Platform
The house that Vanderbilt

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 32

Platform
The house that Vanderbilt

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 32

Platform
The house that Vanderbilt

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 32

Platform
The house that Vanderbilt

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 32

The Whitney Museum has always been open to the latest ideas in contemporary art. Now its spectacular new building is ready to welcome the next generation. Sarah Murray takes a tour

The Whitney Museum of American Art has come home. After almost half a century on Manhattan's Upper East Side, it has moved downtown to just a few blocks from West 8th Street, where in 1931 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney installed her contemporary art collection. The two locations could hardly be more different. Instead of brick terraced houses, the new industrial-style structure contains 4,000 tons of steel framing and 50,000 square feet of exhibition space. Yet Whitney director Adam Weinberg insists that, architecture aside,
the mission remains unchanged: to be a place where art is exhibited – and created.

"Our museum was founded by an artist," Weinberg tells me as we sit in the office he only recently occupied. As well as being a patron of the arts, he explains, Whitney was a sculptor who exhibited work by living American artists in her studio in Greenwich Village. "So in effect the museum grew out of a studio not out of a collecting place," he says. "It grew out of the activity rather than the display."

For the Whitney, this is a very big moment: a new chapter in its history. Not only is the museum taking possession of a brand new building – one designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano and costing $422 million – it is also moving into a space that will allow it to take the display and cultivation of contemporary American art to another level.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney would have approved. The wealthy descendent of railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, Gertrude also married into money. Her husband, Harry Payne Whitney, was very comfortably off, thanks to a family fortune founded in oil and tobacco. When Gertrude first established her museum, it was to help American artists achieve recognition for their work. In 1931, two years after the Metropolitan Museum of Art had turned down Whitney's offer of the 500 works in her collection, she adapted three terraced houses on West 8th Street and decided to exhibit them there.

It was to be one of several homes for the Whitney. After outgrowing an expanded site, in 1966 it moved uptown to Madison Avenue at 75th Street to a purpose-built – and striking – black granite building designed by Marcel Breuer.

It was in the Breuer building that the Whitney built its international reputation as a major art institution. However, what distinguishes it from New York museums such as MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Met – which, in a twist of irony, is now renting the Breuer building to show modern and contemporary art – is the Whitney's focus on American work. "This creates a distinctive aspect to our mission," says Donna De Salvo, the Whitney's chief curator. "And as much as those institutions work with living artists, this is central to what we do." For the Whitney, however, the definition of what constitutes American art is somewhat fluid. It's something that is reflected in the new labels the museum has started using. "We give the birth and death places of the artists, which is something we didn't do in the past," Weinberg tells me. "But it's an important clue about American identity – it's the fact people come from everywhere and people who start in the US don't always end up here."

Of course, working with contemporary art has meant the museum has had to take its fair share of vitriol over the years. Take the Whitney Biennial, which was launched in 1932 as an annual stocktake of contemporary trends. "This year's Whitney Annual is no worse that last year's," declared the influential critic Clement Greenberg in The Nation in 1946. It "amounts almost to an improvement, since each of the annuals in the three or four years previous had been worse than the one before it." And commenting in Time magazine on the 1971 Biennial, the brutally frank commentator Robert Hughes argued that, together, the works added up to "a kind of instant junkyard of the future".

The Whitney has embraced the controversy. "'Love it, hate it, have to see it' was once an ad for the Whitney," says De Salvo. "I think it still works. Because if people were to universally love it, we might not be doing our job. It's not to be provocative for the sake of it, but to create a space for thinking and challenging."

How the next Biennial will be received remains to be seen. Meanwhile, all eyes are on the new building and the inaugural show, America is Hard to See, drawn entirely from the museum's collection. But while its opening represents a new era for the Whitney, it also marks the end of a long haul that began in 2007.

Some staff and board members resisted the idea of a move downtown, says Weinberg. Moreover, raising the money for the building, an endowment and programming support has taken a monumental effort, taking up much of his time over the past few years. "I don't know many museums have picked up and moved the entire institution," he says. "I took on a much greater challenge than I had ever intended."
Fortunately, Weinberg was well equipped for it – he is something of a Whitney veteran. He began his career at the museum in 1989 before eventually becoming Director in 2003. He was always convinced of the case for the move. The Breuer building had started imposing constraints on the museum's activities, and to Weinberg it was clear that, as the Whitney prepared itself for the next generation, it could not do so on the uptown site. "We didn't have the kind of space artists were asking to do projects in," he explains. "We were hardly showing any of our collection and the building was so far from state-of-the-art that everything from art handling to education, conservation and performance – all the basic functions of the institution – was suffering."

In addition to its 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries, the Whitney also has 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space and terraces. Weinberg compares the change to moving from a small apartment to a much larger one. "You never thought it was big enough but you figured out how to live there," he says. "Then all of a sudden, you move to an apartment with more rooms and you realize you don't have to live this way."

The larger space has opened up opportunities for artists' studios, an education center, a more expansive exhibition program and the ability to show more of the permanent collection. Plans for the new building also prompted a rise in gifts of art. These include the donation of a collection of post-war US art by museum trustee, Emily Fisher Landau, and a pledge of 75 photographs from pre-eminent collectors Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla.

But there's more to the Whitney's move than more square feet. The museum has been reinvented. The location next to the Hudson River gives the place a feeling of openness that is quite different from the dense urban surroundings of the old uptown location. From the museum's top terrace, you can look down to the Statue of Liberty, across to New Jersey or downtown to the financial district, now dominated by the recently opened One World Trade Center tower. Uptown, there's the Empire State Building, while directly below the museum, the High Line – the elevated park created from a former freight railway line – snakes its way through the district of Chelsea. "The vistas and openness do something to one's mind,"
says De Salvo. "It's all about looking."

As I gaze out of Weinberg's office window at the fast-moving Hudson River and the dazzling azure sky of a New York morning, I ask the Director if he thinks this will be the Whitney's last move. "Oh, I suspect they always thought every site was going to be the last stop," he says with a wry smile. "That's the great thing. It's like art – it constantly surprises."

Sarah Murray is a New York-based contributor to the Financial Times, the Economist Group and editor of the New York Times bestseller Giving 2.0.

Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St, New York, NY 10014, +1 212 570 3600; whitney.org

Current exhibition: America is Hard to See, a re-examination of the
history of art in the US from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Until 27 September.

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