Rethinking the Whitney

Three experts offer their blueprints for the brutalist landmark on Madison Avenue

Marcel Breuer and his brutalist landmark Whitney Museum

David Ross, the Whitney’s director from 1991-98:

Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum building must be retained as a not-for-profit space for the public presentation of art. Besides being Breuer’s best-known project, the Whitney building represents far more than just the space in which the Whitney Museum of American Art matured into the institution it is today. In the early 1960s, Breuer’s radical approach to the street represented nothing less than a revolutionary approach to art museum design. In many ways, it still does. The Breuer Whitney challenged museums to re-think whom the museum was intended to serve, and implied that the game was about to change.

Unlike museums that imitated and reproduced the notion that the art museum should be temple-like—distant and unapproachable—the building’s street-level glass façade revealed the museum interior to street-level level passers-by, allowing everyone to see that any and all were welcome to enter. To some, this opening up seemed perverse or at best, a kind of liberal gesture typical of the Kennedy era ethos. And to others it may have seemed a trivial design detail, or even ironic gesture, given that despite the symbolic act, class barriers continue to hobble contemporary American cultural institutions—including the Whitney. But it was not an irony lost on the Bauhaus-trained architect, nor on subsequent generations of artists who have embraced the Whitney for its essential openness—despite the building’s “brutalism.”

In the nearly 50 years that the Whitney has occupied 945 Madison Avenue, it has exposed countless visitors to the pioneers of American modern art while providing a continuing platform for the exposure and support of the new and untried. The Breuer building has served, to use the phrase coined by the cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha, as a “site of the contest of values and ideas”, and has provided a brilliant container for the continual renewal of the very idea of American art.

Now that the Whitney board has made the irrevocable decision to build a new museum downtown on Gansevoort Street, the question remains what to do with the Breuer building. I am of the opinion that a partnership of some sort that will allow the building to continue to function as a place for the exhibition, consideration, and enjoyment of American art can still take place. Given the role that the Met played in the founding history of the Whitney, an idea that has for quite some time has intrigued me, would be that the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum (and possibly even MoMA and the Studio Museum in Harlem) would collaborate on a space devoted to an expansive presentation of early through mid-century 20th-century American Art. The building is perfectly suited to the exhibition of American Modernism, and frankly, neither the Met nor MoMA devote enough major space or sufficient resources to this period, and the Studio Museum is years away from being able to provide space appropriate to its important mission. I could imagine a joint operating committee constituted with participants from each institution’s trustee board, and a similarly constituted curatorial collaboration producing lively, informative and delightful exhibitions and provoking serious consideration of this critical moment in American cultural history.

As the Breuer Building installations would be neither permanent nor fixed, interesting curatorial and scholarly projects could take place exploring, for example, the productive relationships between media (photography and film being critically important in the period leading up to 1945), or charting the rapid changes in the nature of what constituted American art, and what was considered American as the American Century unfolded. And of course, all participating museums could borrow and lend to and from this collaborative collection, so that their own chronological collection installations would never be without the presence of important American modern works.

This may seem complicated, and I’m sure its many complexities will need to be carefully negotiated, but the upshot would be a renewed Breuer building, a refreshed interest in pre-war American art, and a worthy example of inter-museum collection sharing and programmatic collaboration that would set a new standard for progressive museums everywhere.

Terence Riley, former museum director and architect, who worked for Marcel Breuer Associates:

Breuer’s original design for the Whitney Museum incorporated two oppositional and largely irreconcilable goals. His use of exposed concrete, dark granite and sombre massing conveys, on one hand, a sense of permanence and monumentality. The suspended ceiling grid in the galleries, which was supposed to allow the curators to move walls and reconfigure galleries at will, suggests the opposite.

The movable partition system designed by Breuer never really worked but he certainly achieved his other goal: a building that has a notable and memorable sense of gravitas, summed up in Charles Millard’s term “The Great Grey Whitney”.

The Great Grey Whitney might not be such an accommodating place for changing exhibitions but it certainly would be a great place for installing the permanent collection permanently. By that I mean taking the opportunity to make some hard decisions about configuring the galleries with less flexibility but more thoughtfulness, and with a greater sense of commitment to the core messages the curators are trying to communicate through its collection and its installation.

Despite its ostensibly simple, abstract composition—extruded horizontally and stepped vertically—Breuer’s Whitney has proven remarkably resistant to being extended successfully in either direction. Expanding downtown is the right idea. The new building’s design should be as notable as Breuer’s is and as flexible as Breuer’s isn’t. Renzo Piano is up to that task. Keeping the Breuer building and letting it be what it wants to be is the other right idea.

Michael Gross, author of Rogues’ Gallery: the Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals that Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

It could be transformed into a Museum of Cultural Philanthropy, telling the story of the men and women who collectively created New York’s great institutions of art, music and learning. Imagine if the Metropolitan Museum began releasing its archives concerning donors from JP Morgan to the two grand Charleses, Engelhard and Wrightsman, the Opera its papers concerning Otto Kahn and Sid Bass, Carnegie Hall its archives from Andrew C to Sandy Weill and Ronald Perelman, the New York Public Library its whole record of the negotiations with Steve Schwartzman for “his” building, and etc. It’ll never happen, of course, since as Philippe de Montebello told me (with a straight face) institutions like these “have no secrets”, but a boy can dream dreams of transparency even in a realm of studied opacity, can’t he?

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