The 10 Ultimate Cultural Centers In New York City

Photo of Caroline Ely
9 February 2017

Now that a smart phones gives instant access to films, music, and personalities from all over the world, who needs a cultural center? Anyone who wants to head deeper into a culture than just clicking on a link. New York’s international cultural centers offer immersion in intriguing civilizations and ideas. New Yorkers can learn languages, attend plays and recitals, hear fascinating speakers, meet foreign expats, and taste wine. Many centers ensure free admission to opulent legacy New York real estate. Here is a run-down of the cultural centers with opportunities you shouldn’t miss.

Instituto Cervantes

One Manhattan’s most lush, secluded and beautiful gardens lies within Spain’s Instituto Cervantes. Housed in a former artists’ enclave, it’s a historically preserved courtyard surrounded by ivy-covered libraries, classrooms, and an art gallery. Arches and bay windows frame the space cleanly, with elaborate cache-pots and ironwork adding old-school charm. The Instituto offers Spanish classes with an emphasis on teacher education. A choice of events might include flamenco dances, a talk by writer Paul Auster, or a conversation between two novelists on the relationship between science fiction and Spanglish. For committed oenophiles, a program on Spanish wines runs for a full year.


The Hispanic Society of America

Like the Instituto Cervantes, the Hispanic Society of America is proof that Spanish culture is a vital part of life in New York. This huge Beaux-Arts structure contains the largest library outside of Spain devoted to the art and culture of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. A vast dimly-lit room with an ornate upper-level balcony features masterworks of Spanish art. Viewers can admire rich paintings by El Greco, Goya, and Velasquez. Less formally, a series of blood-curdling devil and skull busts by Manuel Chilli evoke badass tattoos on a hipster’s arm. A spacious adjoining room shows enormous, colorful Gilded Age murals by Joaquin Sorolla depicting Iberian life. Get to the Hispanic Society soon, because a two-year renovation starts in January 2017.

New York OCT2010 Hispanic Society of America Museum 1

Goethe-Institut/Ludlow 38

Nothing could be farther from the Hispanic Society’s chiaroscuro monumentality than the cool, airy space occupied by Germany’s Goethe-Institut. An impressive library lets browsers choose titles in German and English, including Beyond the Wall, a massive compendium of life in Communist East Germany, and cult explorations like Nazisploitation! The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture. A fall Rainer Werner Fassbinder film festival included the director’s obscure TV movie Kamikaze. The Institut extends its cool factor with Ludlow 38, an art gallery on the Lower East Side. A show by Nigerian-German artist Emeka Ogboh mounts a fake black beer ad campaign that gently mocks racism, German beer, and lame “content marketing” all at the same time.

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New York Language Conference, September 1, 2012

The Japan Society

Hard by the United Nations on the East Side, the Japan Society’s landmarked midcentury modernist headquarters with an interior bamboo garden offers a refined atmosphere. Language intensives and cultural crash courses vary the standard classes. The Society programs family events, lectures, music, and film series (currently 1980s Japanese movies). In the art gallery, Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Starling celebrates Japan’s Noh drama and the poetry of W.B. Yeats with original masks, costumes, and video offset by classic Japanese artifacts. The show runs through January 15.



Books Kinokuniya

The delightful Bryant Park Japanese bookstore and café Kinokuniya may not be an actual cultural center, but it offers up a fun, very Japanese experience. The first floor features a huge selection of English-language books with an emphasis on art and photography. On the upper floor, manga and cosplayer paraphernalia rule, as well as a café with a sweet view of the park. Kids will love the basement for its Japanese toys, stationery and kooky doodads, while adults may be tempted by goods in the luxury Waza Shop. Japanese customers can load up on Japanese-language books. Budget plenty of time for Kinokuniya – it’s a great place to people-watch.


French Institute Alliance Française

France’s French institute Alliance Française occupies a prime slice of moneyed Manhattan, with Barneys and the elite Metropolitan Club close by. Lectures often have an intellectual bent, and eclectic performances may spill over to Times Square or dance’s Joyce Theater. The French language takes center stage, with a French preschool providing immersion for toddlers; the cinema club led by French TV personality Olivier Barrot offers practice for adults. A bust of the wily philosopher Voltare adorns the library, a testament to France’s reverence for the written word spiced up by gossipy periodicals. Wine tastings and classes are available at FIAF, which also operates branches in Brooklyn and Montclair, NJ.




Austrian Cultural Forum

A striking 1992 glass and steel post-modernist building houses the Austrian Cultural Forum, which shares contemporary cultural currents in a pristine, cerebral fashion with a frequent focus on visual arts. Vienna recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the major expo Vienna Design Week. Running through January 16, an exhibit showcases creative samples from the show and explains how the initiative joined designers with Austrian business. Lectures at the Forum might cover Cold War history, and cinema selections often continue the emphasis on art.


Scandinavia House: The Nordic Center in America

Park Avenue’s elegant Scandinavia House operates as a joint cultural mothership for the nations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland., and feels suitably clean, modern, and chill. On the ground floor, a birch tree spreads invitingly over the minimalist yet cozy Smörgås Chef restaurant. Gift shops specialize in high-end jewelry and crafts by designers like Marimekko and Kosta Boda. Other offerings include a Nordic book club, a children’s learning center, and Borrowed Time: Icelandic Artists Look Forward, an exhibit focused on global sustainability running though January 14.

Turkish Cultural Center

The Turkish Cultural Center offers language lessons and occasional cooking classes for popular Turkish cuisine. Workshops are available in Ebru, a traditional form of painting on ceramics, and on the ney, a classic stringed instrument. And when tensions run high between the Muslim and Western worlds, the Center sponsors something to soothe the stress – interfaith dialogue. Brooklyn and Staten Island host additional outposts of the Cultural Center.

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