'We're a Grown-Up Museum Now': A Tour of the New Whitney's Construction Site

On one of the Whitney's terraces. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
On one of the Whitney’s terraces. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Whitney Museum’s current location at the Breuer Building on the Upper East Side feels a little like a happy mistake, as if the gray modernist structure simply dropped from the sky one day like a brick onto Madison Avenue and decided to stick around even though it didn’t quite fit in with all the neighborhood’s converted carriage houses and luxury retail shops. The building is like some Brutalist armory, resistant to the city’s changes. The new Whitney Museum, now under construction in the Meatpacking District and set to open next year, quite nearly seems foretold. The slick Renzo Piano-designed curves and retractable window panels feel right at home nestled between the glass panes of the Standard Hotel, the snaking tracks of the High Line park and the respective beckoning glows of the Diane von Fürstenberg store, the Christian Louboutin store, the Tory Burch store, the Apple store and various repurposed slaughterhouses from the days when the Meatpacking District lived up to its name and before it traded meat carcasses for professional hipsters, fashionistas and adventurous bridge and tunnelers. As the Wall Street Journal says, art and fashion are a “Mutual Appreciation Society.”

Thursday, the Whitney invited a wide swath of journalists–ranging from representatives of architectural trade magazines to the CBS Sunday Morning Show–for a tour of the building. A publicist in a hard hat directed me to walk around the construction site to another publicist in a hard hat who sent me to two more publicists in two more hard hats, who gave me a hard hat and directed me to another table of publicists. Here I signed a waiver that I failed to read, which I hope in retrospect was just a disclaimer that I wouldn’t sue the museum if an I-beam fell on my foot and that the Whitney doesn’t now own my life rights or something. (One of the hard-hatted publicists, please let me know!)  I was sent to an elevator where a barrel-chested gentleman grunted in acknowledgment of my presence and hit the button for the eighth floor. The doors opened to a cobweb of wires, stacks of lumber, a thin film of dust and two men yelling at each other in Russian on a hydraulic lift. The press was corralled inside what would eventually become the museum’s board room.

“This is the point where the conversation shifts from the realm of ideas to the realm of reality,” Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, said before being interrupted by the cacophony of a power drill. (“I feel like I’m in a dentist’s office!” he said.) He then introduced Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator and deputy director, who rattled off facts and news: the museum will open with a show from their collection in which “every space, both indoors and out, will be filled.” The program for the first year will include exhibitions of Archibald Motley, Frank Stella, Laura Poitras, David Wojnarowicz and works from the Westreich/Wagner collection, more than 500 of which will end up in the Whitney collection. She threw in quite laconically that the museum’s biennial will not happen as scheduled in 2016, but rather in 2017. (Any obsessive compulsives keeping count should note that an odd-numbered biennial is our new reality, as it was last century.) The staff will start moving into the building in the fall, followed by the art at the beginning of next year. Mr. Weinberg said he hopes for a spring opening.

We broke off into tour groups, and Ms. De Salvo was my guide. “What you are standing in now will be a future cafe,” she said. She gestured to a tangle of extension cords dangling from the ceiling and said, “That’s our hi-tech electrical system.” The floors, she said, were made of reclaimed pine, to which our Renzo Piano rep chimed in: “Old growth pine, a bit harder than new growth pine.” OK! Then Barry Schwabsky, the art critic for The Nation, dressed in a remarkable collared shirt that was for some reason covered in illustrations of popsicles and apple cores, asked to join our tour group because his was “too vague.”

But back to the floors: Ms. De Salvo said they would have a “certain roughness but a certain kind of elegance.” Our Renzo Piano rep was really excited about the floors and started listing their components–“rubber pads, layers and an inch and a half…” I tuned out here, but the floors would be sprung. Sprung floors.

Down on the sixth floor, which along with the seventh floor would be devoted to the permanent collection, David Kiehl, the prints curator, stood waiting for us in what would become the “works on paper study room,” which was currently a pile of ladders and some wires and had the faint smell of disinfectant. Still, Mr. Kiehl–wearing a not quite construction-zone appropriate uniform of pink sweater with khakis–was nothing less than giddy at the prospect of his new office. “We’ll have a microscope!” he said as we entered the conservancy room. “In a funny way, we’re a grown-up museum now.”

We stepped out onto a terrace–there are several, but this was Ms. De Salvo’s favorite terrace. She told us that all of the terraces (official name: “outdoor exhibition spaces”) would be connected by stairs, so you could essentially walk the entire facade of the building. The museum is also renting the roof of the adjacent High Line Maintenance building where they’ll stage performances or, in Ms. De Salvo’s words, “whatever artists want…I’m looking forward to just putting a lawn chair out there.” Directly overhead was the disconcerting sight of an enormous crane, swaying gently in the breeze of the first really nice day we’ve had in a year in New York City. As I was looking up at the crane and briefly contemplating my mortality, a perfectly-timed member of my tour group exclaimed, “You know, this place is friendly compared to MoMA!”

Jay Sanders, curator of performance, was waiting for us in the museum’s “first dedicated performance space in the Whitney’s history,” with a stellar view of New Jersey across the Hudson River, which–thankfully for all you performance artists out there whose work doesn’t deal with the Garden State–can be blacked out with a retractable screen.

Downstairs on the ground floor, a big industrial bin filled with a gray, troublingly ambiguous liquid sat blocking our path to the future home of the lobby gallery. “I’m not moving that,” Ms. De Salvo said, basically ending our tour.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” she said, surveying the mess before her. “There are times when I think, ‘Well, I hope we did that right.’ It is a very different process from putting together an exhibition.” There’s a sense, she said, that “this is it.”


'We're a Grown-Up Museum Now': A Tour of the New Whitney's Construction Site