The year my parents became members of the Museum of Modern Art, I thought we had really arrived. The small white card meant I could pop into the world-famous museum whenever I wanted without having to dole out any cash.
Back then, I could hoof around the place in an aerobic hour and a half, taking in Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp with time for a latte to spare.
So when the museum shuttered its doors three years ago and embarked on a $425 million renovation, I was nervous.
The old place was small, a couple of escalators.
Although press releases describe the project as an "expansion," when MoMA pulled back the curtain late last year, there was a brand-new building, nearly twice the size of the old one, occupying nearly a whole block in midtown Manhattan.
The international press went into frenzy. The New York Times called it a "transcendent aesthetic experience."
Ah yes, but an experience that will set you back 20 bucks: The museum doubled its admission fee when it reopened and don't think New Yorkers haven't been complaining ever since.
I finally took the plunge and stepped inside the other day. The feeling at first is shock. Dizziness.
Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi turned the old stalwart inside out, revamping the modern art mecca into a six-story palace of glass and granite. At 630,000 square feet, it is nearly doubled in size. The place is cold and crisp, white and transparent.
The galleries are arranged around a glass-topped atrium that soars 110 feet high with catwalks above. Monet's famous "Water Lilies" is displayed on a wall of its own across from a 25-foot steel sculpture.
As I wander upstairs, a class of French students is gathered around a Chris Ofili painting with a staff member explaining the artist's choice of materials: elephant dung. A few years back, the British artist's dung portrait of the Virgin Mary was branded by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as "sick stuff." The mayor threatened to pull funding for the Brooklyn Museum, where the exhibit was on display.
I bypass dung and head for the Picassos.
The museum is arranged in reverse chronological order with the most contemporary stuff on the lower levels and the earlier works above. For a quick jaunt through modern art history, start at the top floor and work your way down with Picasso portraits on the fifth floor, painted black canvas on four, industrial designs from cars to teapots on three and the aforementioned dung on two.
Children seem to delight at Jasper Johns' "Map" of the United States and the room full of Jackson Pollock splatter-paint canvases.
"Can you say polychrome?" asks a mother trying to give her 7-year-old a quick lesson in art terminology.
Others swoon over the lines and gleaming red enamel of the 1943 Cisitalia 202 GT sports car on display alongside a 1949 Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle. The design collection includes everything from Eames chairs to an OXO Good Grips jar opener.
"It's the same old crap," one visitor tells his friend as if he's at IKEA shopping for a couch rather than glimpsing works by major designers of the mid-20th century.
To take it all in easily requires a full day; you'll want time to linger over new acquisitions, revisit important works of 20th-century art and find such hidden gems as an Alexander Calder mobile hovering in a stairwell.
But if you're like me, after an hour and half you're overcome with art fatigue and ready for a tasty treat.
I plunk down at the airy second-floor cafÃ© that offers everything from panini to pulled-pork sandwiches. If you can, bypass the long, shared tables and grab a (designer) stool at the window overlooking the sculpture garden.
After a cafÃ© au lait ($4) and a plate of almond biscotti ($3.50), I'm fortified, ready to take it on again.
Unlike the old days, the new admission fee also includes tickets to MoMA films (for which tickets normally cost $10 each). But check out the schedule before you go to avoid getting stuck in a mind-numbingly boring retrospective of new directors (trust me on this one).
After plunking down $20, I feel I shouldn't be going home empty-handed. I stop off at the MoMA design store across the street, where I eye a sexy $14 Philippe Starck-designed fly swatter â€” in both blue and orange.
The new MoMA will take some getting used to. Though never touchy-feely, the old museum was familiar, manageable, the kind of place where you could stop in on your lunch break. The new MoMA, by contrast, is a mega-mall. And, like all malls, I'm both attracted and repelled. I always return and never fail to leave exhilarated, exhausted and clenching something utterly useless, like an orange designer insect exterminator.
If You Go ...
The Museum of Modern Art is located at 11 W. 53rd St. in New York City. Call (212) 708-9400 or visit www.moma.org for more info.
While there are many hotels within walking distance of MoMA, one is especially suited to the art-inspired traveler: The Muse Hotel boasts a modern lobby decorated with commissioned artwork. In April, rooms start at $259 a night, though packages are available. For more info, call 1-877-NYC-MUSE or visit www.themusehotel.com.
Great Lakes Options
It's a can't-miss event for your train-loving tot when Thomas the Tank Engine rolls through Greenfield Village to celebrate its 60th birthday. The highlight of the party is a 25-minute train ride with Thomas, but there are also lots of hands-on activities, storytelling and other opportunities to merge fun and learning. The party, which is touring the country, stops in Dearborn, Mich., April 16 and 17 and April 22 to 24. Tickets are $30 for adults, $10 for kids ages 2 to 4 and free for 1 and under. Order by calling 1-800-835-5237 or by visiting www.thehenryford.org.
Called "the king of all flower shows" by Better Homes and Gardens, the Cincinnati Flower Show entices green thumbs from across the world. Held at Lake Como at Coney Island in Cincinnati from April 20 to 24, the show features 30 landscaped gardens designed to bring Claude Monet's painted delights to life. Lecturers include Diarmuid Gavin, England's so-called "Rock 'n' Roll Gardener" for his cutting-edge creations, and Jane Lockhart, host of HGTV's "Get Color." After indulging your nose, give your taste buds a treat, too, at one of three, three-course afternoon teas ($30, including show admission). For more information, call 1-800-670-6808 or visit www.cincyflowershow.com. Tickets are $12 for adults and $3 for children ages 3 to 12.