The cannon of American art is celebrated, and in some ways, was created by the Whitney Museum. It was Whitney curators, and Whitney founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, after all, who championed such now iconic artists as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder and Jasper Johns at the start of their careers, collecting many of their most important works.
In most cities that would be enough, but the current crew at the Whitney have greater ambitions, ambitions that have been turned into smooth concrete, steel and glass in Manhattan’s hippest neighborhood. In May of 2015, the new, Renzo Piano-designed home for the Whitney opened right next to the Highline park, and it is, in many ways, reshaping the idea of what this institution, and art museums in general, can and should be.
And what they should be is flexible. “We have no idea what artists will be doing in 2020, let alone later than that,” Dana Miller, chief curator of the permanent told me at the Whitney’s press preview. “So we wanted spaces that could be reshaped in dozens of ways.” What that means is a building that’s not a looker (I think) but that allows artists to be as creative as they want: the floors can be drilled into, all of the interior walls are moveable and every inch of the place is be wired which should make installing electronic art a snap. For the visitor, this means that they will have a wildly different museum experience each time they come: not only will the art change, but the environment will cocoon them in different ways.
And I use the word “cocoon” quite deliberately because this is one of the few museums that takes into account the comfort of its patrons. Many rooms are flooded with natural light and the floors are sprung on “sleepers,” so there’s no foot fatigue even after hours of standing and looking at art. Two topnotch cafes, run by expert restaurateur Danny Meyer, provide sustenance. The hours are generous, allowing for nighttime sightseeing. And there are few more fun neighborhoods to explore, before or after a visit, than the Meatpacking District.
Most importantly, the Whitney’s new home is 60% larger than its old, Upper East Side digs, meaning that the best known pieces from it epochal permanent collection—Calder’s “Circus,” bleak beauts by Hopper, and more— will always be on display on the 5th and 6th floors (so go there first if you have limited time); and the museum will have more room for its famed Biennial (a show of the best American art of the past 2 years) and its special exhibits, which are usually cutting edge (in late 2015—2016 these included retrospectives on the works of filmaker Laura Poitras, best known for her Edward Snowden documentary and Frank Stella).