New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Architect Renzo Piano, Director Adam D. Weinberg, and Whitney Trustees Open the New Home for American Art and Artists
At a festive ceremony held today in downtown Manhattan, First Lady of the United States of America Michelle Obama joined with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to officially open the new Whitney Museum of American Art, now housed in a 220,000-square-foot building set beside the Hudson River at the foot of the High Line elevated park in the Meatpacking District.
In her remarks, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “I fell in love with the building. It is an amazing space…One visit, one performance, one touch, and who knows how you could spark a child’s imagination….Just about every space in this museum is magnificent. And that’s really one of the joys of this new building so brilliantly designed by Renzo Piano -– the variety of spaces it has for artists to engage and experiment and truly have their work be seen.
So I really can’t think of a better theme for this inaugural exhibit than “America is Hard to See.” Because that title isn’t just a statement of fact, it’s a challenge that the Whitney has embraced with open arms –- the challenge of truly seeing America in all of its glory and complexity. With this exhibit, all of you at the Whitney — the staff, everyone here, all the artists — have asked the question, “How can we truly, fully witness the melting pot of cultures and sensibilities and struggles that make America unlike any other country on earth?”
This is a bold, very hard question. And this exhibit isn’t trying to provide any kind of definitive answer. Instead, it’s doing something even more important — it’s inviting us to answer this question for ourselves, each of us reflecting and rethinking our assumptions as we walk through these galleries. And I think that will be an incredibly powerful experience for anyone who comes here to visit. But it will be particularly powerful for our young people.
She also touched on the fact that “high” culture in America has also left behind a wide segment of the population who needs it the most: Children in urban areas who thinks that museums and other high art venues are beyond their scope of experience and entry, woefully leaving them behind.
You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.
And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.
And that’s one of the reasons why Barack and I, when we first came to Washington, we vowed to open up the White House to as many young people as possible, especially those who ordinarily wouldn’t have a chance to visit. So just about every time we host any kind of cultural event, a concert or performance, we ask the performers to come a few hours early and host a special workshop just for our young people.
The message we’re trying to send is simple. We’re telling our young people: The White House is your house. You belong here just as much as anyone else in this country. We’re telling them: Make yourselves at home in this house. Be inspired by the artists and performers you see. And start dreaming just a little bigger, start reaching just a little higher for yourself.
And with this inaugural exhibition, the Whitney is really sending the same message to young people and to people of every background across this country. You’re telling them that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen. And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here. You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute.
And in the end, that’s why I’m here today, and I know that’s why we’re all here today. I’m here because I believe so strongly in that mission, and because I think that every cultural institution in this country should be doing this kind of outreach and engagement with our young people every single day. Maybe you can discover the next Carmen Herrera, or Archibald Motley, or Edward Hopper, or maybe even the next Barack Obama. That is the power of institutions like the Whitney. They open their doors as wide as possible both to the artists they embrace and to the young people they seek to uplift. That’s what happens. And today I am so proud to be here as we open these doors…I truly cannot wait to see the impact this extraordinary museum will have in the years ahead.”
Also speaking at the dedication ceremony were Adam D. Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney; architect Renzo Piano; and leaders of the Whitney’s Board of Trustees: Co-Chairmen Robert J. Hurst and Brooke Garber Neidich, President Neil G. Bluhm, and Honorary Chairman Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of artist and Museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
The new building returns the Museum to the downtown area where it was founded in 1930. With indoor and outdoor spaces that offer panoramic views east across the city, west across the Hudson River, and south toward the Statue of Liberty, the building doubles the Museum’s previous gallery space, enabling the Whitney for the first time to present exhibitions and programs in the context of the world’s foremost collection of modern and contemporary American art.
New York City Major Bill de Blasio said, “We already knew we were the mecca of the art world but just in case we needed to make it clearer, this museum does it. As New Yorkers, we are extraordinarily proud. We’re proud that people from around the world come to experience our cultural life.”
The Museum’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, stated, “Our architect, Renzo Piano, has done an extraordinary job merging the private with the civic: creating spaces that reaffirm one’s humanity through scale and material. He has connected the world of art within, with the experience of the world without— making room for contemplation of art, and of life. In short, in collaboration with the talented, generous, and missionary staff of the Whitney Museum — notable among them Donna De Salvo our Deputy Director for Programs and Chief Curator —they have created a museum that exemplifies and furthers Gertrude’s vision of a home for contemporary art and artists —remembering that even historical works on view were contemporary in their time and, presented effectively as the curatorial staff has done here today, can be as potent as the day they were made….The Whitney has always believed in the importance of the present—the capacity for artists to act in and effect the life of our times, to alter perceptions in such ways that might enable one to change the course of history…We are here for those artists as they are here for us. Our new home was designed for and is now re-consecrated in this belief. This is our gift to our city, our nation, and the world as it was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s in her time.”
The dedication ceremony began with the performance of Incantation, an improvisatory musical work composed and performed by renowned Chicago-born saxophonist Matana Roberts. The ribbon-cutting was carried out by The Wooster Group, the experimental New York theater company, joined by teens from the Whitney’s Youth Insights Program.
Architect Renzo Piano said, “Welcome to the Whitney and welcome in name of the thousand of people that designed it and built it. Architecture is a team job. This is why all my recognition and gratitude go to the client, the architects, the engineers, the builders and to all the thousand and thousand of people that realized it. Welcome to this brand new piazza in New York: open, accessible, public, not intimidating. A place for people to meet, to stay together and to share values. The building flies above this piazza. Buildings don’t fly, of course, I know. Especially because it weighs 28,000 tons. But fighting against gravity is a constant job for an architect. Actually, fighting against gravity is a continuous job for everybody for life. This building doesn’t take away the ground level, but it gives it back. Welcome to the great collection of art upstairs. It is a visible expression of freedom. Art is freedom, the American art is even more free, sometimes a bit wild, even impolite (irreverent, disobedient), but free. And the building had to deserve the honor to house this great collection of art. That is why it extends above the street, flirting with the city on the East Side, there, and watching the far west on the West Side, there. Brave, a bit wild as well, maybe even impolite (irreverent, disobedient). Certainly surprising. I love making buildings. I especially love making buildings for public use. Public buildings are the essence of cities because they are places where people share values. They stay together and enjoy the city. Especially among public buildings I love to make buildings for art and beauty. The reason is very simple—because art and beauty make people better people…I’m pretty sure that beauty will save the world. It will save one person at a time. It will do it.”
Robert J. Hurst, co-chairman of the Whitney’s Board of Trustees, said, “The Whitney chronicles our nation’s creative cultural heritage through our defining collection of modern and contemporary American art and our risktaking exhibitions. Fostering an understanding and appreciation for the art of our great nation is central to the Museum’s mission as evidenced in our innovative education programs. Rarely does one have the opportunity to build a museum from the ground up in the cultural capital of the world. Thanks to an extraordinary partnership with the City of New York and an early leadership gift from the State of New York, we launched a capital campaign for $760 million for the building and a strengthened endowment, and we are so pleased that that goal has been achieved due to unprecedented public and private generosity….The Whitney Museum of American Art belongs to the nation; and to the world, but we are New Yorkers at heart! When you experience the Museum you will see not only a breathtaking collection, but you will literally have a window onto New York with dramatic views of the skyline and Empire State building to the East, the Hudson River to the West, the Statue of Liberty to the South and the High Line below! This amazing location places this defining museum of American art firmly among the City’s cultural and historic icons.”
Flora Miller Biddle, Honorary Chairman and granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney said in remarks introducing the Mrs Obama: I am elated to be here today to celebrate the beginning of a new era for the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has occupied such an essential place in my life. My warmest congratulations to Adam and the entire staff of the Whitney, to the Board and donors, to Renzo, and to everyone who made this dream come true. In 1907, my grand-mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, first showed the work of her fellow artists in her Greenwich Village Studio. Few came, at that time, to see this work. For most collectors, European art was all that counted. As an artist – a sculptor – she was passionately determined to get commissions herself, and also to build audiences for American art, of whose excellence and importance she was convinced. She struggled to achieve both ideals.
Quoting Goethe, she said, “’A museum should be never finished, but boundless and ever in motion.’…Now, the physical construction of this extraordinary new building is complete and the Museum is ready to receive visitors, but it is the artists who will keep it ever in motion—that is what artists do and why their work is so precious and necessary: they carry us forward into the unknown, into mystery, into wisdom, into truth.”
Others in attendance included: artists Lawrence Weiner, Glenn Ligon, Alex Katz, Carol Bove, and Fred Wilson; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; NY State Senator Brad Hoylman; NY State Assembly Member Deborah Glick; NYC Council Majority Leader & Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs Jimmy Van Bramer; NYC Council Member Corey Johnson; and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl.
Inaugurating the Whitney’s new galleries is the exhibition America Is Hard to See, an ambitious re-examination of the history of American art from 1900 to today, drawn entirely from the Museum’s holdings. With more than 600 works by some 400 artists, the exhibition is the most extensive display to date of the Whitney’s collection. Numerous pieces that have rarely, if ever, been shown appear alongside familiar icons, in an effort to challenge assumptions about the American art canon and reveal the themes, ideas, beliefs, visions, and passions that have preoccupied and galvanized American artists over the past one hundred and fifteen years.
The Museum officially opened to the public today, Friday, May 1, 2015.