When sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney noticed the new set of artistic ideas coming from her fellow Americans being shunned by galleries, she took it upon herself to buy and display their works. This resulted in the woman’s leading role as a curator of American art that spanned from 1907 until the day of her death on April 18, 1942. Along the way, the Whitney Museum of American Art was established which had its doors open for the first time in 1931 on West Eighth Street near Fifth Avenue. Since then, it has become an important chapter in the history of New York, as well as the United States of America.
From Rejection to Innovation
In Greenwich Village, New York, Gertrude Whitney established the Whitney Studio in 1914. It would be at this location she displayed the artwork of living Americans whose work had been ignored by traditional academies. By this time, Whitney had already been collecting art in 1905. Among her favorite pieces in her personal collection came from artists of the Ashcan School. John French Sloan, George Luks, and Everett Shinn were among the students who were part of an artistic movement that focused on the daily lives of New York’s poorer population and the neighborhoods they lived in. Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Max Weber also had their works curated by Whitney, along with the aid of her assistant at the time, Juliana R. Force.
By 1929, she had more than seven hundred pieces as part of her collection. When her offer to gift the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring most of her art collection was declined, she chose to set up her own location. The only requirement needed in order to have art featured in her gallery was the artist had to be a United States citizen.
The Whitney Museum of American Art was officially founded in 1930. At this time, architect Noel L. Miller was converting three-row houses on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village. One of them was the location of the Studio Club. it was this same Social Club that used the gallery space of Wilhelmina Weber Furlong to exhibit traveling shows that featured modern art. From 1931 until 1954, Whitney Studio used this location as its new museum. 8 West 8th Street west was not only the location of the Social Club but served as Gertrude Whitney’s home.
In 1931, the museum opened its doors to the public for the first time. It was here the works of Jay DeFeo, Jasper Johns, Glenn Ligon, Cindy Sherman, and Paul Thek were granted their first comprehensive surveys. Consistently, the museum purchased various artworks within the year they were created by artists who had yet to become recognized.
In 1932, Gertrude Whitney extended an invitational show of work that was produced over the span of two years since embarking on the quest to introduce young and relatively unknown artists to the public. The Biennial was the longest-running series of exhibitions that surveyed recent developments in American art.
Until the day of her death in 1945, Whitney heavily supported the living American artists, especially the younger and emerging talents such as Peggy Bacon, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Mabel Dwight, Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Reginald Marsh, and John Sloan. Whitney’s focus was on the contemporary, along with her deep respect for the creativity behind each artist as they expressed their vision through their works.
Part of Whitney’s innovative approach to exhibitions and programs included the opening of branch museums throughout New York City and its neighboring communities. As corporate-sponsored branches, these sites operated as standalone spaces that had their own staff. It would be at such locations the people would be trained as curators. At the same time, the additional locations offered better accessibility for the public to view Whitney’s collection of artworks. This also gave experimental artists access to larger spaces and performance opportunities. Until 2008, these branches served the residents and visitors of New York as an outlet to create and view American-made art.
Art with Force
From 1931 until 1948, Juliana R. Force served as Whitney’s museum director. Through her, the concentration was poured on displaying the artworks of new and contemporary American artists. In 1942, she sat as the chair of the American Art Research Council. When the Whitney Museum of American Art merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1943, she became an advisory director of the institution. Not long after the United States government mounted a national touring exhibition of German art and its war booty, Force took it upon herself to return the art to its rightful owner. From 1946 until 1948, the Whitney Museum of American Art also exhibited the works of Winslow Homer, Robert Feke, and Albert Pinkham Ryder.
After Force died on August 28, 1948, the museum held a memorial exhibition in 1949, honoring its first director. Taking her place was Herman More until 1958.
In 1954, the Whitney Museum of American Art moved to an expanded site on West 54th Street. This was located directly behind and connected to the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s second floor caught fire on April 14, 1958, it forced an evacuation of paintings and staff on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upper floors to the Whitney Museum. The real tragedy behind the fire was the death of one person who was unable to flee to safety when the fire broke out. This was also the same year More’s position as museum director was transferred to Lloyd Goodrich.
Until 1961, the West 54th Street location of the museum suited its purpose. However, as the art collection continued to expand, there was the need to find a bigger building to house it all. From 1963 until 1966, Marcel Breuer was the architect and designer chosen to develop the new home of the Whitney Museum. In 1963, it opened up its doors on Madison Avenue at 75th Street. This iconic building was the same one that housed the museum’s art from 1966 until October 20, 2014.
Marcel Breuer was a Hungarian-born architect and designer that began to teach architecture at Harvard University in 1937 before moving to New York City in 1946. The Bauhaus internationalism that swept New England quickly spread across America, heavily influencing architectural designs. This influence was incorporated into Whitney’s museum while it was on Madison Avenue, along with Breuer’s own vision as a Hungarian-American artist.
In 1967, Whitney opened a satellite space called the Art Resources Center. Otherwise known as ARC, the original intention was to set this up on Cherry Street in the South Bronx. Despite the new location on Madison Avenue, Whitney still needed extra space to display its art collection. From 1973 until 1983, Whitney operated a branch at 55 Water Street, which was owned by Harold Uris. In 1983, Philip Morris International had a Whitney branch in the lobby of its Park Avenue headquarters.
There was an attempt in 1978 to expand the museum while it was on Madison Avenue. The idea was to build a tower alongside it but it was abandoned. There were also proposals for the development of a larger museum facility by its director at the time, Thomas N. Armstrong III. However, the 1985 announcement drew enough opposition that this plan was canceled in 1989.
In the meantime, Whitney had arrangements with the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, IBM, and Park Tower Realty as they set up satellite museums with rotating exhibits in the lobbies of their buildings. Each of these museum branches had its own director that would have to report to the Whitney committee.
Whitney became the first museum to dedicate the work of living American artists. It was also the first New York museum to present a major exhibition of Nam June Paik, a video artist whose work was put on display in 1982. This museum has a legacy of acclaimed exhibitions of film and video, as well as architecture, new media, and photography.
From 1995 until 1998, renovations were made instead while the museum was under the direction of David A. Ross. However, spacing was still an issue so a 2001 proposal was made to fork out $200 million for its expansion. That was discarded as of 2003, causing the director at that time, Maxwell L. Anderson, to resign. He was replaced by Adam D. Weinberg who has been the museum’s director ever since.
As of 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art has been situated at 99 Gansevoort Street. This $422 million dollar development began construction in 2010 before it was completed in 2015. Now at 200,000 square feet, this eight-story building houses two floors worth of the museum’s permanent collection, as well as a conservation laboratory, an education center, a library with reading rooms, and a theater. There are also observation decks from the fifth to the eighth floor that are linked by an outdoor staircase.
The building the museum is in was designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and is situated in lower Manhattan’s West Village and Meatpacking District between the High Line and the Hudson River. Here you will find the most expansive display of its collection of modern and contemporary American art. Inside, there are about fifty thousand square feet of indoor galleries. Facing the High Line is thirteen thousand square feet of outdoor exhibition space and terraces. For special exhibitions, there are eighteen thousand square feet available, which is the largest column-free gallery in New York City. There’s also additional exhibit space in the lobby gallery, as well as two floors for a permanent collection, and a special exhibitions gallery on the top floor.
On April 30, 2015, Michelle Obama and Bill de Blasio attended the museum’s ceremonial ribbon cutting. The very next day, the newest Whitney Museum of American Art was officially opened to the public.
Whitney’s building on 99 Gansevoort Street became the first purpose-built museum in New York City to pursue LEED Gold status. This is a green building certification program that was offered by the U.S. Green Building Council. In order to receive a LEED certification, projects need to be submitted and reviewed. Once it’s combed over, points are assigned based on the project’s implementations, solutions, and strategies that are aimed at various areas. The Whitney Museum of American Art applied for LEED certification in 2011, then received LEED Gold certification in 2016.
Kanders vs. Artforum
In November 2018, Whitney’s Board of Trustees was heavily criticized by social groups such as Chinatown Art Brigade, Decolonize This Page, and W.A.G.E. over the ownership of Salariland by its vice chairman at the time, Warren B. Kanders. Safariland was the manufacturer of the tear gas that was used in the 2018 migrant caravans. For nine weeks, demonstrations were held, calling for Kanders’ removal. On July 17, 2019, the demand for his resignation came about again after Hannah Black’s essay, “The Tear Gas Biennial” was published by Artforum.
Pushing for Kanders to be removed also witnessed Michael Rakowitz becoming the first of a wave of artists who withdrew their artworks from Whitney’s Biennial display. In response, Kanders announced his resignation on July 25, 2019. He cited he didn’t want to play a role in the museum’s demise. He also charged the remaining trustees to step up and lead Whitney Museum in a more positive direction.
Currently, the museum houses over 25,000 works that have been created by over 3,600 American artists between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From Gertrude Whitney’s personal collection, there are approximately six hundred pieces that were already available for public viewing when the museum first opened in 1931.
When going through the collection, starts with the Ashcan School painting. From there, the major movements that shaped twentieth-century America are featured in the various art expressions that highlighted the nation’s strengths in modernism. This included Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, Postminimalism, Precisionism, and Social Realism.
The focus on identity and politics that stemmed from the 1980s and the 1990s are also featured at the museum, as well as contemporary artwork. The amount of originality and variety of what the museum has on display is immense. The highlights of the collection serve as definitive examples of each type. Over eighty percent of the artwork is on paper canvas.
The Whitney Museum of American Art currently holds the work of certain key artists such as Alexander Calder, Nicole Eisenman, Jasper Johns, Glenn Ligon, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Laura Owens, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, and David Wojnarowicz.
As time progresses, so do the artistic expressions shared in the Whitney Museum. However, the need to remember history is vital in order for society to keep moving forward. For as long as Whitney focuses on what makes American art great, it will continue to brightly paint its future. The primary goal of the museum’s founder, Gertrude Whitney, was to focus on allowing the brilliance of young and undiscovered Americans to shine as the brilliant diamonds they are.