The arrival of the new Whitney Museum may be the most exciting event in the West Village since the survivors of the Titanic were brought in a century ago. For several years now I’ve watched from my window as the ventilating system crowning the new building appeared above the neighboring rooftops, and I occasionally circled the site wondering how an elegant Renzo Piano building would look in that space between the High Line and the Highway, hemmed in on the north by Quality Veal Corp and Weichsel Fresh Beef and Lamb.
It was a challenge architect Renzo Piano was ready for, having designed more than twenty museums in the forty years since he co-designed the Pompidou Center in the Paris market district. He knew better than to put a sleek white box in an industrial neighborhood alongside streets that not long ago were flanked with hanging carcasses above bloodstained cobblestones, where violence along the working waterfront was not uncommon, and where six lanes of speeding traffic today separate the building from the river.
In the four floors of spacious galleries there are no dictatorial sequences of artworks, although the initial hanging—of some six-hundred works from a collection of twenty-two thousand— is loosely arranged by period or theme. A continual shift in scale and medium, encompassing the outsize and the minute, the moving and the obdurately static, creates an enlivening momentum from one space to another.
There are also amenities that the earlier Whitney could not accommodate—an education center, a light-flooded conservation lab, a works on paper study center, and a 170 seat theater that will enable an expanded performance program.
The new Whitney does not present itself as a closed chapter of American art and architecture, but as a work in progress, a framework for whatever artists may do next. Its very openness invites participation and inspires creativity.
The founder, Gertrude Whitney, started by opening studio space for other artists in connection with her own Greenwich Village studio, then, realizing that an audience was also needed, began to provide exhibition space as well. In the new museum a ground floor gallery, with no admission charge, allows the visitor to start with Gertrude and her artist friends and colleagues as they gathered in the Whitney studio in the first decade of the last century, the forerunners of a spectacular century of American art that unfolds in the new museum.
In the 1990’s the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, was a young curator on the staff before leaving to become director of the Addison Gallery of American Art. At the time he put together an unorthodox show that in hindsight reveals something of his innovative thinking. He went to the storage rooms in the museum basement where thousands of works hung on sliding screens and pulled out all the paintings he could find that had been acquired by the museum in the year 1952 and hung them on the walls and in storage racks in the first floor gallery of the Breuer building.
The result, Around 1952, was a fascinating insight into the operation of museums in their role as filters of cultural survival. It demonstrated the mutability of institutional collections and the potential fallibility of institutions charged with winnowing the vast field of contemporary art and channeling it into history. That early exhibition suggests a breadth of view on the part of Whitney director Adam Weinberg, as well as an awareness of the museum’s responsibility to past and present combined. This is aptly demonstrated in the inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, which will be covered in the June WestView News.
The Museum opens to the public on Friday, May 1. The following day, May 2, there will be a block party, sponsored by Macys, on Gansevoort Street from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Museum hours will be as follows:
Monday 10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Wednesday 10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Thurs – Sat 10:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday 10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Advance tickets for admission to the museum can be purchased online at Whitney.org up to the day before their visit. Online ticket buyers will be able to skip the admissions line when they arrive at the museum.