Openings Museums News USA

Whitney's curators explore wide open spaces of new downtown home

Architect Renzo Piano's building, which opens next month, provides the opportunity to show the collection's breadth at long last

The new Whitney is due to open in New York's Meatpacking District on 1 May. Image courtesy of Edlederman

The Whitney Museum of American Art is due to open its $422m riverfront facility in New York’s Meatpacking District on 1 May. The culmination of a 20-year quest to expand, the building is two-and-a-half times the size of its former Marcel Breuer-designed home. Curators worked closely with the architect Renzo Piano to create a building tailored to the Whitney’s collection but flexible enough to accommodate whatever artists might dream up in the future.

“We conceptualised [the building] as a total work of art,” says Donna de Salvo, the museum’s chief curator. Curators were involved in everything from the height of the ceilings (customised to fit the tallest work in the inaugural exhibition, Nam June Paik’s 15ft-high V-yramid, 1982) to the size of the gap between the interior walls and the floor. The crucial three-eighths of an inch is the result of “hours of deeply philosophical conversations”, De Salvo says.

The Whitney collection has grown exponentially, from 2,000 to 22,000 works, since it moved to the Breuer in 1966. Three architects (under three different directors) tried to expand the building on Madison Avenue. Every proposal was deemed too disruptive or expensive. The board’s decision to buy a city-owned parcel of land downtown in 2009 created “a new slate”, De Salvo says.

Triple the space

The new 220,000-square-foot building triples the space dedicated to the museum’s permanent collection. Many works, including V-yramid, will be shown for the first time in decades. The inaugural installation, a sweeping survey of American art since 1900 (“America Is Hard to See”, 1 May-27 September), includes never-before-seen acquisitions by Elizabeth Catlett and Carmen Herrera, who is due to have a solo exhibition at the museum in 2016.

The loft-like galleries encourage curatorial innovation. De Salvo says the museum’s forthcoming retrospective of Frank Stella would have not have been possible in the Breuer building, where the largest floor was less than half the size of its new 18,000-square-foot temporary exhibition space. “You’d have had to do it on multiple floors, which would have divided things into chapters,” she says.

The project’s high-profile and sleek appearance appealed to the collectors and art advisers Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich Wagner, who promised 500 works to the museum in 2012. The donors’ minds were made up when they saw Piano’s building becoming a reality.

Picture windows

While the Breuer building is a concrete fortress, Piano’s design encourages artists to engage with the city. Every floor has sweeping views of the Hudson River to the east and the skyline to the west. Balconies offer 13,000 sq. ft of outdoor exhibition space, which will debut with sculptures by Robert Morris and David Smith. Untitled (negro sunshine), 2005, a neon work by Glenn Ligon, will hang in the fifth-floor window, visible from the street. The museum also hopes to present performances on a neighbouring rooftop.

There is a limit to its openness, however. A preliminary proposal to link the museum to the tourist-mobbed High Line was ruled out by Whitney officials “for architectural and operational reasons”, according to a spokesman.

Some critics say the new building dedicates too much space to amenities, including a restaurant, café, a works on paper study centre and an auditorium.

Although the downtown facility is much larger than the Breuer, it offers only 36% more internal exhibition space. A spokesman says that these facilities “do not take space away from the galleries” and that the theatre in particular is “central to the museum’s mission”.

Others have concerns about the building’s aesthetic. After examining the architectural plans in 2011, New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson called the metal and glass design “too slick”. De Salvo acknowledges that it will be up to curators and artists to enliven the building. “You have to be careful when you’re trying for maximum flexibility that you don’t get anonymity,” she says. “But I think we struck the right balance.”

Uptown and downtown

The Whitney has been open about its dream to one day operate both the downtown and uptown spaces. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art is leasing the Breuer from the Whitney until at least 2023.) The museum’s $760m fundraising campaign, which includes $225m for its endowment, provides a solid foundation to work toward that goal. It has already raised 99% from public, private and foundation sources and the sale of its former offices on Madison Avenue.

Right now, however, curators are too busy testing the gears on the new building to feel nostalgic about their former home. “The Breuer feels like a period piece,” De Salvo says. “We want to give artists the opportunity to discover something new.”

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