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Explore New York State’s cultural gems

Must-visit museums just a drive away
Elizabeth Alecki of the Rochester Museum & Science Center

As summer hits its peak, there can be an itch to break free from routine. We start to crave something new; the wanderlust stirs. 

What better time to take a drive, explore new places, and learn something in the process? New York State museums have something for everyone—whether it’s art, history, science, or anything in between. 

We spoke with Jessica Marten, curator in charge and curator of American art at the Memorial Art Gallery, and Elizabeth Alecki, director of collections at the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC), about their picks for museums and galleries that are worth the drive. 

So, hop in the car, hit the road, and let’s go exploring!

Bob Dylan image at Fenimore

Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown 

Located on the west side of Otesco Lake in Cooperstown, the Fenimore Art Museum boasts an impressive American Indian Art collection as well as important works by American folk and fine artists and photographers. 

“The collection is wonderful … and it’s in a beautiful location off the lake in Cooperstown, where there’s a little of everything,” says Marten. “[The Fenimore] has been making some really exciting, impressive acquisitions of new work for the permanent collection, adding to Western New York’s cultural resources.” 

The museum’s American Fine Art collection includes art by Georgia O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and more. The collection of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century photography features Ansel Adam prints as well as photographs by Georgia O’ Keeffe. 

An exhibit of elusive street artist Banksy’s work will run through September, as will an exhibit of legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s sketches from the road that he reworked in watercolor and gouache.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City 

Now is the perfect time to visit the Whitney in New York City, says Marten, because the Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better Than the Real Thing is running through August 11. The Biennial exhibition spotlights the work of up-and-coming American artists and is considered “the most significant and longest-running survey of contemporary American art,” according to the Wall Street Journal. 

This eighty-first edition of the Biennial includes more than seventy artists and covers themes of how artificial intelligence is influencing what society views as “real,” and how conversations around gender are influencing politics. 

The Whitney is a modern and contemporary American art museum that was in the top 100 most visited museums in the world last year. Its permanent collection spans the late-nineteenth century to the present with more than 25,000 works of art in all mediums by more than 3,500 artists—particularly emphasizing the work of living artists. 

Legendary works by Alexander Calder, Keith Haring, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Man Ray, and Andy Warhol are on display at the Whitney.

Corning Museum of Glass, Corning 

Less than two hours from Rochester, the Corning Museum of Glass honors the art, history, and science of glass. 

“In my opinion, it is a must-see museum to visit. Not only is it awe-inspiring to walk through the galleries and see all of the colorful and beautiful pieces they have on display, but they also provide many experiences for visitors to get hands-on with glass,” says Alecki. 

Activity stations in the Innovation Center allow visitors to experience the science behind glass through interactive exhibits—visitors bend light, manipulate glass, and more. And for visitors who want to create their own work of art to take home, the Make Your Own Glass (MYOG) classes offer instruction in sandblasting, flameworking, fusing, and hot glass working. Alecki advises visitors to sign up for the MYOG experiences ahead of time, as spots fill up. 

The museum also offers live glassblowing demos—where professionals create vases, bowls and more from gobs of molten glass—and flameworking demos, where professionals use a 4,000-degree torch to shape soft glass. 

And along with “the world’s most comprehensive and celebrated collection of glass, from ancient Egypt to present-day contemporary glass art” (according to the website), the museum is currently exhibiting ten artworks from contestants of season four’s Blown Away, Netflix’s hit glassblowing competition. The ten pieces were created during the season’s timed challenges and are accompanied by the artists’ insights into their displayed work. 

Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo 

This science museum, located at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in Buffalo, focuses on animals, astronomy, and the science of technology. 

In the Bug Works exhibit, visitors walk through the Bug Hive to learn more about the tiny creatures and view insect models. Next, visitors can explore healthy living through hands-on, interactive activities with the Yum! exhibit presented by Wegmans. Buffalo in Space chronicles the achievements of local companies in the field of aerospace. 

“Their Biodiversity exhibit is one of my favorites—not only does it have some cool specimens from the RMSC collections on display, but there are so many amazing animals from all over the world to learn about in the gallery,” says Alecki. “The bison diorama, in particular, is a really cool piece of science and history that should be part of any visit.” 

The bison diorama is original to the exhibit hall; the bison came to the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences from the Buffalo Zoo in the 1890s.

The Wild Center, Tupper Lake

“The Wild Center is a unique combination of nature center and natural history museum that I absolutely love,” says Alecki of the center located in Tupper Lake. “The Wild Walk is a favorite experience of mine because you get a great view of the surrounding forest up in the treetops by traveling along a trail of bridges and exploring the four-story twig tree house.” 

The natural history center has plenty to see inside and out. Outdoors is a trailfilled campus across more than 100 acres. A thousand feet of bridges and platforms rise up and over the campus for a bird’s eye view of the property with Wild Walk, which is accessible to visitors of all abilities. Additional features of Wild Walk include a life-sized eagle’s nest and an oversized spider’s web that visitors can climb into and explore. Daily guided trail walks and canoe trips are also available at the center. 

Indoors contains five main exhibit areas, including the Pataki Hall of the Adirondacks with its Living River Trail, featuring a waterfall housing the center’s live otters. More than 900 live Adirondack animals can be found throughout the center. For a truly immersive experience, the Wild Center recently acquired Birdly, a convincing virtual reality platform. Visitors strap themselves into the simulator and wear a pair of Oculus Rift 3D goggles as they flap their arms and “fly” through virtual skies.

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