Whitney Museum's New Building Opens Doors (And Walls) To Outside World
The Whitney Museum of American Art has never stayed in one place for long. It has had four different homes in its 84-year history — the latest a $422 million glass-and-steel construction that recently opened in Manhattan's Meatpacking District — and each of those homes speaks to a particular moment in the evolution of American art and museum culture.
The museum's first home was established by its founder — a woman who was born into one of the country's wealthiest families, and then married into another. Her name was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and she was a big supporter of the so-called Ashcan School and artists like George Bellows and Edward Hopper, who painted the gritty reality of life in the city.
And according to Bruce Altshuler, director of the museum studies program at New York University, Whitney was also a working sculptor. "She was not just a patron," he says, "but actually a member of an artist community."
Altshuler is standing inside the Whitney Museum's first home, which consists of several converted row houses that today house the New York Studio School. He says Whitney moved here in the 1910s. She lived upstairs, kept a sculpture studio downstairs and started organizing shows by American artists.
"She amassed a quite substantial collection of artworks which, in 1929, she offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a gift," he says. "They turned it down and she decided to open her own museum."
The Whitney opened its doors in 1931, a time when collecting and displaying American art was still a radical idea. In 1954, it moved to its second location, right behind the Museum of Modern Art, which was largely focused on Europe back then. But it stepped out of MoMA's shadow a dozen years later when it moved to its third and most famous home: a blocky, concrete fortress of a building designed by Marcel Breuer.
Donna De Salvo, the museum's chief curator, says: "I think it spoke to the boldness of American art at that time, in 1966. Breuer understood something about the kind of provocative nature of what American art could be."
The brutalist building was initially despised by its neighbors on the Upper East Side, though it eventually came to charm much of the art world. It doesn't have many windows, but according to Bruce Altshuler, it embodied the prevailing wisdom in museum design at the time. He says, "The kind of modernist notion that art should be looked at as removed from the world, and contemplated I think is something that's expressed in the architecture of many museums of that period — where you are not looking sort of outward toward the city; you're looking inward toward the aesthetic object."
In other words, the art clearly came first. Still, the Breuer building proved too small for the Whitney's growing collection. The museum's trustees tried for decades to expand, but ultimately decided to move to home No. 4. Now the museum has space to display more of its permanent collection, which has mostly languished in storage.
"That was the game-changer," chief curator Donna De Salvo says. "That's the reason the Whitney has wanted to build this building, really."
In addition to more exhibition space, the new Whitney has a performance space, classrooms, two separate restaurants and multiple terraces and windows that offer striking views of the Manhattan skyline.
That's too much distraction for Justin Davidson, architecture critic for New York magazine. In a recent conversation with member station WNYC, Davidson said: "The building is always calling your attention to, in a way, where it came from — the neighborhood, the city, the country. But for my money it just feels like it's sort of pulling you to the edges all the time and competing with the art."
Detractors say the new Whitney is emblematic of an unfortunate trend in museum design: a sense that the art alone isn't enough to the hold the attention of a 21st-century audience. But New York art critic Jerry Saltz said he thinks, in this case, that criticism is misplaced: "Our museums have gone a little funny, a little corporate, a little party, a little circus-y. None of that is here. The space is great for art."
And Saltz says so what if museumgoers want to look out the window, or maybe even at each other.
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