By Martica Sawin
On the evening of January 5, 2017, a youthful energy emanated from the brightly lit Westbeth Gallery as scores of visitors sipped wine and talked animatedly, gesturing toward the art displayed on the walls. A heterogeneous array of artworks in every conceivable style and medium was the focus of intense discussion among the creators and their friends. A spirit of camaraderie pervaded the gallery, yet there was no apparent thematic thread underlying the artworks, or evidence of an institutional imprint. The occasion was, it turns out, the opening of “From Inside the Whitney: Staff Art Show 2017,” an exhibition of 54 artworks by members of the Whitney Museum staff, ranging from security guards to curators.
Further inquiry revealed that staff art exhibitions had been an annual event in the Whitney’s Breuer building; the new museum’s vast, free-flowing spaces on Gansevoort Street did not provide a suitable venue for an in-house exhibition. Less than six blocks south, however, stands the artists’ housing complex, Westbeth, with a large, secure space available for temporary exhibitions. Approached by the Whitney, the Westbeth Exhibition Committee, which reviews proposals, welcomed the opportunity for collaboration between its long-established community of artists and members of the museum staff. The resulting short-lived show closed on January 8th, but a second exhibition is scheduled for the summer of 2017.
“From Inside the Whitney” is not a show of Sunday painters, although the artists may work in security, collections management, or visitor services. Both part-time and full-time museum jobs have long been filled by artists and art students, employed as guards, art handlers, and educators. This accounts for the professional level and sophistication of the work on display. Most striking is the range of individual approaches and inventiveness with materials. Proximity to the museum’s collections apparently engenders a spirit of experimentation rather than conformity to one trend or another.
Community outreach has been part of Adam Weinberg’s agenda (the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director) from the outset. Even before ground was broken for the new building, Weinberg met with community residents to present Renzo Piano’s design, pointing out its openness, its compatibility with local commercial buildings, and the architect’s emphasis on the building’s “engagement” with the City, through wide terrace views and its High Line connection.
Characteristic of the museum’s approach to the community was an early meeting of Whitney executives and local residents to discuss potential problems, including traffic congestion and noise from the anticipated nightlife. Weinberg’s considerate regard for the community may well stem from childhood visits to his grandparents in the West Village, but it is also part of a general populist approach embodied in the accessibility and transparency of the building. A refreshing non-doctrinaire attitude has been manifest in the variety of exhibitions mounted since the museum opened in May 2015. This is a reminder that the original Whitney on 8th Street evolved from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s own studio and the adjacent work and gallery space she provided for artist neighbors. Vast and complicated as it may be, the Whitney on Gansevoort Street carries on its founder’s mission to encourage and support American artists, as it showcases the vital and diverse artistic production that now extends from coast to coast.