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Whitney Museum of American Art architect Renzo Piano
Whitney Museum of American Art architect Renzo Piano holds a model of his design for the new Whitney on stage with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg at the museum's official groundbreaking ceremony, May 24, 2011

WHITNEY STRUTS ITS STUFF IN MEATPACKING DISTRICT

May 24, 2011

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The Whitney Museum of American Art is done playing second fiddle to all those museums with grand, 21st-century spaces like the Museum of Modern Art and (strangely) the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With its new Meatpacking building, we’re talking big bucks and big spaces -- $720 million and 200,000 square feet, to be precise. And as if to prove its muscle, the Whit has already got more than $500 million of its capital campaign in hand.

As everyone knows by now, after two decades the Whitney is finally on the way to building itself a huge new home. The nine-story museum, designed by Renzo Piano and due to be unveiled in 2015, is sited at the foot of the High Line in view of the Hudson River at Gansevoort and Washington Streets. Its features include a grand staircase leading to an 18,000 square foot, column-free gallery, the largest in the city, and 13,000 square feet of outdoor terrace space -- for exhibitions -- on four levels.

This morning’s official groundbreaking ceremony, held in front of an audience of 500 in a big tent erected on the site (in what was called, in passing, the Lower West Side Cultural District), was headlined by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg and a host of city officials and museum trustees.

Before noting that the city had pledged $55 million to the project, and that it would provide 530 jobs in the construction industry, Mayor Mike quipped, "It’s not your average groundbreaking -- It’s a groundbreaking groundbreaking."

Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the museum’s former president, brought the crowd to its feet with her brief remarks about the idea of the Whitney as an artist’s museum, now to be housed back downtown again, only a "stone’s throw away" from the Whit’s original Eighth Street location.

Architect Renzo Piano also made an appearance on the stage with the mayor, holding up a white model of the new Whitney, which he said would be like a 20,000-25,000-ton flying meteorite landing by the High Line.

The ceremony came to an end with a bizarre performance by Elizabeth Streb and dancers from her Extreme Action Company, which involved the performers diving through suspended plate-glass windows, smashing them, while Streb, dressed in black and wearing a black helmet, stood beneath a giant yellow funnel while it dumped a huge pile of dirt on her head. In the end, it was a precise if slightly silly avant-garde version of a groundbreaking ceremony, and the crowd loved it.

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Elizabeth Streb
Elizabeth Streb enacts the official groundbreaking of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, May 24, 2011

Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan
A rendering of the new Whitney Museum of American Art at Gansevoort and Washington Streets, facing west

Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan
A rendering of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan, from the High Line facing south

Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan
A cross-section of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan