Make It New: The Whitney Breaks Ground Downtown

The track record of uptown institutions opening up downtown isn’t stellar. The Guggenheim, gravitating toward what was then Soho’s bustling gallery scene, gave it a shot with a branch on Broadway and Prince. But attendance was lackluster, especially for shows of a more historical nature. The Gugg Soho shuttered in 2002 and was replaced by the current tenant, a Prada store. And yet: that was merely a branch, at 27,000 square feet not so much bigger than a sizable art gallery. “I think the Whitney will overcome that by being much larger,” says former Gugg deputy director, and now Sotheby’s vice president (and Whitney supporter) Lisa Dennison.

Look at the Dia Foundation–the more galleries moved in, the less attendance it got, as Roberta Smith pointed out in the Times last year. Then again, the Dia didn’t always show household names. Picture, by contrast, the name “Ed Ruscha” writ large on a giant billboard above the Apple store, as the promotional video shown before the groundbreaking imagined.

The Whitney really can use the extra space; much of today’s art comes in size XXL. “It used to be that if you were just going around and picking works to show, you picked ones that fit in your space,” said Bruce Altshuler, a museum studies professor at N.Y.U. “The works that museums commission today are from artists who are making bigger things.”  

And as a Marina Abramovic show at MoMA recently proved, contemporary art is where it’s at. “I think they just needed more space for contemporary,” said venerable art historian Linda Nochlin. “Contemporary is blowing the roof off. My students are so hot for this stuff.”

John McEnroe is hot for it! Buttonholed outside the gala, the former tennis great admitted, “I like a lot of the old stuff, but I collect more of the contemporary, because I find it more interesting, being amongst the living.” 

What of the living artist? Imagine that a successful midcareer artist could have his retrospective at any New York institution. The Met, which, like many encyclopedic institutions worldwide, has ramped up its contemporary offerings (and will take over the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer Building) says, I’m up there with the Egyptians. The Guggenheim, with its worldwide network, I’m global. MoMA announces, I’m enthroned alongside Picasso in the Modern pantheon. The NuMu? I may be old, but I hang with the kids. What does the Whitney say? I’m American? Not anymore, or not only. Soon it will whisper two of the art world’s favorite words: New building. 

“You can’t help but think of the newest possible context,” said painter Richard Phillips, hunting for his seat at the gala, of his ideal survey. “And the Whitney’s making their claim for it.”

dduray@observer.com

Correction 5/25, 4:25 p.m.

An earlier version of this story referred to the video shown at the groundbreaking as having been made by Ogilvy & Mather. There was a video made by that ad agency shown before the groundbreaking, but the one referenced in that sentence was in fact made by the Brooklyn-based firm Labour.