By Debbie Wells
Welcome to the new era for the Whitney Museum of American Art! Now that the museum has been open to the public and getting rave reviews, I thought it was time to give some of the background information. People have been enjoying the Whitney’s new location and building, but what were the thoughts of the architect, curators and museum officials prior to opening day? At the press preview were assembled the illustrious group of people responsible for the museum’s new life.
The key speakers included Renzo Piano, Adam Weinberg and Donna De Salvo. Each not only explained their role in the concept, design and construction of the new Whitney, they spent time expressing their enthusiasm and gratitude for their successful collaboration. Together, they accomplished a major feat – a $422 million building showcasing their unsurpassed collection of modern and contemporary American art – with state-of-the-art architecture and sweeping views never so gloriously seen before from the vantage point of Chelsea’s High Line area.
It seemed to me that all of them had a mutual respect for one another and were ecstatic to be on stage that day to share in their crowning achievement to announce the opening of the Whitney after working feverishly side by side for the last seven years. The timeline began with Renzo Piano’s initial designs in 2008 and continued with the announcement that New York City signed a contract with the Whitney to purchase land next to the High Line, which opened in 2009. In 2011, they broke ground for the future building with Mayor Bloomberg and over 500 people in attendance with the goal that it will be a major cultural anchor for the area. Simultaneously, architects and designers, museum administrators and board members, philanthropists and fundraisers, curators and artists, worked to develop a new concept in the museum world – one that is artist-centric and functional located in an exciting and evolving part of New York City.
Renzo Piano, the internationally renowned architect who spearheaded the project with his Renzo Piano Building Workshop with a staff of 150 and offices in Paris, Genoa and New York. During his speech, Piano was charming, yet modest about his architectural achievement. He explained that his main objective when beginning this project was to make the museum a welcoming place to all. His vision was to show the public that there is “no limit between the street and the building.” On that note, he also suggested that the entrance lobby should not be called a lobby at all and viewed as an indoor central square for people to meander. “I’m Italian, so I call it a piazza!” he mused, “and the building should feel like it is flying, even though it weighs 80,000 pounds.” Part of the appeal of the site is its spectacular views from every angle. Piano imagines that the building not only “flies”, but also “talks to the city of New York on the east and to the river and the rest of the world to the west.”
Details about the Whitney’s construction were also explained. The 9 story building, made of concrete, stone, steel and glass, has a interior space of approximately 50,000 feet and 13,000 feet of outdoor gallery space and terraces. Its asymmetrical design is striking and easily relates to the industrial character of the neighborhood, while asserting a modern and sculptural style. In addition to its lobby/piazza adjacent to the southern entrance to the High Line, it features 8 floors of column-free exhibition space with reclaimed wide-plank pine floors, education center, theatre, library, restaurant and gift shop. Every floor highlights the art in imaginative ways with special layouts and lighting to enhance the experience. Even its stairwells and elevators are cleverly adorned with art.
Adam D. Weinberg also spoke to the press. He is the Alice Pratt Brown Director at the Whitney Museum and has presented major exhibitions there since 2003. His enthusiasm and love for the Whitney was evident as he spoke warmly about the long held dream turned reality at the unveiling of the new building. He stated that the Whitney has now “reaffirmed our commitment to being an artists museum in the 21st century. The Whitney ideal is to put the artist at its core.” Aside from honoring the artist and the art, he commended Renzo Piano and his design as, “beautiful, functional, rough and refined.” As he spoke of Piano, it seemed clear that Weinberg was thrilled with the manner in which the building’s design was sensitive to the neighborhood and is a fitting addition to the quintessential New York landscape.
Adding yet another perspective to the group was Donna De Salvo, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs. Ms. De Salvo oversees the museum’s artistic programs with an emphasis on their permanent collection. Not only was she instrumental in the architectural program for the new building, she led the team of curators in organizing the inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See. This exhibit showcased art from the permanent collection, but was curated in an original way. In order to provide a fresh viewpoint, the entire curatorial team “spent many hours engaged in debate and challenging long held notions by art historians.” Together, they provided new insights into the many layers of American art over the last 150 years by creating new categories and redefining the way the art is viewed. The new floor layouts and outdoor spaces allowed for opportunity for ground-breaking displays of the art.
Photos by Debbie Wells of Artful Circle