Every year, tens of thousands of people move to New York City in part because of all that it promises in the arts. With a virtually uncountable number of movie theaters, museums, theatrical venues, and art galleries (line up a few chairs, and your kitchen can be a venue), the city remains the center of the world of the arts, Berlin be damned. For newcomers, the plethora of art-consumption possibilities encourages an outsize dream of cultural indulgence. Yet more people here (though there aren’t statistics on this) seem to spend their time feeling guilty that they missed the Marina Abramovic show at MOMA or lamenting that they didn’t see Doug Wright’s Grey Gardens at the Walter Kerr rather than taking their cue from the super-organized types who circle all the don’t-miss listings in the weeklies and rush around maniacally checking off their arts bingo card. In fact, those anal-retentive folks can seem a bit gauche. This is a city where seeming to care too much looks overeager and where ambition is rampant but quiet: In public, we can only sneer at our aspirations.
Fortunately, nobody faced with the myriad choices New York offers decides to stay home all the time, like the proverbial donkey that starved because it couldn’t decide whether to eat from the haystack on the left, on the right, or make reservations at WD-50. (It definitely starved because it couldn’t get into the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare.) Still, how does anyone decide what to see, bombarded as we are with Facebook invitations and e-mails from the Public Theater, the International Center of Photography, and Carnegie Hall?
Some go by the theory of triangulation: There have to be three factors in play to get a New Yorker to go to anything. The Three P’s, let’s call them: Proximity, Price, and People. If you live around the corner from Here Arts Center, the Drawing Center, or the Studio Museum, there’s no admission fee, and your sister’s directing the show, you hardly have a choice about whether you’ll show up.
But triangulation theory alone would create unenthusiastic audiences. Glam appeal and the herding factor also play huge roles in the decision-making process. If you love crowds, the scarcity of tickets for The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill may leave you stewing in your own gravy outside the Breslin instead of sitting with its whole suckling pig. It isn’t hard to figure out what everybody else wants to see—they won’t stop yapping about it, whether it was the Maurizio Cattelan show at the Guggenheim, the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BAM’s revival of Einstein on the Beach, or Grizzly Bear playing Radio City. Eventually, you develop a sense of which are the most sought-after tickets, and you determine what your tolerance is for competing with others to be entertained—assuming the lines at Big Gay Ice Cream haven’t completely trained you out of that already.
Anything beyond the overly chic and the obligatory becomes a more personal choice, a matter of taste, of some unspoken ambition you’re nurturing, of timing and scheduling, of your sensibility, of season tickets at the Vineyard, of your long-standing interest in Sakai Hoitsu, of the weather at the High Line, of whether you can persuade someone to go see whatever gigantic artwork is at the Gagosian.
Whole categories of artistic endeavor will escape your notice—you might never see the American Folk Art Museum in your haste to get to the Walter Reade for the New York Film Festival or New Directors/New Films; you might pass Anthology Film Archives a million times on your way to New York Theatre Workshop. No one has told you about the fantastic scale model of the city at the Queens Museum. Facebook invites and palm cards in coffee shops become so much noise, the equivalent of a guy with a sandwich board outside Veselka flicking a flyer in your face as you cross the street, in a hurry to Danspace. You don’t have time to read, so you’ve never heard of anyone appearing at 2A Bar’s Fiction Addiction, the Franklin Park Reading Series in Prospect Heights, How I Learned . . ., let alone KGB Bar or Happy Endings. You think McNally Jackson is one of Michael’s kids.
Yes, it is next to impossible to use your time and money wisely and only experience high-quality arts and avoid all the terrible work that’s also on offer in New York, but you take risks in order to sharpen your taste, to elevate your party chatter, and perhaps enrich your thinking about your life and the lives of others. It turns out that having so much to miss is a luxury. And while there’s nothing wrong with Little Rock, per se, you don’t want to go back there, not permanently.