New York: Our favorite free outdoor art and budget art hotels

Posted in: New York Sights


Get artsy in the park. Photo: James Ewing courtesy of the Madison Square Park Conservancy
Get artsy in the park. Photo: James Ewing courtesy of the Madison Square Park Conservancy

The bright (literally) side to the soggy spring through which we in New York  have been wading is that pretty is now a-bloomin’ all around the city. When the rains finally subside, New Yorkers will rush out en masse to picnic, play and relax, lured not only by fragrant florals but by a wide range of public art which, through the city’s Art in the Parks initiative, is livening up open spaces from the Bronx on down to the Battery.

Sure, New York is home to many a great art museum (some even free on certain days of the week), but when summer comes nothing beats enjoying free out-of-doors art in bustling parks. Here is the best of the bunch. And, because everyone loves a good art hotel, I’ve thrown in a few picks where you can sleep near interesting art for less.

Union Square

See: Jaehyo Lee’s naturally elegant works currently grace the southeast triangle of Union Square Park. The artist highlights “beauty in what is seen but not noticed.” Quite apropos for this oft-frenetic Manhattan hub, full of locals pushing through to the subways and teenagers rolling by on skateboards.

Tip: Head over on a Farmer’s Market afternoon (Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday) to pick up a cheap and yummy lunch and enjoy it, and the art, in the park.

Sleep: Not far from Union Square’s bustle is one of our most interesting hotel picks. Ye Olde Carlton Arms Hotel is part hostel, part hotel and all art. What it lacks in amenities (no TV or air conditioning here), it makes up for in flair (each room is decorated floor to ceiling by a different artist). Rooms are available with or without private baths.

The High Line

See: The popular elevated park features a number of interesting art works, including Busted, a series of figurative sculptures by various artists. Based on sculptures found in the streets of ancient Rome, the series examines the nature of heroes, democracy, the self and more.

Sleep with art at the quirky Ye Olde Carlton Arms.

Sleep with art at the quirky Ye Olde Carlton Arms.

Additionally, Carol Bove’s Caterpillar highlights the magical quality of the Rail Yards, the park’s final section, still untouched wilderness for one more year.

Tip: The High Line is populated with a number of street vendors. Pick up a snack and take a stroll. Also, since the Rail Yards are closed to the public, reserve ahead to get on a free public walk, offered Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. (Reservations are sold out until August 3. Tickets for August 3-September 28 will become available on June 18.)

Sleep: It’s the art of the Silver Screen that graces the walls of the Chelsea Pines Inn,  located a block east of the southern entrance to the High Line. Each of the inn’s rooms is devoted to a different Old Hollywood star, but this is far from your elitist Hollywood scene. In fact, it may just be the friendliest hotel in Manhattan.

Madison Square Park

See: Orly Genger’s undulating “Red, Yellow and Blue” weaves its way through the park, much as its nautical-knot composition gives the work itself a woven look. The work is monumental. It’s made from 1.4 million feet of rope (that’s nearly 20 times the length of Manhattan) collected along the Eastern Seaboard. Weighing in at 100,000 pounds, it changes the landscape of the park, creating nooks, crevices and open spaces like an urban version of the corn maze.

Tip: Wait in the long line for the Shake Shack, then find one of those private “chambers” to sit and enjoy burgers and Concretes.

Sleep: Situated two blocks north of the park, the Gershwin Hotel is bright, funky and artistic, so much so that it’s got its own “style guide,” a local artist associated with Warhol’s Factory. Rooms range from dorms to apartment-style, and all are decked out with quirky art pieces.

Riverside Park South

See: Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side… The Art Students League of New York brings back its “Model to Monument” program, showcasing seven sculptures by student artists, all addressing (in myriad ways) the theme of flux.


Now you can take a passeggiata on the High Line. Photo: Timothy Schenck, Courtesy of Friends of the High Line

Sleep: While it’s not exactly an art hotel, there is no shortage of pretty at the Harlem Flophouse, a truly special B&B about a 10-minute walk from Riverside Park. Each of the four guest rooms is named for a different Harlem personality, and décor is a grab bag of beautiful finds from all around the world.

Where else to get your art fix

Art abounds in many more New York parks, and there are even a number of not-so-cheapo hotels where you can view amazing art gratis. Here, a small sampling…

1. Take a stroll along the Park Avenue Malls to enjoy No Limits, Alexandre Arrechea’s series of sculptures representing iconic New York buildings from the Chrysler Building to the US Courthouse.

2. Wander through The James Hotel, a swanky Soho spot where the rooms are pricey but the art (in the entry, lobby, sky lobby and even elevator) is free to enjoy.

3. Take a trip out to the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk, where Heartwalk, commemorates both the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy (it’s constructed from the boardwalk the storm destroyed) and that fabulous New York resilience and love witnessed in the aftermath.

4. After taking in some museums on Museum Mile, take a peek in The Surrey Hotel, a schmancy spot with original modern art sprinkled throughout its public spaces. 5. Contemplate the confluence of humans and nature with Tomorrow, Akihiro Ito’s sculpture of a baby (the future) made from laminated wood (nature) in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park.

About the author

Suzanne Russo

About the author: Suzanne Russo thinks of herself as equal parts California Girl and New Yorker. She moved from San Francisco to New York four years ago to pursue her MA in English, and her obsession with all things New York life and history hasn’t dwindled yet. She is a freelance writer, director of the San Francisco-sponsored, New York literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl, and constant wanderer.

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