The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Meatpacking District museum, opening May 1, is fiercely awaited. In its new building, designed by Renzo Piano, the galleries and sculpture gardens will nearly double the museum’s previous exhibition space, with two floors devoted to showing off its collection. The museum expects to take in spillover from the millions of yearly visitors who regularly traipse the High Line. Yet, despite having made the kinds of changes that often unleash torrents of criticism (take a look at how the public responded to the MoMA’s and the Frick’s planned expansions—see MoMA Moves Forward with Folk Art Museum Demolition and “Save the Frick” Petition Racking Up Signatures), museum insiders we spoke with are, surprisingly, unanimously bullish on the museum’s move and amplified digs.
“The only way to think is to think big,” former Museum of Modern Art curator Robert Storr told artnet News by phone from his office from Yale University School of Art, where he is the dean. “The Whitney is doing everything necessary to prepare the ground for them to land well.”
Former Whitney director David Ross, now chair of the art practice department at New York’s School of Visual Art, was not initially in favor of the move, but had a change of heart. “I recognize that they’ve made the right decision,” he said.
“The Met has turned a corner and become the institution we always hoped it would be,” Ross added, “and considering what the New Museum has become, New York is headed for a golden era.”
Ross and Storr made no secret of their dim outlook on MoMA’s expansion, and Ross added that the Guggenheim’s expansion is problematic, making their endorsement of the Whitney’s move all the more notable.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in the nation’s capital, observed that “It’s good for a museum to completely rethink from scratch once a generation. The world changes.”
Beginnings: An Artist Patron and a Rejection
The museum got its start with a rejection, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art declined an offered gift of paintings and sculptures from the collection of artist and impresario Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Whitney had collected Ashcan School artists such as John Sloan and Robert Henri, along with Maurice Prendergast and Stuart Davis. She also bought works by the Japanese-born artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, foreshadowing the museum’s flexibility on what it is appropriate for a museum of American art to collect or exhibit.
When the museum opened in 1931, there were three curators, all artists, under director Juliana Force. In a phone interview, chief curator and deputy director for programs Donna De Salvo pointed out that it was Force who began a more methodical acquisitions policy, as Whitney hadn’t been collecting with an eye to forming a museum collection.
Even today, De Salvo oversees just ten full curators, though the museum’s collection has grown to some 22,000 objects. (The full curatorial staff is about two dozen.)
The institution first opened at Eight West Eight Street, now the home of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture. It soon outgrew this home, moving to midtown and then in 1966 to its Upper East Side home, a Brutalist sculpture of a building by Hungarian-born architect and designer Marcel Breuer.
For perspective, it might be helpful to remember that that year, president Lyndon B. Johnson was ramping up the U.S. presence in Vietnam. Also in 1966, John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and The Sound of Music won the Best Picture Oscar.