Friday’s opening of the Whitney Museum’s new building in the Meatpacking District marks a new era for the city’s art scene and the ever-evolving West Side.
The 200,000 square foot, nine-story space at 99 Gansevoort St. soars above the ongoing development and artists, community leaders and elected officials say the expansion is a huge boost to the city’s eclectic cultural scene.
“We hope that this museum will provide people not just with an art experience, but a new view of the city itself,” museum curator Scott Rothkopf said.
The road to a new home
Artists, elected officials, community members, Mayor Bill de Blasio and first lady Michelle Obama cut the ribbon Thursday, completing the four-year, $760 million construction and move.
The Whitney originally opened in 1931 in Greenwich Village and moved to a location at right behind the Museum of Modern Art in 1954.
Twelve years later it relocated to the Breuer Building on Madison Avenue and 75th Street, but as the decades went on, administrators knew the institution outgrew its space.
Renzo Piano, who designed the new building, said the Whitney staff found new opportunity on the West Side. “The legacy of the Breuer building ... \[it\] is a very much loved building,” he said. “American art was very welcome there ... so moving down it was important not to betray that spirit.”
Piano said his design focused on freedom. The new museum certainly has that in spades when it comes to space. There are six floors of art space and 13,000 square feet of outdoor gallery and terraces, more than double the space at the Madison Avenue location. The asymmetrically designed building also features an education center, 170-seat theater that overlooks the Hudson and a public gathering space near the High Line.
The new facility impressed the guests at Thursday’s ribbon cutting, especially First Lady Michelle Obama, who applauded the city for investing in accessible culture.
“They open their doors as wide as possible both to the artists they embrace and to the young people they seek to uplift,” she said. “I truly cannot wait to see the impact this extraordinary museum will have in the years ahead.”
Impact on NYC art
Gerry Snyder, the dean of the Pratt Institute School of Art, said the art community eagerly awaits the reopening.
New Yorkers appreciate cultural variety, he said, and the six floors of gallery space will offer something for a range of visitors.
“I think the building’s scope and allure would bring in more casual art fans,” he said.
Museum director Adam Weinberg said the Whitney has many opportunities for younger visitors and New Yorkers on a budget.
Students and under 18s can come in free, and there will be no charge on Friday nights.
“Our lobby gallery here is free all the time, so people can come and at least take a peek,” he added.
The West Side
Museum administrators and community members said they hope that buzz will help generate energy for the West Side, which has been going through a massive development that began with the High Line.
Cecilia Alemani, the director & chief curator of the High Line Art program, said the park’s administrators were ecstatic when the museum announced its move to the area, because it will add to the allure of the raised attraction.
She noted that the views of the building vary throughout the High Line route because each side has its own distinctive look.
“I’m still trying to grasp it and I think it will make people curious to look at it and walk around from every area,” she said.
Alemani hopes the Whitney leads visitors to smaller art galleries in neighboring Chelsea.
“We hope the Whitney will act as a museum mile,” she said.
Freedom is the key theme in the new Whitney’s inaugural exhibition “America Is Hard to See,” which fills all gallery floors and outdoor spaces with 600-plus works by more than 400 artists from the museum’s permanent collection.
Paintings, sculptures, installations and video from the past 115 years demonstrate the breadth and diversity of the art of the nation. Lesser-known artists hold their own alongside titans such as Rothko, Warhol, Hopper, Pollock and O’Keefe.
“For me, this building, this collection, is about freedom,” architect Renzo Piano said during a conversation with press last week. The scope and fearlessness of the collection drives that message, and extends with the dazzling views offered by the building’s terraces and floor-to-ceiling windows, with landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and World Trade Center to the south.
While exhibits like Alexander Calder’s 1931 circus installation and contemporary artist Cory Arcangel’s 2002 “Super Mario Clouds” are fun and playful, works such as Howard Lester’s film “One Week in Vietnam” and Donald Moffett’s <NO1>1987 He Kills Me” confront social issues, and show the important role art plays not only in chronicling history, but in engaging viewers with it.
“It’s not just art about art, it’s art about life,” Whitney director Adam Weinberg told amNY. “And if you’re interested in history and you’re interested in your own time, you should come look at it.”
Social and political examination appears on the contemporary floors too. “It’s important for us to show that artists even today are really reflecting on global events and their lives in this place. And we wanted to make that a big theme in our show,” curator Scott Rothkopf said.
New at the Whitney is also the place of birth and death on artist labels, signaling the role immigrants have played in shaping American art. “This country is a story of immigrants ... New York is a city of immigrants, and American artists come from all over the world. And we want to be open to that narrative,” Rothkopf said.
Whitney Museum of American Art
Opens to public Friday | This Saturday, admission is free for all | Museum will host a free Block Party on Saturday | Admission: Adults $22, Seniors & Students $18, Under 18 years, FREE