Change is rarely well-received. And we often have a false sense of nostalgia for institutions of the past. Take New York City, for example. Everyone seems to long for this idyllic New York of the 70s, filled with cheerful working artists and affordable mom-and-pop shops. In reality, those were junkies and shitholes. The city used to be a dirty and dangerous place back then. There were some neighborhoods where you just didn’t go, and certain times of night when you’d be ill-advised to travel on the subway or side streets.
Those times have changed. New York City may be more expensive. And our neighborhoods may be dotted with chain stores. But you can still find some color. You can still find an edge. And you can now do so with minimal risk of being stabbed in the eye by some crackhead.
New York City’s cultural scene has undergone a similar transformation. The Whitney Museum of American Art was established in the West Village in 1930. In 1966, it relocated to the Marcel Breuer-designed building on the Upper East Side, at Madison and 75th. It was considered a fairly fashionable location back then. And when it opened, the building itself was savaged by critics for its brute, fortress-like appearance. Breuer’s building lacked “character.”
These days, what lacks character is the Upper East Side. From Midtown East up to Yorkville, it’s a wasteland of the soul. In fairness, things do get a little more colorful the further you get from Fifth Avenue, but there’s not much to do other than sleep and shop in that area – and that’s assuming you can afford to. Once a haven for the best the city had to offer, the Upper East Side’s sky-high rents have sucked the neighborhood’s soul dry.
Change is everywhere, though. And as one neighborhood flounders, another flourishes. Take the Meatpacking District, for example. Twenty years ago it was still a dicey place, perhaps best known for its lively after-hours transsexual prostitution scene. Incidentally, that’s not how the area got its name. The day-time activity was centered around a hub of businesses that processed and packed meat for the city’s supermarkets and restaurants.
I had the pleasure of working in that neighborhood at the turn of the century, before any national retailer would have dared to set up shop there. It still had an edge back then. But a lot has happened over the past 15 years, and now the Meatpacking District is one of the most vibrant and commercial spots in the city. It’s a destination for locals and tourists alike, drawn by the shops, restaurants, and clubs along with attractions like the High Line and Chelsea Market.
Which is surely why the Whitney relocated to its brand new building down on Gansevoort Street, in the southwest corner of the Meatpacking District. Designed by Renzo Piano, the nine-story architectural wonder doubles the museum’s exhibition space, with 50,000 square feet indoors plus three outdoor galleries.
The move is brilliant on the Whitney’s part. It represents a cultural shift in the city, from the old money of uptown to the new money of downtown. Amazingly, though, not everyone is happy. There are always those who resist change.
Death to Dinosaurs
I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few weeks back (the grand dame of the city’s art museums will be renting the Whitney’s Breuer building, to better showcase their own modern art collection). During my meander through the Met’s current modern art display, I overheard a gaggle of old ladies, fossils from New York’s near past, blathering about the Whitney’s new location and how it’s so far from any public transportation. I was tempted to remind them that the Met, in which they were standing, is literally twice as far from the nearest subway as the new Whitney is. But I figured they’d be dead soon, so I saved my breath – a gamble the Whitney has quietly taken as well.
The other critics have come from the established art world. They’re either nostalgic for the Breuer building, which they once loathed, or they object to the relocation of the museum to such a tourist-friendly neighborhood, forgetting that the Met is in Central Park and MoMA is in Midtown – historically two of the most touristy parts of the city. Hypocrisy on display!
Location aside, people have been equally unfair about the design of the new Whitney. I think it fits well with the aesthetic of the neighborhood. In fact, I’d go so far to say the thing is beautiful. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Jewel on the Hudson
I had a chance to see the new museum before it opened to the public. I recognized many of the works, as the opening exhibit (entitled “America is Hard to See”) is really a showcase for their permanent collection (the impetus of the move was to give them more space to display their growing collection). However, in the new building, I saw these works in a different light – literally and figuratively.
With the new Renzo Piano building, the difference between the new Whitney and the old is like night and day. The new Whitney is open, airy, and bright. It lets the light in through skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows. Even the reclaimed wood floor makes it feel brighter, warmer.
Don’t get me wrong…I have always loved the Marcel Breuer building. In fact, the reason I first went to visit the old Whitney was because of the similarities between the Breuer building and that of the Dana Arts Center (also opened in 1966, it was designed by Paul Rudolph, who – like Breuer – was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement) at Colgate University, the one and only museum of my youth.
Beyond the building, the new neighborhood makes every visit to the new Whitney a potential adventure. Near the old Whitney, there were few fun options besides eating at Unlimited, the in-house restaurant. Sure, I could wander over to the Meatball Shop, way over on Second Avenue, but that was about it. No nightlife. Not even any daylife!
But the Meatpacking District is loaded with options. There is, of course, the new Unlimited at the Whitney, as well as a Studio Café (located on the eighth floor, with outdoor seating). But you also have the new Gansevoort Market, Chelsea Market, High Line options, Bubby’s, the Standard Biergarten – and that’s just off the top of my head. The options are endless.
Yes, the new Whitney will attract a lot more tourists. And, because museums need money to operate, that’s a good thing. Yes, it’s a lot harder for me, living in Upper Yorkville, to get down to the new Whitney (I could walk, albeit a long walk, to the old Whitney). But that’s fine, because it’s in such a cool area that I won’t mind the trip. After spending a few hours at the museum, taking in both the art and the views, I can then grab a bite to eat, meet some friends for drinks, take a walk on the High Line, or all of the above.
Change is good. Especially when it’s done as well as the Whitney has done it.
Additional images of the new Whitney can be seen here.