The last thing I see as I close my window shade at night is the dazzling light from the upper floors of the new Whitney Museum rising beyond the West Village rooftops. Located at the intersection of Washington and Gansevoort Streets, the Renzo Piano-designed building ascends in staggered levels nine stories above the spot where the High Line ends. For one who recalls the annual exhibitions in the Whitney’s first incarnation on Eighth Street—it closed its doors in 1954—or who saw the landmark Arshile Gorky retrospective there in 1951, it represents a fulfillment beyond the wildest dreams of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who began buying American art in the decade before the first World War.

Working in her MacDougal Alley sculptor’s studio, Gertrude Whitney became aware of the paucity of attention given to the work of living American artists and determined not only to help financially through purchases, but, more importantly, to develop an audience for their work. Her vision was shared by Juliana Force who was charged with implementing the Whitney projects and who oversaw the transformation of the Eighth Street Whitney Studio, opened in 1913, into a museum capable of handling a collection of more than a thousand works by American artists.

The acquisition in the early 1930s of the two brownstones adjacent to the Whitney Studio made possible expanded exhibition areas, working space for artists, and a handsome apartment on the top floor for Juliana Force. For the first time there was a public space dedicated wholly to the work of American artists—to promoting it, and attempting to give it a status comparable to the European art that filled museums in the larger US cities. Not only was the Whitney’s annual exhibition regarded as the major art event of each year, with inclusion boosting an artist’s reputation, but the curators were ecumenical when it came to artistic styles, willing to risk the antagonism that often greeted the unfamiliar in art.

From the outset the Whitney saw its mission as one of responsibility to a constituency of artists, while also responding to the changing needs of the art community. Up to the time of the Museum’s move to West 54th Street, back to back with MoMA, any artist could request an appointment to bring in up to four works for review by the curatorial staff and consideration for inclusion in the Whitney Annual. When it opened its fortress-like Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue in 1966, the expansive unimpeded spaces made it possible to show current art on an unprecedented scale, while also allowing for the display of a selection of earlier 20th century forerunners of modernism and, gradually, the inclusion of a broader spectrum of the American population.

In an attempt to house its ever-growing collection—today it consists of more than 20,000 works by some three thousand American artists in all mediums—the Whitney sought to expand in its Madison Avenue location, only to meet with obstacles on all sides. Finally the Museum’s board accepted the city’s offer of a parcel of land between the meat-packing district and the Westside Highway, at the time a wasteland bordered by a dilapidated elevated railway. Who could have imagined the interim transformations that would produce one of the city’s most sought after neighborhoods by the time the gleaming new Renzo-Piano building was ready to open its doors, an opening delayed for two years when Hurricane Sandy turned the excavation into a lake?

So, what to expect when this gleaming tower opens close to home on May 1? In an interview the architect Renzo Piano stressed that the building would be porous. (For an example of “porous” architecture look at the revised Alice Tully Hall whose large expanses of glass, slightly sunken forecourt, entrance traversing a restaurant, and dramatically outward projecting upper story connect the interior physically and visually with the outside world.) From the outset it was determined that the new Whitney building would be oriented toward its West Village surroundings rather than turning its back to take advantage of the spectacular river view

The advance information on the Whitney Museum of American Art website promises a unique architectural experience, unique even within the Piano museum repertoire, a building whose design has been a response to the location and to the purposes it serves, whether presenting performance in its 170 seat theater or paintings, photography and multimedia works in its 50,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space or sculpture on the rooftop terraces.

As a young architect, Piano was the co-designer of the Pompidou Center that transformed a large swath of the odoriferous market district known as the “stomach of Paris” into one of Europe’s biggest tourist attractions. Could it be possible that his Whitney building with its admission-free ground floor, containing a large glass-enclosed Danny Meyer restaurant, will join with the High Line, the new hotels and the proliferating clubs to make the once grungy west side dock area into the city’s prime destination? One thing is certain; it carries out in splendor Gertrude Whitney’s original intention of doing justice to American artists. And it seems fitting that the original museum building on Eighth Street has been for forty years the home of the New York Studio School that has generated much of the artistic energy that makes the New York art world so vibrant. Visitors are encouraged to purchase advance tickets at .

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