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Best in show: inside New York’s dog museum

Best in show: inside New York’s dog museum

A fetching collection of canine-related art sets Jack Lahart’s tail wagging

A fetching collection of canine-related art sets Jack Lahart’s tail wagging

Jack Lahart | February 15th 2019

“Juicy. Her name is Juicy,” bellows Cindy Adams (below left) at the gathered press. Clutching her tiny Yorkshire Terrier, the 88-year-old gossip columnist for the New York Post poses for pictures in a heavy, black and white shag-pile shawl. Her wrists are laden with gold bracelets, and gold dangles from her ears, too. Adams is used to the spotlight – but today she is outshone by Juicy, who is dressed in a fetching red bow and matching Ralph Lauren sweater. She seems less than amused by all the attention, however, and is soon placed on a soft, red blanket atop a table-height display case. 

It’s the ideal spot to watch the opening of the American Kennel Club’s Museum of the Dog. In the early Eighties, the museum was located in New York but, lacking space and money, moved to St Louis, Missouri in 1986. Now, after 36 years it has returned to New York, with its collection of dog-related art – one of the largest such collections in the world – and ambitions to attract ten times as many visitors as it had in St Louis.

The opening is as much a ribbon-cutting as it is a chance for New York’s dog elite to mingle. In the bright, modern building – just a tennis ball’s throw from Grand Central Terminal – pure breeds belonging to the American Kennel Club’s top brass rub shoulders with celebrity pooches. Heads turn as Hollywood (above right), a giant Leonberger with a taste for drama, bounds in to the room. Dressed in a purple sequined waistcoat and matching hat, he is a star of stage and screen. “He’s very busy,” his devoted owner, Morgan, tells me. “He’s been in four productions of ‘Annie’ and is now starring in ‘Peter Pan’.” I reach out to stroke Hollywood but he seems uninterested. Stars these days.

Patrons gradually disperse across the museum’s two floors, which are tightly packed with art. The collection includes several life-size bronze statues and many paintings, including “I Hear a Voice” (1896, below), a commanding picture of a St Bernard by Maud Earl, an eminent painter of dogs, and a dignified portrait of Millie, a former First Dog belonging to President George H.W. Bush. The fine art is leavened by amusing artifacts like a tiny Edwardian kennel (or doghouse, as our American readers call it) intended for a Chihuahua and interactive exhibits like “Find Your Match”, a screen that scans your face and matches it with the dog breed you most resemble. In a pleasing case of nominative determinism, my doggy doppelganger is a Jack Russell terrier. 

These are amusing flourishes, but as I take in the collection, I get the sense that the museum will appeal more to those who know their Schnauzers from their Shih Tzus than to those who have a regular Rex at home. The AKC is serious about dogs. The museum’s focus on breed distinction stems from its desire to educate the public about their pets. “A lot of people see dog shows once a year or twice a year,” says Alan Fausel, the executive director, “but we’re here all year round.” Yet the stars of those shows will not be welcome at the museum now that it has officially opened its doors to the public. Surely the best way for people to learn about dogs is to be around them? “They aren’t allowed in the Met or the Guggenheim,” Fausel says with a shrug.

As the crowd begins to thin, a man tries to get his two Irish setters to sit for a photograph. The dogs, Gibbs and Abby (below), bounce around the gallery, their long, glossy coats swishing as they play, before finally acquiescing. Several minutes into the photoshoot, an unmistakable and pungent aroma fills the air. The owner looks down – his surprise tinged with amusement – at the coil of brown deposited on the hem of his suit trousers. Now there’s a solid reason to bar dogs from the museum, I think, as I head for the exit and some fresh air.