Can Whitney Head Unclog Museum’s Rotted Sclerosis?

Let’s start with the good news first, even though it’s a little stale. When the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its doors for the first time at 8 West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village in 1931, Henry McBride-the most important art critic of the period-gave the following account in The New York Sun : “The stars in their courses conspired to favor the Whitney Museum of American Art. The sign was right. The fates, from the very beginning, were amiably disposed. The grand opening was grand even beyond expectation. President Hoover sent a hopeful letter, ex-Gov. Al Smith, in person, confessed to a distinct partiality for the native art, and the great Otto Kahn looked in on the affair and saw that it was good.”

According to McBride’s account, some 5,000 people attended the opening. “The entire 5,000 came in automobiles,” he continued. “The crush of motors was beyond belief …. The merchants on the street gave up all thought of business and joined the throngs on the sidewalks to gaze at the unwonted spectacle. It was grand, all right …. The 5,000, naturally, didn’t see the pictures very well, but they saw each other and expressed enthusiasm unanimously for the ‘idea.’ At present the idea is more important than the pictures.”

The idea, of course, was that for the first time in our history, living American artists were to be given a museum in which to exhibit their work. The effect of this idea on the New York art scene was immediate, as McBride also reported. “The number of dealers who intend to handle the native product increased overnight astonishingly,” he wrote, but also observed that “it wouldn’t be a party-movement without some exaggerations. I heard one reputedly intelligent young man exclaim, heatedly, ‘I’d rather have a poor American picture than a good foreign one’”-an idea that McBride, who had an intimate knowledge of the Paris art scene and had already written one of the very first monographs on Matisse, gently but firmly rejected. “The main thing,” he wrote, “is we’ve got our place in the general scheme at last.” Among the living artists occupying that place in the Whitney’s inaugural exhibition were Edward Hopper, Niles Spencer, Stuart Davis, Louis Eilshemius, Henry McFee, Reginald Marsh, Bernard Karfiol and Gaston Lachaise, as well as George Bellows and Arthur B. Davies among the recently deceased. Not a perfect lineup, to be sure, but not at all bad for a beginning.

Flash forward to 2003, and what we find in place as the Whitney’s principal current offering is a loathsome, anti-American multimedia political carnival called The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003 , which is of no artistic interest whatsoever. And lest you think this judgment simply reflects a conservative political bias on my part, here’s a key passage from the liberal Peter Schjeldahl’s review in The New Yorker , in case you missed it: “The art … is the typical fare of international exhibition these days: heavy on mildly diverting installations, videos, and photography and given to easy conceptual japes, which curatorial wall texts carefully explain. With a few sharp exceptions, the works are second-rate or, really, no-rate: hybrid in form and forced in content, belonging to no vital tradition, responding to no one’s need.”

As a further reminder of the Whitney’s parlous, utterly leaderless condition these days, it has now announced the appointment of yet another new director-its fourth since 1990. Now you don’t have to be an expert in the arcana of executive management to understand that when any long-established institution makes as many mistakes as the Whitney has lately made in hiring directors, the main fault lies squarely with the muddled thinking of the board of trustees. If these trustees ran their own businesses or financial portfolios the way they’ve been governing the Whitney of late, they would all be on the dole. Yet, like Queen Victoria, they never apologize and never explain. They seem never to resign, either.

Frankly, I think it is very generous and even heroic of Adam D. Weinberg, the latest new director of the Whitney, to undertake what amounts to a hazardous rescue mission. Fortunately, he knows the terrain, having twice worked at the Whitney as a curator, and he appears to have done an excellent job at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where he’s served as director since 1999. Yet he returns to a museum that many artists now despise-for the right reasons, too-and the public has every reason to distrust. I wish him luck. He will certainly need it, if the recent track record of the Whitney’s board of trustees is any guide.