The best international cultural centers

Take a journey around the globe at these cultural hot spots-without leaving New York City.

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  • Japan Society

  • Americas Society

  • Americas Society

  • Asia Society

  • Asia Society

  • China Institute

  • China Institute

  • Czech Center

  • Czech Center

  • French Institute Alliance Franaise

  • French Institute Alliance Franaise

  • Goethe-Institut

  • Scandinavia House--The Nordic Center in America

  • Scandinavia House--The Nordic Center in America

  • Tibet House

Japan Society



American Irish Historical Society
991 Fifth Ave between 80th and 81st Sts (212-288-2263, aihs.org)

American Irish Historical Society
991 Fifth Ave between 80th and 81st Sts (212-288-2263, aihs.org)
What it is: Schedule an appointment to check out the society's recently renovated space, home to an original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from 1916. If you're more interested in modern treasures, you might spot some of the organization's celebrity members—and regular visitors—attending meetings, including Liam Neeson, who is cochairman of the executive council.
What it does: According to Megan Doherty, the events director at the AIHS, the group's mission is to "acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Irish Americans worldwide." Public programming at the center includes concerts, lectures, book signings and more.
What's next: Check out the latest in Irish design at the society's "MATERIALpoetry" exhibit opening this fall, with work by ceramicists Sara Flynn and Nuala O'Donovan, contemporary jewelry by Rachel McKnight and hand-crafted furniture by internationally acclaimed furniture-maker Joseph Walsh.

Americas Society
680 Park Ave at 68th St (212-249-8950, as.americas-society.org)
What it is: The society's swanky 1911 mansion was once home to the Russian consulate, so rumors abound about tiny microphones hidden in its salons. Today the elegant rooms host both cultural events and diplomatic maneuvering by world leaders.
What it does: In addition to concerts and lectures, the group welcomes some of the hemisphere's heads of state at events held during the United Nations General Assembly session every September.
What's happening: Calling all reggae lovers: The society will host free concerts honoring the legacy of Bob Marley throughout November. If antique artifacts are more your style, check out pre-Columbian artifacts in "Art and Myth in Ancient Peru: The History of the Jequetepeque Valley" (opens September 13).

Asia Society
725 Park Ave at 70th St (212-288-6400, asiasociety.org)
What it is: Founded by John D. Rockefeller III in 1956, this institute has been a jumping-off point for Asian artists who've gone on to achieve legendary status (Yoko Ono worked as a receptionist in the early 1960s).
What it does: Its current exhibit "Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya" (through August 15) illustrates how the mountains' glaciers have been affected by climate change.
What's happening: Fall programming kicks off with "Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody's Fool" (opens September 9), a retrospective of the Japanese neo-Pop artist.

China Institute
125 E 65th St between Park and Lexington Aves (212-744-8181, chinainstitute.org)
What it is: China is the focus at this institute, which is the oldest bicultural organization devoted to that country in the U.S.. Enter through its bright red front door, which is flanked by twin lion statues—the animals were added to the turn-of-the-century building in 1944.
What it does: The institute offers one-stop shopping for all things Middle Kingdom, hosting Mandarin classes for kids and adults, films and lectures on Chinese culture. The center also organizes the Annual China Institute Executive Summit, a conference that examines business relations between the United States and China.
What's next: A different form of political propaganda can be seen in the institute's upcoming exhibit, "Woodcuts in Modern China, 1937--2008: Towards a Universal Pictorial Language" (September 16 throughDecember 5). The show focuses on Western woodcuts, a form adapted by Chinese artists in the 1930s who were looking for a simplified pictorial language that would resonate with the masses.

Czech Center
321 E 73rd St between First and Second Aves (646-422-3399, czechcenter.com)
What it is: The Bohemian National Hall has been home to New York's Czech community for more than a hundred years. The building fell into disuse in the 1960s, but a sleek renovation, completed in 2008, now draws 7,000 visitors annually.
What it does: The center is all about promoting traditional Czech culture; events include dance performances arranged by choreographer Dusan Tynek, and an annual street festival that celebrates Czech Independence Day with live music and Czech food.
What's happening: Get a dose of Czech films—with English subtitles—during the center's summer movies series on its roof, every Tuesday at dusk. Or visit the center's current bizarre, fascinating exhibit, "Talking Glass," displaying giant glass didgeridoos named after fish and dragons (through September 10).

French Institute Alliance Franaise
22 E 60th St between Madison and Park Aves (212-355-6100, fiaf.org)
What it is: As you approach FIAF's elegant Beaux Arts building on the Upper East Side, you might fancy yourself in Paris for a moment. Inside, you'll find plenty of Francophile delights, including movies, museumworthy exhibitions and public programming (Marc Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger appeared there earlier this year). The organization also holds off-site events devoted to French culture, like its annual Bastille Day celebration.
What it does: Cultivate your own French accent at FIAF's language classes, ranging from beginner to advanced, or attend FIAF's Wine Tour de France tastings to bone up on the nation's vintages. Plus, each May there's the center's monthlong World Nomads festival, showcasing the work of playwrights and artists who've emigrated from French-speaking countries.
What's happening: The center goes underground September 18 and 19 with a new production of French director Arthur Nauzyciel's The Sea Museum, directed by Wooster Group associate Daniel Pettrow. The show will be staged beneath Atlantic Avenue in the world's oldest subway tunnel, built in 1844.

Goethe-Institut
72 Spring St between Crosby and Lafayette Sts * Ludlow 38, 38 Ludlow St between Grand and Hester Sts * Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building, 5 3rd St between Second Ave and Bowery * 212-439-8700, goethe.de
What it is: Named after the famed German writer, this center was founded in 1957 to promote the study of German language and culture abroad. Unfortunately, the institute was booted from its government-owned headquarters in December 2009—an early 20th-century townhouse on the Upper East Side—after fire inspectors from the motherland discovered the building did not meet German fire-safety standards. While renovations take place, the institute will operate in exile—that is, in three small buildings downtown—until 2015 (hopefully).
What it does: In its new digs, the institute will continue offering 80 to 100 public programs annually. Past highlights have included choreographer Nejla Yatkin's experimental meditation on the Berlin Wall, and a mixed-media exhibition on German culture magazine 032c's controversial content. An annual library membership fee of $10 gets you access to more than 8,000 (mostly German) tomes, as well as the free cookies and coffee served there daily.
What's next: Before undergoing renovations, the institute's original headquarters will be used as the backdrop for Hotel Savoy (September 30 through October 31), a performance piece based on Joseph Roth's eponymous book about the occupants of an elegant but eerily desolate hotel.

Hungarian Cultural Center
447 Broadway between Grand and Howard Sts, fifth floor (212-750-4450, culturehungary.com)
What it is: Clearly, someone at the organization has a sense of humor: Last year, it hosted a year-long "Extremely Hungary" festival, showcasing contemporary Hungarian visual, performing, and literary arts. Yes, there was goulash available.
What it does: Quirky events like Hungarian modernist art exhibits and Romanian Revolution documentaries have lured New Yorkers to the center's sleek space—including Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi, who once stopped by to listen to some Hungarian trash-pop.
What's next: Hungarian artists Janos Stone and Thomas Lendvai will transform the center's south wall into one giant sculptural installation—almost the length of an entire city block—when "Spatial Interventions" opens September 15. Stone's sculpture will look like the pixilated surface of a photograph, complete with print stills of YouTube videos, while Lendvai's installation will consist of "fake" columns—a nod to the raw spaces in the center's Soho locale.

Instituto Cervantes NY
211 E 49th St between Second and Third Aves (212-308-7720, nuevayork.cervantes.es)
What it is: Stepping through Instituto Cervantes's wrought-iron entrance is a bit like stepping into the home of Cervantes himself, Spanish-style courtyard included. Fittingly, the organization's library includes a gargantuan 50,000-volume collection of Spanish-language authors.
What it does: The friendly holas from the staff attest to the organization's authenticity as the U.S. home for Spanish-language instruction and cultural advancement for Spanish-speaking countries. Past events have included a Spanish short-story-writing competition (the winner picked up a free plane ticket to Madrid) and a summer series of Spanish and Latin American films (with English subtitles—no broken high-school Spanglish skills required).
What's next: Don't miss the center's current exhibit, "Toledo/Borges: Fantastic Zoology" (through September 25)—an oft-phallic series of drawings and watercolors by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo depicting beasts both mythical and mundane from The Handbook of Fantastic Zoology by Jorge Luis Borges.

Japan Society
333 E 47th St between First and Second Aves (212-832-1155, japansociety.org)
What it is: Located in midtown's "far east" in the city's first modern building by a Japanese architect, the society was founded in 1907, but effectively shut down after the Pearl Harbor bombings in 1941 prompted many directors to resign. It resumed operations fully in 1952 under the auspices of John D. Rockefeller III, and has been the city's leading Japanese cultural center since.
What it does: The center holds six floors devoted to Japanese language instruction, exhibits, film screenings and lectures every year. Among our recent favorites are "Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters," an exhibit of works by Manga forebear Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and a panel featuring legendary architect Shigeru Ban, musician and environmentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto and contemporary artist Mariko Mori last March.
What's next: Fall programming includes "The Sound of One Hand," an exhibit of approximately 70 scrolls painted by 17th- and 18th-century Zen artist Hakuin Ekaku (October 1 through January 16), and a one-man comedy show by acclaimed actor Yoshi Oida about a Zen master who tests his students' levels of enlightenment (October 8, 9).

Onassis Cultural Center
645 Fifth Ave between 51st and 52nd Sts (212-486-4448, onassisusa.org)
What it is: The center acts as the public venue in New York for the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, created by the famous shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (second husband of Jackie Kennedy) in honor of his son, Alexander. Located in the Olympic Tower, the center features a space for temporary exhibits and programs, as well as an atrium with three site-specific permanent exhibits.
What it does: Step back to the ancient streets of Crete at the center's many exhibits featuring ancient Greek artifacts—like last year's post-Byzantine paintings on display—or at one of the many concerts, lectures or film screenings celebrating Hellenic civilization.
What's next: The center's next exhibit, "Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece" (October 5 through January 3) offers viewers a glimpse into the creation of and desire for heroes, whether in literature, mythology or even in real life.

Scandinavia House--The Nordic Center in America
58 Park Ave at 38th St (212-879-9779, scandinaviahouse.org)
What it is: Scandinavia House opened ten years ago as the headquarters for the American Scandinavia Foundation. It's also a great place for a Nordic nosh; try Swedish meatballs from Smrgs Chef ($14), a Scandinavian chain restaurant located on the main floor.
What it does: In addition to language classes, which are hosted in partnership with NYU, the center curates three or four exhibits per year and hosts 125 to 150 public programs.
What's happening: Among the awesomeness in store this fall is New Nordic Cinema (September 29 through December 11), a series of contemporary movies from Norway and Sweden, like Sebbe, about a young boy and his alcoholic, single mother, from Swedish director Babak Najafi. Out of Scandinavia: New Indie Music from the Nordics brings indie acts, like Danish up-and-comer Hannah Schneider and Icelandic group Feldberg, to the center.

Tibet House US
22 W 15th St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (212-807-0563, tibethouse.us)
What it is: Founded at the request of the Dalai Lama in 1987, the center packs a small, ornately gilded Tibetan Buddhist shrine, exhibition galleries and a lending library with more than 1,000 volumes into its 7,000-square-foot space.
What it does: Choosing from Tibet House US's approximately 250 yearly classes, exhibits and cultural programs can be stressful, so be sure to mellow out at its Tuesday-evening meditation sessions (6pm, suggested donation $10). Plan ahead for the annual Tibet House US Benefit Concert ($35--$85), whose latest iteration brought together Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and Regina Spektor. You can also check out its rotating series of exhibitions, including "Dark Heavens: Hunters and Shamans of Mongolia," a collection of photographs by Hamid Saradar that chronicles his time with Mongolian nomadic tribes (through August 20).
What's next: Hear meditation master Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche of the Nyingma Buddhist tradition discuss the art of clearing your mind and achieving a serene state of being. For those willing to shell out for celebrity-spotting, there's the Annual Tibet House US Benefit Auction at Christie's Auction House; prizes have included a free trip to the French Riviera and original photographs by Annie Leibovitz.

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