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What now for Whitney’s Breuer building?

Trustees approve museum’s downtown expansion, leaving future of historic home uncertain

Renzo Piano's plans for the Whitney downtown

new york. Years of disappointment over the half dozen discarded plans for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s expansion were forgotten when its trustees voted in late May to begin construction of a new signature building in Manhattan’s meatpacking district.

Months of boardroom disagreements about whether the Whitney should move from its landmark Marcel Breuer building —with chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder threatening to quit if it did—ended in unanimity. There were tears of happiness, according to some trustees.

While an elated Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, announced after the meeting that ground would be broken at the downtown site next May, he and the board must still deal with several issues. For a start, they must raise money to pay for the $680m project, which includes a $230m endowment drive. Of that, city and state governments have contributed $70m, the board has raised $372m.

The Whitney expects to reap a hefty $100m from the sale of several buildings that it owns, and an annex near the uptown Breuer building. Except for saying that the money committed so far came from trustees and “key donors”, the Whitney wouldn’t discuss the campaign’s future or who made the lead “naming” gifts.

A bigger question is what to do with the Madison Avenue Breuer building. The Whitney can hardly afford to run two buildings, yet in 2008, when Lauder donated $131m—the largest gift in the museum’s history—he stipulated that the Breuer building, which opened in 1966, could not be sold. At his instigation, the Whitney is in discussions with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which may rent space there when it renovates its own contemporary art galleries in 2015. That would, however, be only a temporary solution.

Some Whitney watchers fear the museum will deaccession the building. Lauder would only say: “The stars are all aligned now. This is the right time to build, the right time to finance, in the right neighbourhood, with the right board. Nothing could be better.” One long-time trustee said: “Everyone has a unity of purpose now that I’ve never seen at the Whitney before.” Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo, a trustee, said: “It gives us the opportunity to expand on what museum-going is in the 21st century.” She added that the Whitney may stay open later in the evenings (it currently closes at 6pm, and 9pm on Fridays) and may project videos onto the building, among other things.

Relocation

Most of all, the Whitney gets more space. The new building at Gansevoort and Washington Streets, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, greets visitors with a dramatic cantilevered entrance and provides 63,000 sq. ft of galleries almost double the space in the Breuer building. Aside from allowing more room for the collection—18,000 works, of which only 150 are generally on view now—the design includes a column-­free third-floor gallery of 18,000 sq. ft that can accommodate large pieces of contemporary art. Around 13,000 sq. ft of exhibition space lies on outdoor terraces, located on four levels of the six-storey building; some face the city, some the Hudson River, and they are likely to be used for both sculpture and performances. Piano and the Whitney’s curators, with input from artists, are discussing how the new, flexible spaces might be used and whether to go beyond the look of the “white box”.

Board members say that the Whitney’s relocation downtown will not change its acquisition strategy, which emphasises “the cutting edge”, or its taste in exhibitions—except, perhaps, that the programme may be more international.

As well as increased gallery space, the new building will give the Whitney dedicated space for classrooms, a seminar room, a study centre, a research library, a larger art-conservation area and a 170-seat theatre. Total space is 195,000 sq. ft.

The Whitney declined to say if it would add staff positions to increase its capacity in these areas.

The board’s excitement about the move has as much to do with the building’s location at the south end of the elevated High Line park created on a disused railway line. The site is seen as the answer to the Whitney’s attendance problem. Last year the museum drew a meagre 322,000 visitors—a sharp decline from past years. In the late 1990s the museum regularly attracted 650,000 to 670,000 visitors.

New York’s meatpacking district hums with activity morning, day and night, and the High Line, which opened in June 2009, attracted more than two million visitors in its first year. “Many of these people will wander into the Whitney, and be smitten with art,” hopes a board member. They added: “The core of people that go to the Whitney will grow exponentially."

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