At the Museum of Modern Art’s $1,000-per-person Party in the Garden last week, everybody wanted to talk to the host of the evening, Glenn Lowry. But to get to MoMA’s director, well-wishers had to work around a man in a hot-pink shirt whom Mr. Lowry quizzed for most of the reception.
The man was Robert Hurst, former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs and co-chairman of the rival Whitney Museum of American Art. Mr. Lowry was particularly interested in Mr. Hurst because he had news: About two hours earlier, the Whitney board, gathered downtown at the Standard Hotel, had voted to green-light a new $680 million Whitney in the meatpacking district. The promise of a bigger, hipper footprint instantly made the Whitney a more powerful player in the art world, and a transformative one in the neighborhood-building of New York. Mr. Hurst was gloating.
‘At Goldman, they pick a target and then figure out how to get there. Leonard didn’t want that,’ said one Whitney insider.
Two weeks earlier, at a similarly swanky event, this time hosted by the Whitney, Mr. Hurst had raised eyebrows when he announced-in advance of the vote by the Whitney’s 40-odd-member board of trustees-that the museum’s move to the meatpacking district was a fait accompli, a claim that, while obviously true in hindsight, was also cringingly awkward. The chief funder of the plan, Leonard Lauder, had said he did not want to part with the museum’s current home, was withholding his approval and didn’t show up to the dinner.
So, after the successful vote, it looked like the cosmetics king had been steamrollered. He was either moved, at the eleventh hour, by a personal plea from Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of the museum’s founder, or by the insistence of another trustee Melva Bucksbaum, depending upon whose version of the meeting you endorse.
It also helped that when it came to the Whitney board, Mr. Hurst was among friends. Four of the 17 officers on the board, including the two co-chairmen, are current or former Goldman employees or their wives. Board vice president Richard DeMartini is a current co-worker of Mr. Hurst’s at his Crestview Partners private-equity firm. More Goldman vets, or their business partners, dot the remainder of the board.
So did the Goldman wing steamroller the rest of the board? Did Mr. Lauder balk merely to ensure that present board members gave as generously as he had? Insiders said Mr. Lauder was always likely to approve the move-indeed, he had actually conceived of much of it-but cannily withheld his approval so that newer board members would pony up to match the $131 million he had already donated. His refusal, said one Whitney employee, “may have been galvanizing” for fundraising.
In the end, the deal was approved. (And celebrated, enthusiastically, over trustee drinks at the Standard.) The new Whitney, now with a war chest of $370 million, will be six stories tall and cover 195,000 square feet, offering space for its permanent collection five times greater than the museum’s current, and classic, Marcel Breuer building on the Upper East Side.
“Leonard’s a smart man,” said one Whitney insider. “At Goldman, they pick a target and then figure out how to get there. Leonard didn’t want that. This building could end up costing $1 billion-it’s happened before. The board just wanted to sell the townhouses and the Breuer building and move, but the math didn’t work. He’s spent his life at this and wanted to make sure they had planned for the future.”
Mr. Lauder’s fondness for the Breuer building certainly wasn’t fake, said artist Chuck Close, who until recently was a Whitney trustee and was involved in the selection of architect Renzo Piano’s design for the new building-”and I agreed with him that we don’t get rid of the flagship. I love the Breuer.” But Mr. Lauder wasn’t immovable either. He had first suggested the meatpacking district space to the board, according to one current trustee. And he approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago with the proposal, still under discussion, that the museum should lease the Breuer space to show art.
Mr. Hurst, along with “the Goldman guys,” as one insider called them, and some others on the Whitney board were known to be quite keen, for reasons both philanthropic and self-interested, for a move downtown. Mr. Hurst had started moving board meetings down to the Standard, next door to the museum’s proposed site, the year earlier and put his own duplex around the corner from the Whitney on the market in April for $29 million.
Real estate is as powerful in the museum world as it is in the rest of New York. At a time when museum trustees are having their own art routinely exhibited at museums-the New Museum’s current blockbuster is all on loan from a single trustee, Dakis Joannou-the Whitney didn’t have enough space to show works by the artists its own trustees believed in and, by implication, were endorsing to the art market. At the Whitney, a handful of the museum’s trustees are or have been among the most active art collectors in the world-including Mr. Lauder, Beth Rudin DeWoody and Peter Norton. Ms. Bucksbaum, a big contemporary art collector, was one of the chief boosters of the move.
It bothers some board members that the Whitney, in attendance and influence, is still a sad stepsister to New York’s powerhouse art-museum triumvirate: the Met, MoMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim. At 322,152 visitors in 2009, the Whitney lags behind the Met’s 4.9 million, MoMA’s 2.7 million and the Guggenheim’s 1.3 million, according to the Art Newspaper annual survey of museums. The Whitney barely makes the top 150 world museums in terms of visitors.
Indeed, for decades, it’s been felt that the Whitney needed and even deserved a bigger footprint. It’s just been a long journey to get there.
History of the Expansion
“WHITNEY OKAYS NEW museum expansion,” read the headlines-in October, 1985. Michael Graves-an American architect, a big deal of it was made at the time-had earlier been hired to design a building adjacent and above the Breuer building. Mr. Graves’ neoclassical addition was dotted with grays, reds and pinks, and carried the now-adorable price tag of $37.5 million. It soon met up against powerhouse opponents, including Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; architect I.M. Pei, who took the almost unprecedented step of adding his name to a petition against it; and artist Isamu Noguchi. In 1985 it was scaled back-then never happened.
Rem Koolhaas, at that point better known for his Prada stores, was next. He came up with a cantilevered addition that added 145,000 of gallery space. One local group showed up at a local zoning board meeting with the sign “Stop the Monster on Madison Avenue.” Eventually, new Whitney director Adam Weinberg, among others, suggested a Whitney satellite downtown instead, noting it might even be cheaper than building on the Upper East Side.
Next up was Mr. Piano, and Mr. Lauder, at the time chairman of the museum, now led the charge. He found the space, held meetings with local officials, made his huge donation in 2008 and even met with Philippe de Montebello to try to talk the Met into leasing the Breuer space. The museum launched a capital campaign seeking to raise $680 million for the Piano-designed “Downtown Whitney.” (The total reflects not only construction costs but an endowment of the new institution.)
Then the recession hit. Museum expansions across the country stopped: Banks stopped lending against art and liquidity dried up. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had to freeze hiring, cut costs and refinance $383 million of bonds it had issued to pay for a renovation-designed by Mr. Piano.
In the fall of 2008, the Whitney museum described its own capital campaign as “in the quiet phase.” A year ago last month, an insider close to the situation called it “dead-for now.” (The museum said it was actually in the process of buying the land from the city at the time.) But, somehow, as of last week, the museum had raised about half the money needed. Who made up the difference?
Well, two of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s top 10 donors in the U.S. are board members of the Whitney: Robert W. Wilson and Emily Fisher Landau. As for the Goldman guys, the museum said that in the “silent, leadership” phase of fund-raising for the building, it isn’t commenting on specific donors. Certainly, Mr. Hurst had a lot to make up for: He was one of the three members of the nominating committee that chose Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco for the Whitney board. Mr. Kozlowski pledged $1 million in 2002, shortly before being indicted for securities fraud.
So what happens now to the Breuer building? Its fate is undetermined, which won’t please Chuck Close. “I’ve shown in the Modern, the Met and the Whitney and I think the fourth floor of the Whitney is the best place I’ve ever shown,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Whitney is planning for its future. The museum has posted a job online for a “Development Research Associate” to “update information on current and future donor prospects.” Fund-raising experience required.