The Whitney Expansion

Yesterday, Roberta Smith wrote about the proposed Whitney Expansion in the NY Times. The City Planning Commission just unanimously approved the proposed Whitney Downtown Expansion Project, which would create a new space for the museum in the city’s Meatpacking District, near the southern entrance of the Highline. The Whitney Board, concerned about financing, remains divided about the project.

But, one of the most complicating factors in play is the 2008 $131 million dollar donation from Leonard Lauder to the museum. This donation requires that the Whitney Museum of American Art not sell its current space on the Upper East Side for an undisclosed period of time. The new downtown Whitney  isn’t scheduled to break ground until 2014, but most are speculating that the museum will be required to operate two spaces for a period of time.

In her column, Smith seems (rightly) concerned about the space itself, arguing:

“A new downtown Whitney has to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity — a profile — the way Dia’s old building did. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to have tourist-attracting bells and whistles, as is the case with the Guggenheim (no disrespect intended). It just has to give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art. This is as much a matter of proportion, openness and light as square footage, as the old Dia proved repeatedly. Its spaces set a standard for display that seems to have been lost in Manhattan, and it was lost, again, because of trustee arrogance and administrative mismanagement that put too many of the Dia’s eggs in its Beacon, N.Y., basket.”

All of what Smith says is true. However, perhaps it’s more important to determine whether this is an additional space, or, in fact, a brand new Whitney. Based on Mr. Lauder’s past comments, I’m inclined to believe that the Whitney building on Madison Ave is here to stay for a while.  “Like so many architecture lovers,” he declared,  “I believe the Whitney and the Breuer building are one.”

Additional locations for museums that are within the same city don’t have a particularly good success rate. The Guggenheim’s SoHo location ultimately didn’t last, and neither did the Whitney’s own Altria branch. (Although to be fair, that was because the Altria Group left New York City.) But the Whitney’s branch at 55 Water St also didn’t last. Neither did their space at the Federal Reserve Plaza. Their branch at the Equitable Center in Midtown did not survive either.

When the Whitney announced its plans for expansion in the Meatpacking district, it distinguished this project from the previous additional locations, as a “satellite” not a “branch,” and many speculated that the Whitney would ultimately relocate entirely to the new space. Now that it is apparent that this is not going to happen (at least not in the foreseeable future), it’s important that the Whitney create distinct identities for the two locations. They have the advantage that, unlike with their previous branches, they are building an entirely new space for this new location.What will compel someone to visit both Whitneys? How will they complement each other? What, besides their architecture, will be unique about each? This is something that MoMA and PS1, which MoMA partnered with in 2000, seem to struggle with, and, this will also be the Whitney’s challenge.

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