Bold Move: The Whitney Museum's Downtown Home

New York's Whitney Museum in Town & Country magazine. Article by Christopher Mason. Photographs by Todd Eberle.

“I never thought I’d live to see the day!”says Sondra Gilman, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s longest-serving trustee (since 1977), after taking a tour of the Museum’s spectacular new 220,000-square-foot home in the meatpacking district. Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, the building, which officially opens on May 1,includes an 18,000-square-foot column-free space on the fifth floorfor temporary exhibitions that stretches a gobsmacking 269 feet—the largest unobstructed museum gallery in New York City. 

Gilman is clearly elated, dabbing tears of joy. Other museum trustees are similarly awestruck. “We’re ecstatic that we made it,”says Robert J. Hurst, a former Goldman Sachs vice chairman. Hurst joined Whitney board co-chairman Brooke Garber Neidich to successfully lead the Museum’s $760 million capital campaign. As Garber Neidich observes in a mixture of triumph and relief, “Everyone on the board feels such incredible pride.”

The victory is notably overdue. For three decades, the Museum struggled to find a satisfactory solution to the space constraints at the Whitney’s former home on Madison Avenue, the brutalist monolith designed by Marcel Breuer that opened in 1966. Successiveplans by architects Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano were thwarted due to a frustrating combination of neighborhood hostility and insurmountable economics. 

Trustees of the Whitney Museum at the museum's new home in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.

Trustees of the Whitney Museum at the museum's new home in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.

In the most recent attempt,Leonard Lauder, the Whitney’s chairman emeritus, had encouraged Renzo Piano to submit expansion plans. They were enthusiastically received and permissions were granted, but Lauder and the board concluded that nonewconfiguration of the Madison Avenue site could provide the expansive horizontal galleries the Whitney needed for exhibiting today’s super-sized contemporary works of art.

To the astonishment of some observers it was Lauder—who had just given the Whitney $131 million in 2008 with the stipulation that the Breuer building could not be sold for the foreseeable future—whoin an enthusiastic about face led the charge to find a suitable spot downtown. 

When the current lot, formerly the home of Maggio Beef Corp., became available, Lauder was overjoyed, recognizing an opportunity for Piano to design a stupendous new museum for the Whitney, from the ground up.

“It might not be Leonard’s neighborhood,”says Adam Weinberg, the Museum’s director. “But he knows it’s highly desirable.”

Once the board sealed the deal to buy the land, they decided to press ahead with an initial budget of $720 million.

“It seemed like a good idea,”Neidich says. “Still, it was a leap of faith.” Emboldened by the opportunity to build a new Museum that could radically strengthen its mission and stoke the dreams of the artists they revere, Weinberg and the board went into overdrive, soliciting funds from every likely candidate. “Adam is the most extraordinary believer,”Neidich says. “None of us has worked as hard to make this happen. Everyone wanted to please Adam.”Other trustees echo Neidich’s sentiments. 

“People are very committed to Adam—justifiably,”says Laurie M. Tisch, a longtime trustee. “The artists love him, the trustees love him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if even the meatpackers love him.”

In addition to running the museum, indefatigably jovial Weinberg has breakfasted, lunched, dined, and met for coffee and cocktails with potential donors on an almost daily basis for the past five years. “I gained 60 pounds,”Weinberg quips. 

Architecturally, the new Whitney is an astounding departure from Breuer’s celebrated fortress, where daylight barely impinged on the dark-concrete-floored galleries. [Moved up for contrast] Here the giant-paned floor-to-ceiling windows offer stupendous views of the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty, and captivating sunsets. To the east, 13,000 square feet of outdoor galleries, a café, and terraces provide breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline. 

“Within the context of the city, it really is a dramatic place to be,”says Raymond J. Learsy, Bucksbaum’s husband and a fellow trustee

New York's Whitney Museum in Town & Country magazine. Article by Christopher Mason. Photographs by Todd Eberle.

“One of the things that hits you first is the fragrance of the new floors,”says Melva Bucksbaum, a longtime trustee who endowed the Bucksbaum Award, a $100,000 stipend given every to years to support one artist in the museum’s biennial. Bucksbaum is referring to the new Museum’s easy-on-the-eye, amber-hued shade of pine reclaimed from former factories for brassieres (Maidenform) and tobacco (Philip Morris). Sherecalls being daunted by the Breuer building’s drawbridge-like entrance when she first visited 45 years ago: 

“I used to be afraid to cross that moat!”she says. “The new building is much more welcoming. But the Breuer will always stand on its own as a magnificent piece of architecture.”(In a mutually beneficial lease arrangement, the old Whitney will reopen in 2016 as a satellite of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art for at least 8 years.)  

Strategically positioned, the Museum sits at the southern entrance of the High Line, which receives nearly five million visitors yearly, some of whom will presumably be curious to explore the gleaming new Museum. It is also only a few blocks from Chelsea’s booming gallery district. 

“You couldn’t have a better location in Manhattan for a new museum,”Hurst says. Learsy believes that the Museum will attract younger and newer visitors who have never been exposed to the Whitney’s superb permanent collection of 18,000 artworks, especially since there was never enough space at the Breuer building to exhibit more than 150 at a time. [Moved up] (The view isn’t entirely picturesque. Directly across the street from the Museum, a grimy phalanx of garbage trucks adorns the pier currently occupied by the Department of Sanitation But that urban eyesore—or alluringly gritty reminder of the neighborhood pre-gentrification, depending on your point of view—will be demolished later this year and replaced by a new riverside park donated to the city by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg.)

“I think the Whitney’s going to become far more central to people’s lives,”Learsy says.

The significant contributions from the trustees have been recognized throughout the building. Laura Tisch funded the Laurie M. Tisch Education Center. “It’s more than a dream come true,”Tisch says. The Museum’s education programs have received many awards, Tisch notes, “but the Whitney has never had a dedicated space for education.”

Presented with a list of naming opportunities Bucksbaum took a modest approach. For a serious collector, the prestige of having a gallery named after oneself could be irresistible, or, “much more sexy,”as Bucksbaum puts it. But she and Learsy decided to endow ##[[CUTthe]]the 6th floor Bucksbaum, Learsy Scanlan Conservation Center. 

“It’s truly magnificent,”Bucksbaum says, of the glamorous new space, which offers expansive Hudson River views and abundant northern light. “We feel so privileged to have been involved in making this museum happen.”

As of early March, the Museum was still weighing options for a way to properly acknowledge Lauder’s lion-sized $131 million gift. “The Whitney is eternally indebted to Leonard for his generosity and foresight,”Weinberg says. 

Neidich concurs: “Leonard is a genius, our greatest philanthropist, and our finest citizen.”

While savoring the stupendous achievement of building a structure that cost a non-profit organization three quarters of a billion dollars, some trustees cannot resist revisiting the countless struggles along the way. 

A few months after the Museum committed to the project, fundraising efforts were stymied by the global financial crisis of 2008. “It was another bump in the read, to say the least,”says Scott Resnick, the founder of SR Capital, a real estate development company, who chaired the board’s building committee. 

But the prolonged recession also offered some unexpected advantages. The Museum had the opportunity to buy labor and materials—including 3,600 tons of steel—at significantly reduced prices. (If it were built today, Resnick estimates, costs would likely be between 20 and 30 percent higher.)And the building delays caused by the financial crisis gave the Museumthe timeto work with Piano to refine the design, in consultation with Donna da Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator, and other key staff.

“The recession gave us a better museum,”Neidich says. 

Another notable bump in the road occurred in 2012 when Tropical Storm Sandy flooded the building’s recently completed foundations with five million gallons of water in a matter of minutes. The structure was undamaged, but the severe potential dangers of being across the street from the Hudson River had to be reassessed. The Museum enlisted flood experts from Hamburg, Germany, who were charged with the task of ensuring that major electrical equipment in the basement be made watertight. “Some of the techniques in critical rooms were akin to a submarine,”Resnick says.

The Whitney’s transfer south has brought the museum into the orbit of a thriving gallery scene and certainly a more active night nightlife.“It’s such a vibrant neighborhood,” Anne-Cecilie Engell Speyer, the trustee who wore hot pink for the inaugural tour, says.“We’re also right back where we started,” she adds, referring to the museum’s original location, back in 1931, on West 8thStreet, between Fifth Avenue and MacDougal in the heart of Greenwich Village, when it housed both Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney and her 700 works of American art. “There’s this sense of excitement and renewed possibility—even for people who’ve been on the board for decades. It’s as if the move has created a new vitality.”

“Stepping off the elevator I gasped,”says Fred Wilson, the artist, who is also a Whitney trustee, referring to the vast fifth floor galleries. “It was a visceral reaction,”he continues. “I was overwhelmed. I was blown away when I saw that long expanse.”

“As an artist, it’s so important to see the work intelligently displayed,”Wilson says, praising the curator’s painstaking efforts. “It’s pitch perfect,”he adds. “It’s really thinking about what’s vibrant visually, and what it means in its time. Artists respond to that. And they need that.”

In recent years, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, have steadily encroached on the Whitney’s territory by expanding their permanent collections of 20th century American art as well as their exhibitions featuring contemporary American artists. But Wilson seems confident about the institution’s bright future, galvanized by its magnificent new home.

“It’s an anchor to the history of American art that is broad and deep, and one that no other institution has done or could do.”Wilson says. 

“No place can touch us now, I believe.”

Exterior of New York's Whitney Museum in Town & Country magazine. Article by Christopher Mason. Photographs by Todd Eberle.

Published in Town & Country magazine on May 2015

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Christopher Mason