By PAUL LASTER, MAY 2014
Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano has designed some of the greatest museums in the world—from Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou and Houston’s Menil Collection to Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center and Basel’s Fondation Beyeler—and his new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art promises to be one his best.
Based at the foot of the High Line, which attracts four million visitors a year, the new Whitney building will include more than 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries and 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space on a series of rooftops. It will triple the space that the museum currently has for its permanent collection. The largest floor, with 17-foot ceilings, will have 18, 200 square feet of exhibition space—and it’s column-free, which is a big plus for displaying art.
“When I first brought Flora Biddle, who is the grand-daughter of the museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, to the site, I was concerned about what she might think of the potential move downtown,” Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg recently shared at an on-site press conference. “She told me that the Whitney Museum is an idea, not a building and that you need to go wherever you have the right space for artists. That statement, which we find deeply inspiring, captures the original spirit of the Whitney, when it was located in Greenwich Village.”
The Whitney Museum of America Art opened on West Eighth Street in 1931, moved to an expanded site on West 54 Street (behind MoMA) in 1954, and became the institution that we know today when it opened its doors in the striking Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue and 75th Street in 1966. The new building, which is a mere 10 to 12 blocks from it’s first home, returns the dynamic institution to its downtown roots at a time when the Lower West Side is booming with art, architecture, design, fashion, culinary hotspots, and excitement.
While the much-anticipated Jeff Koons’ retrospective (the most comprehensive exhibition of his work, which utilizes the entire museum) will bring down the curtain at the Breuer building, the first show in the Piano building will also fill every space (inside and out) with the museum’s stellar collection of American artists from the past 100+ years. It will feature works that we know and works that we don’t know—drawn from the museum’s permanent collection of more than 20,000 objects across all mediums.
“The prospect of this new building has given us the freedom to imagine the collection in ways that were just not previously possible,” stated chief curator and deputy director for programs Donna De Salvo at the preview. “We’ve grappled and debated many topics and questions: What constitutes American art? What does it mean to collect American art in a global age? How do we acknowledge yet expand upon some of the most free, paradigmatic moments of art in the United States and how do we explode some of them? How do we best represent the diverse, even contradictory, nature of America culture? What does it mean to be “the artists” museum?”
Following the Inaugural Exhibition, the Whitney will present retrospectives of Harlem renaissance artist Archibald Motley, contemporary art innovator Frank Stella, and social art agitator David Wojnarowicz, as well as The Westreich/Wagner Collection, a show of 800 prime examples of contemporary art (500 pieces from the exhibition will enter the Whitney Museum’s collection), and a project with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. That’s such a line-up that the next Whitney Biennial will take place a year later than usual, in 2017.
“I’ve been in these spaces and wandering through them and the spaces feel really good,” summarized Weinberg. “For me, part of a good museum building is that you feel good in those spaces, that you feel anchored in those spaces, but that you also feel excited about those spaces. You feel a sense of possibility, but also the sense of focus and contemplation. I already feel that in these spaces and there’s no art in it; but when I just imagine the art is in it and the reason for being here is in it, I think the combination will be fantastic.”
Scroll through the photographs to share the hard-hat tour, where you’ll get a glimpse of some scrawls on the walls, plans on the tables, and peeks at the interiors of the new building and the awesome views of Lower Manhattan.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author