The Whitney Moves Downtown

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. 

The Whitney Moves Downtown