Interview Fairs Museums USA

The Whitney’s ‘artist-centric’ new home

Director visits Frieze as new building in New York takes shape

On site at the Whitney’s new building. Photo: © 2013 Getty Images

The director of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, Adam Weinberg, is in London this week. Visiting art fairs such as Frieze allows him to “test the temperature of what’s going on in the art world” but his main reason for being in London is because “we’re about a year-and-a-half from opening the new building.” The Whitney’s new home will be a Renzo Piano-designed building in New York’s gritty-meets-glam Meatpacking District; its old building, a piece of 1960s Marcel Breuer-designed brutalism on Madison Avenue, will be leased out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its contemporary and Modern art collection.

The new space, which is due to open in 2015 in streets overlooked by the High Line park, will finally allow the Whitney to leave its space shortage problems behind. It had been wrestling with how to expand uptown—where real estate is super prime and neighbours were lukewarm about another museum behemoth on their doorstep. “Our offices are now midway between the Breuer building and the new site,” Weinberg says. “I spend a lot of time shuttling between the two—I feel like a yo-yo.”

Weinberg has been donning a hard hat since April to show off the building to the donors who have stumped up 80% of the $600m required for the project—around $422m for construction and the rest for the institution’s endowment.

Artists too have been on site to inspect the 50,000 sq. ft of galleries, which includes a cavernous column-free space measuring 18,000 sq. ft for temporary exhibitions. Two floors will be devoted to the permanent collection. There will be space on the top floor for artists’ projects, and outdoor spaces are generous.

“The Whitney has always been artist-centric; how they take to the new building is critical,” Weinberg says. So how have the likes of Frank Stella, Mark di Suvero, Christo, Barbara Kruger, Cory Archangel and George Condo responded? “Overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “They saw how flexible the spaces will be, and the variety: indoor and outdoor, smaller and larger spaces.” Although no one said so, “every artist is thinking about how their art will look in the space—which is good,” he says.

Uptown, downtown

The architect Renzo Piano was originally chosen to design a bigger space uptown, before the Whitney’s board and director decided in 2010 that only a site downtown would provide sufficient space to grow. “Everyone loves the Breuer building,” Weinberg. says. “I’ve worked there for 16 years. I know every inch of it. But there are certain limitations. Many artists have works in the permanent collection. It’s frustrating for artists and collectors that they can’t see them.” The Whitney has been at the forefront of showing performance art, devoting a floor of the 2013 Whitney Biennial to it. The new building will have large and small black-box spaces, and every gallery will have performer-friendly sprung wooden floors.

Weinberg says that Piano saved the institution from making one decision that it would have regretted. “We wanted outdoor space facing the Hudson River, like the Tate [Modern, in London].” But the Italian architect took Weinberg to the West Side Highway. “The views would be great but no one would spend any time there because of the noise of the traffic, and the ferocious wind off the river,” Weinberg says. “It sounds obvious but it didn’t seem obvious. That’s why he’s an architect and I’m a director.”

A site-specific work, Six in Four, by Richard Artschwager, who died in February, will have a special place in the new building. The four lifts will feature six motifs that frequently appeared in his work, including a door, mirror, rug and super-sized basket weave. Weinberg says he got the idea from a work included in the Whitney’s 1988 Artschwager retrospective: the piece looked like a lift, it sounded like a lift, but visitors found that it didn’t take them up or down. “I thought it would be right to commission Richard to do the elevators [for the new building]; he loved the idea.” Weinberg imagines families falling out over which lift to ride. “As a youngster I remember going to the Whitney and seeing Calder’s Circus [1926-31] as the welcoming work,” he says. “It was delightful and accessible.” He hopes Artschwager’s moving sculpture will set the tone for the new Whitney as Calder’s kinetic circus did in the Breuer building.

With money still to raise, is Weinberg in London to drum up further donations? No, he says, but adds “maybe we should—it would be fun to have a British Friends of the Whitney”.

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