Adam Weinberg will step down as the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art when his current contract ends on 31 October, marking the end of a transformative 20-year tenure at the helm of one of the most closely-watched art museums in the United States. He will be replaced by Scott Rothkopf, who currently serves as the museum’s chief deputy director and chief curator.
Weinberg’s directorship has been one of the most transformative in the Whitney’s history, including the construction of and relocation to its Renzo Piano-designed building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in 2015, and vacating its longtime Marcel Breuer-designed building on the Upper East Side. That move to a much larger and tourist-friendly site at the foot of the elevated High Line park has helped the museum expand its audience from 400,000 visitors to 1.2 million in 2019. Under Weinberg’s leadership, the museum also increased its endowment tenfold (from $40m to $400m) and more than doubled its staff (from 200 to more than 400).
Weinberg, who took the helm at the Whitney in 2003 after earlier stints as the museum’s permanent collection curator and senior curator, has also overseen the museum’s expansion beyond the strict confines of its footprint. Off-site projects he has helped orchestrate include the creation of David Hammons’s permanent public installation Day’s End (2014-21) in the Hudson River just across the road from the museum, and the acquisition of Roy Lichtenstein’s former studio a few blocks south, which will soon house the museum’s highly-regarded Independent Study Program.
“It has been the greatest joy and privilege of my life to lead the Whitney for all these years, working with its deeply committed and caring trustees, its superb and mission-driven staff, and the inspiring and devoted community of artists, so that we could serve the people of New York and the world of contemporary art and ideas,” Weinberg said in a statement. “Even as I now step aside to take on new opportunities in the cultural community, as everyone knows, my heart will always be with the Whitney.” Officially, Weinberg will become the museum’s director emeritus and an honorary trustee.
His tenure was not always a smooth one. The process of securing a new home for the museum went through many iterations, with plans to expand its Upper East Side footprint meeting firm opposition (and lawsuits) from neighbours. Projects within the museum also frequently sparked scandals during Weinberg’s tenure, most notably a string of controversial iterations of the museum’s signature exhibition, the Whitney Biennial. The show’s 2017 edition, its first in the new building, was engulfed in debate over Dana Schutz’s painting based on historic photos of Emmett Till, a Black teen who was lynched in 1955—widely published images of his brutalised body helped spur the civil rights movement. The biennial’s next edition became known as the “tear gas biennial” amid months of protests organised by activists from Decolonize This Place and other groups calling for the removal from the museum’s board of Warren Kanders, the owner of a company called Safariland that manufactures tear gas and other military and law enforcement equipment. After several artists featured in that year’s biennial threatened to remove their work from the exhibition, Kanders resigned from the board.
“All of these controversies show that we are engaged with our time, that we are relevant, that we are part of the culture, that we are not sitting back,” Weinberg told The New York Times, reflecting on the string of scandals during his tenure.
Earlier this week, the museum’s administration and the union that represents around 200 of its employees concluded a 16-month negotiation over the union’s first contract—a process that saw unionised workers repeatedly picket in the streets and leaflet VIP events.
Rothkopf has risen quickly since joining the Whitney as a curator in 2009, becoming an associated director of programmes in 2012 and chief curator in 2015, before adding the senior deputy director title in 2018. During that time he has curated or co-curated many of the museum’s most high-profile solo exhibition devoted to contemporary artists, including the Jasper Johns retrospective (2021-22), surveys of Laura Owens (2017) and Glenn Ligon (2011), and the blockbuster 2014 Jeff Koons retrospective that served as the Whitney’s swan song in the Breuer building (which has since been renovated and leased to the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection).
“The deftness and strength Scott has demonstrated over this time in his involvement with every aspect of the Museum’s activities, combined with his widely admired curatorial expertise, make him the best imaginable choice to lead the Whitney into its future,” Whitney board chairman Richard M. DeMartini, president Fern Kaye Tessler and executive committee chairman Robert Hurst said in a joint statement. “We are extraordinarily fortunate to be able to promote from within the Whitney.”
Rothkopf echoed that sentiment in comments to the Times. “One of the great things about an internal succession like this is we can continue the work we’ve been doing with equity and inclusion—thinking about our community and the city,” he said. “We have a tremendous curatorial team and most of them I’ve hired, so it’s not like someone who arrives and says, ‘How do I change this? How do I make this my own?’”
The generational shift in Whitney leaders from 69-year-old Weinberg to Rothkopf, 46, comes as an older set of New York museum directors are poised to leave their posts. Longtime Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation director Richard Armstrong, 74, announced last summer that he would retire. According to the Times, the Museum of Modern Art’s 68-year-old director, Glenn Lowry, has a contract set to expire in 2025.
Despite calls for the museum sector to prioritise diversity not only in the works displayed in galleries but in the hiring and promotion of curators who decide what will be shown in the galleries, the field remains disproportionately white at its highest levels. People of colour make up just 20% of leadership and conservation staff at US art museums, according to the Mellon Foundation’s most recent “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey”.