Approaching the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue, colloquially known as Museum Mile for good reason, the building holds none of the magic that the Guggenheim art museum commands. From street level the brick pattern neutral coloured exterior is just another sheer building face with nondescript gaps for windows. If you’re able to step back and look up without falling into the road, you’d see the fussy decoration of an over-sized French townhouse.
Outside the front door is a black suited security guard. This is a sight I’m getting very accustomed to by now. As I attempt to enter he places his arm in front of me so that I walk into it.
‘I’ll need to search your bag, ma’am,’ he announces as settle back onto the lower step, bumping into Steve. I open the zip expecting a cursory glance for guns and explosives. Clearly a man who takes his job seriously, the guard lifts my wallet, tissues and other unmentionables in pursuit of who knows what. Snuggly packed into an external mesh pocket of my handbag is a half-drained bottle of water.
‘You can’t bring that drink in here, ma’am,’ I’m advised brusquely. How the word ma’am can come across so aggressively, patronising and outright rude is beyond me. I am not sure I’ve ever used the word before in my life and I’m not about to start with this trip. Both sir and ma’am have been levelled at us often this trip with so little apparent meaning.
I breathe out slowly but deliberately. ‘Am I able to leave it with you?’
I don’t move from my place on the doorstep and proceed to drink as much as I can. I offer it to Steve who on this occasion declines. Try as I might, I can’t quite finish it after a filling breakfast. Watching my every move silently, the guard looks away as I pour the remainder to the side of the entrance, only steps away from his position. Perhaps I should water the tree buffering the footpath from the road but I don’t.
‘You’ll need to check your bag before entering the gallery, ma’am,’ he calls out after me as I push past. At the base of the stairs, I remove my bag from around my neck.
‘Is this where I check my bag?’ I ask but am answered with a hand palm facing me fingers directing me to my left. A young lady, perched behind a bench looks up from her phone as I approach.
‘Is this where I check my bag?’
‘Yes, ma’am. That’ll be two dollars,’ she answers with all the enthusiasm of a teenager working the overnight shift at a McDonalds drive-through.
‘Okay. Just let me grab my wallet,’ I say pulling my bag back towards me before rifling through it.
‘Just a reminder that photography is forbidden in the gallery,’ she smiles and doesn’t smile simultaneously. ‘And don’t forget to visit the gift shop on our way out.’
I pay, collect my card and we head back to the foyer. A white marble staircase circles up and to the right, a black botanical-motif iron balustrade following it. In front of the staircase is a reception desk and the owner of the hand, who speaks as we attempt to climb the staircase.
‘Where you wanting to visit the gallery?’
‘Yes,’ I respond, thinking that it is rather stating the obvious.
‘Admission tickets can be purchased here.’
‘We’d like two tickets please,’ Steve interjects over my shoulder in an attempt to save the receptionist from getting his head bitten off.
‘Any concessions?’ he inquires.
‘Actually yes. I have a student concession card.’ Realising it is in my wallet which is now ensconced in the bag/coat check room, I consider my options. My dogged frugality wins out over my short fuse and I replay the procedure to save myself US$10. I’m unsure if it is worth it.
Some galleries and museums in America have a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ policy but not this place, at least not today. Traveling can be expensive. Obviously airfares and accommodation are the bulk of the expenses. In my lifetime though, airfares have become substantially more affordable. In the twenty years since I first began travelling, the price of my plane ticket has remain unchanged, regardless of inflation. The price of petrol, however, has increased by two-thirds. I sometimes wonder if it were more accessible, would more people travel. Perhaps they’re happy to stay at home, to stay in their knowable, predictable towns. I’m the kind of person who needs to save up for a holiday otherwise the stress of handing over a credit card every time outweighs the joy of the travel. Eating breakfast in and grabbing food from a market or grocery store also helps to ameliorate the ongoing shelling out of money. So yes, the saving of US$10 has a wider impact than its immediate perceivable action.
The collection at Neue Galerie includes decorative arts, sculpture and fine art pieces from various Austrian and German artists. Steve has brought me here for one reason only – to view the paintings of Gustav Klimt.
When Steve and I met through an online dating website, my profile name was Klimt. I had previously attempted online dating to greater and lesser success in the prior few years before meeting Steve and had learnt many tricks of the trade. One of which is not to give away any identifying information in your moniker or profile. Yes, you want to stand out from beachandsmiles76 and lovestolaugh71 but I always looked at a profile name as the first impression. I like to make a good first impression. One that draws curious and intelligent people in for a second look.
By choosing the name of one of my favourites artists, I felt I was sending a message about who I am as a person (artistic, slightly left of center) and also who I was looking to connect with (that might be harder to pinpoint in a few words). Needless to say, Steve heard my message loud and clear. I’m not sure if the entire time we’ve been together he’s been looking for some original Klimt artworks to direct me towards or if it was a fortuitous twist that he discovered the Neue Galerie here in NYC.
Either way, we find ourselves mingling with a couple of dozen other visitors on a glossy tiled floor, in a cool dark long room. Ten or so pieces drawings and paintings hang solemnly behind glass around the room. A few plinths in the middle display sculpture of marble and bronze but I barely glimpse at them. I step swiftly past numerous pencil studies to get to the main subject. There are too many people in my way. Can’t they go away and leave me alone with this woman I’ve traveled so far to see. I decide to do another lap of the room, this time pausing at the pencil studies, admiring the energy and fluidity of his line work. Various poses with body twisting first one way then another, her face barely even blocked in and yet it cannot be anyone else but her. I see a break and decide to take another run at it.
Adele Bloch-Bauer. She is unmistakable – dark hair piled high in folds upon her head, elongated neck swathed in a jewelled choker and her pianist-perfect fingers awkwardly held in front of her. A chaotic mosaic of triangles, squares, eyes and swirls envelope Adele, merging her dress with the background. Gold leaf dominates the oil paint, elevating the portrait to somewhere near religious icon status. I smile to myself. ‘Nice to finally meet you, Adele,’ I say under my breath.
Later, I descend to the bathroom below street level. One thing I quickly learnt as a tourist is that you take toilet stops when you can get them. Incongruously, it is here outside the ladies bathrooms that I find a life-size poster of Adele with a sign next to it encouraging selfies and the gallery’s social media platforms so I can tag myself in.