The new Manhattan home of the American Kennel Club (AKC) Museum of the Dog is flush with canine representations of all types, from a miniature bronze pug band (yes, really) to a lavish oil painting of salukis with their long ears flying. There are large canvases by famed dog artists like Sir Edwin Landseer—safe in this space from criticisms of sentimentality for his anthropomorphized Victorian pups—and curiosities such as an Edwardian-style dog house for a Chihuahua.
But there is one thing you won’t see: live dog visitors, as unlike the museum’s previous iteration in St. Louis, no furry companions are allowed (aside from service animals).
The museum’s opening this week in a two-story space on Park Avenue is a homecoming. Founded in 1982, the Museum of the Dog was initially located in the lobby of the New York Life Building on Madison Avenue, where AKC had its headquarters until 2018. (The organization also hosted its own exhibitions, such as the brazenly titled Bitches in Stitches: Dogs in Needlework.) By 1986, though, a spokesperson told the New York Times that problems “ranging from too little exhibition space to not enough financial support” led its directors to vote for a move to St. Louis. In 1987, the museum relocated to the Jarville House, an 1853 Greek Revival-style mansion; there, the bronze greyhounds and grand paintings of hunting hounds were installed above fireplaces and displayed in wooden cabinets.
The new museum has none of those homey touches, apart from a stately armchair with wooden dog heads on its arms. But it does reunite the museum with the AKC under one roof. “The AKC has its own collection, which actually predates the museum,” explains Alan Fausel, the museum’s executive director. “They’ve been collecting since about 1900, and that’s housed [in their headquarters], but most people don’t get to see it.” Together, they are one of world’s leading collections of canine fine art.
This inaugural exhibition, For the Love of All Things Dog, spotlights the myriad ways dogs have appeared in fine art, particularly sporting art. It opens with American artist Percival Rosseau’s “Leda,” painted in 1906, in which a setter dynamically prowls toward a pheasant hidden in the grass. Many of these works portray dogs doing what they were bred to do (their breed identified on label text): British-American painter Maud Earl’s “I Hear a Voice,” for example, is a grand portrait of a Saint Bernard on a mountain top, listening intently for someone in need of rescue. (Although it’s unlikely the pampered model, a show dog named Frandley Stephanie, ever got near the Alps.) Edwin Megargee—the American artist behind the running dog on the Greyhound Bus logo—painted an idealized fox terrier standing resplendent in a grassy field in “Nornay Saddler,” with a nearby burrow hinting at the breed’s tendency to sprint into dens in the hunt of some quarry.
Other works have dogs as human parallels, such as British painter John Sargent Noble’s “Pug and Terrier.” In it, a pudgy pug looks, in a perturbed manner, at a terrier bowing its scruffy head, with a metal cup for begging attached to its collar. While the owners are out of sight, the contrast between wealth and poverty is clear.
While the first floor has the largest works, centering on the 19th-century heyday of dog art (coinciding with a time when dogs were increasingly brought indoors as house pets), the second floor has smaller pieces, and more examples of contemporary art, such as Mexican artist Alfredo Gracia Aguilar’s colorful abstractions of fox terriers, or American artist William Wegman’s playful photographs of Weimaraners. There are objects reflecting the animal’s changing roles, such as spiky antique collars likely worn by guard dogs, and a wooden cart for canines to pull children around. One case is dedicated to Smoky, a Yorkie who served as a mascot and therapy dog for soldiers during World War II. The pup was found in a New Guinea foxhole and adopted as a morale booster, whose media coverage in turn raised the profile of the petite breed.
Most of the works were donated to AKC by collectors passionate about specific breeds, and chronicle both how those developed over time, and the rise and fall of their popularity. (“We’re heavy in bulldogs, mastiffs, Great Danes, [and] German shepherds.”)
But even the concept of breeds is relatively recent; while there were different types of dogs before the Victorian era, there was little consideration of their aesthetics. They were kept as pets for functional and companionship purposes, but eventually, certain types became fashionable, too. The first modern dog show dates to 1859 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, where sporting dogs were judged on appearance rather than skills. The formation of organizations like the Kennel Club in the UK in 1873 led to the centralization of specifications of breeds.
One piece in the museum illustrates this transitional period. A case in the museum’s second floor library holds the diminutive remains of Belgrave Joe. He was born in 1868 and nearly 20 years old when he died, but in that time he passed along his DNA and admirable form and symmetry to a great number of fox terrier champions. His bones were once in the members’ room of the Kennel Club with an inscription declaring him the dog “from which most of the best Fox Terriers are descended.”
The AKC formed in 1884, and now recognizes 192 dog breeds; the latest additions are the Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen, a long-eared hound with a floofy tail, and the red and white Nederlandse Kooikerhondje, with a spaniel-like face and heart-melting eyes. All of these are explorable on a touch table, which highlights artworks of that breed. (You can discover, for example, that King Edward VII had a beloved wire fox terrier named Caesar, who marched at his master’s funeral in 1910; a painting by Maud Earl has the grieving dog staring longingly at a half-painted chair.) Other digital experiences include a “Find Your Match” kiosk which reveals the dog breed that most resembles your face, and an interactive game in which users shout commands and move their arms to train a digital puppy.
Balancing historic heritage with the 21st-century identity of AKC was a challenge in the architecture, especially considering the museum’s location in the base of an office tower. “The space within the building was not previously registered as a museum or public assembly, so this required us to work closely with the city to accommodate this change of use,” says EJ Lee, principal and design director at Gensler. That firm carved the 11,200-square-foot museum out of the double-height atrium of the building’s lobby, and subtle signage includes a screen of running dog silhouettes that’s animated with the gaits of different breeds.
AKC’s new museum joins a wealth of dog art in New York City, including the 1782 carrara marble Maltese by sculptor Anne Seymour Damer—who asked that she be buried with her favorite dog’s bones—in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alberto Giacometti’s loping “Dog” at the Museum of Modern Art (he claimed it was a bit of a self portrait although “only the sad muzzle is anything of a likeness”); and the bronze tribute to Balto, hero sled dog who helped save children in Nome from a diphtheria epidemic, in Central Park.
New York also has a long history of canine culture; for instance, the oldest continuously operating pet cemetery in the world is located a short Metro-North ride away in Hartsdale, New York. The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery was founded in 1896 after Manhattan veterinarian Dr. Samuel Johnson recognized the demand from his clients to have somewhere to properly remember their pets. There in Hartsdale, among Johnson’s apple orchard, dogs who once strutted down Park Avenue were interred with all the pomp and respect of a human funeral.
What does the Museum of the Dog add to this rich canine-filled tapestry? Each work on view is not about the depicted beast, and its charms and imperfections, but about a person’s attitude towards the dog. In this space, the art celebrates a centuries-long connection between animals and humans, and shows how our love for dogs has transformed them.
“Dogs are very accessible and approachable, and people often have dogs—it’s not like going to a [fine art] museum,” says Fausel. “I hope visitors learn about art through the dogs.”
The AKC Museum of the Dog is located at 101 Park Avenue; tickets are available for $5 to $15.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated the museum is 39,000 square feet; it has been updated to reflect the correct size. Curbed regrets the error.