Story: Whitney Museum, Artful Space

by / Jun. 8, 2015 9am EST

With 50,000 square feet of new art exhibition space designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano alongside the elevated-train-turned-Highline, Whitney Museum of American Art officially opened to the public on May 1. The museum has experienced just over one month of record-breaking attendance, lines forming in the welcoming public space daily (except Tuesday, their day of rest).

The media preview in late April was a cross-state impossibility due to commitments in Buffalo, and, as a Founding Member this reporter was also unable to hit the members’ block party that same week. So, with jubilant eyes, and sketchbook in hand, I visited the Whitney for the first time on its new site on June 7. Long a fan of the museum’s prior, Breuer building – homey, smaller and Brutalist with stairwell spaces for sitting/drawing/talking – how the new space fit the collection, special projects, and visitors (and what spatial amenities are provided), were the prepared questions.

As board president of CEPA Gallery, currently mid-search for a new site for this venerable non-profit arts venue, and as a lifelong Buffalo resident aware of the imminent expansion of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the enthralling thoughts of matters of what works (and does not) for arts-exhibition spaces has been prevalent for a long time. I walked in as passionate Whitney fan, a member, and an arts advocate. And would there be a new place to hunker down, as in the Breuer stairwell.

The first floor is massive: welcoming areas, café, and shop flow. The elevators are also large, functional additional arts spaces, and slow – just like the former Madison Avenue site. The galleries are divine, with wooden whitewashed plank floors, modular walls, and occasional views of the surrounding city and river from vertical windows.

While making the drawings for this article, seated on a bench (there is ample seating in the Piano Whitney, also on its many exterior decks with knee-wobbling heights), I met “The Mayor of the Meatpacking District,” filmmaker Roberto Monticello, also a proud Founding Member. Wearing a colorful outfit including a red felt fedora and a shirt of comic book-inspired fabric, he reported on the Members’ block party – a hit. We shared impressions of the Whitney old and new. Nearby a group of regulars stopped near an Ashcan School painting, a man invoking the name of Whitney foundress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

He mused that she’d be pleased the piece was on view, and so prominently. A woman nearby, a reported regular, said: “It’s fantastic that people pay attention to art.” The current exhibit, America is Hard to See, is on view until September 27: it’s comprehensive, a great launch and a solid introduction to their collection. It’s packed with many of the best-of pieces – and those that were deep in storage – a matter one expects to be echoed in the coming expansiion of AKAG.