a glass of wine. Another great benefit is the opportunity to purchase advance tickets to the New York Film Festival screenings.
Fee: There are numerous membership levels. Fees start at $75 for individuals; $35 for students. Tel: (212) 875-5620.
One of the more unusual groups you could join is Atlas Obscura that explores and celebrates new ways of seeing the world. Its members are interested in some of the more bizarre twists of nature, irrational human behaviors, and exploring some of the amazing, hidden locales around the globe. Unlike our other entries here, Atlas Obscura is largely a web presence which organizes some of the strangest tours in the city. Current and recent New York-based events include: a two-hour tour of midtown Manhattan’s great real estate holdouts taking place on November 9th and telling the stories of those tenants who have refused to budge in the face of monolithic development; “Freedom Tunnel,” an abandoned tunnel that now thrives as an off-limits, make-shift art gallery; and the Roosevelt Island Octagon Tower, once an elaborate insane asylum where abysmal living conditions reigned and now converted to residential condos. To join, just sign up on the website. Atlas Obscura is a moveable feast of like-minded persons with whom you’ll click. (Also, check out the organization’s exploration arm, the Obscura Society, which seeks out secret histories and opportunities for members to explore strange, overlooked places hidden in our midst.)
Fee: Tours start at $20.
William Beavers is a New York writer and author of the “New York City Culture Catalog” (Abrams/Alliance for the Arts).