"What we want to do is this," the architect Renzo Piano said, hoisting a white foam model of his design for the Whitney Museum of American Art's planned Meatpacking District building. "It's a flying meteor coming down from the sky." The Pritzker Prize-winning architect, one of the most esteemed museum designers of our time thanks to such projects as Houston's Menil Collection and the Morgan Library's recent expansion, was addressing a crowd of dignitaries that had assembled at the foot of the High Line for the new Whitney building's groundbreaking ceremony. "I'm very pleased about this location," he said. "There are no limitations. This is where the Whitney started — it feels much better here." The new headquarters would be "a 25,000-ton meteorite landing by the High Line," he said, repeating a metaphor he is evidently fond of. "It's quite an absurd idea to fight against gravity, but it keeps you busy in life."
The struggle for the Whitney to get to this point has been an uphill battle indeed. Having years ago outgrown its Marcel Breuer building on the Upper East Side — its third home since being founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney on West 8th Street in 1914 — the museum long found its efforts to expand stymied by neighborhood preservationists, and any effort to leave its brutalist home were shot down by Leonard Lauder, the institution's preeminent patron and 35-year board member. Suddenly Lauder experienced a change of heart last year, and the Whitney is now in the process of handing over its 75th street site to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to entirely relocate downtown when the Piano building opens in 2014. The upshot is a $720 million building project that will create nine stories — 200,000 square feet — of exhibition and administrative space, with somewhere north of 50,000 square feet inside the museum devoted to its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions.
"The High Line together with the Whitney are going to establish this neighborhood as one of the most exciting and dynamic parts of our city, or, in fact, any city anywhere," mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the ceremony. "The nay-sayers said this couldn't be done." The project, he announced, will "pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the neighborhood," and "create more than 530 construction jobs." Toward the project's $720 million price tag, $508 million has been raised to date — much of it coming from Lauder. Whitney board member Bob Hurst said the patron could not be present because he was recovering from surgery, but he read a note from him calling the groundbreaking an "extraordinary event" that is "not only a great day for the museum and the downtown community, but for the future of New York City." In his speech, Whitney director Adam Weinberg graciously said, "We would not be here today if it wasn't for the enduring support of Leonard Lauder."
But enough of the money — what does the building mean for the art? "One of the things that has been difficult for the museum has been to really test out different narratives in terms of the history of art in the United States," Whitney chief curator Donna DiSalvo told ARTINFO. "This is a game-changer for the museum. I think our ideas for the design of the building have been driven by our curatorial desires, being able to have flexible space, spaces that can be larger, smaller, and part and parcel of it all. And there's no question that space is fundamental to this thinking — that's the case with artists, and it's certainly the case with curators." The most significant addition will be the 18,000-square-foot, column-free gallery, which will the largest of its kind in the city. It its sheer size, the space bears comparison to Tate Modern's vaunted Turbine Hall. Will the Whitney's cavernous gallery also play host to grand commissions? "I think that will be part of our programmatic approach, yes," said DiSalvo, who previously worked at Tate Modern. Will the commission come in the form of a prize, like the Guggenheim's Hugo Boss Award? "I can't say that yet," she said, "I can't say that."
In addition to a 170-seat, black-box theater space that will allow the museum to expand its engagement with performance, and a sky-lit project space on the top floor for temporary exhibitions, there will also be exterior landings to show art outdoors. "We've never really had outdoor exhibition spaces and now in our new building we're going to have 13,000 square feet of outdoor terraces to show anything from Calder to much younger artists," observed Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf. This new capacity will inform acquisitions the museum plans to make for the new building. "We're already talking about the kind of works that we want to acquire strategically to augment the collection that we have to tell the story that we want to tell," he said. "We're going to spend the next four years seeking out those pieces that are going to be linchpins in the story we want to tell about American art."
Work that can withstand the elements is an area of the collection that will be expanded. "We have quite a lot of outdoor sculpture up to a certain date, because we have deep holdings of Calder and minimal sculpture, but we don't have as many recent outdoor sculptures because the museum hasn't had a place to put them before — our sculpture garden is not used that often," said Rothkopf. "I think that is a great area of growth for the collection for sure, of younger artists making outdoor works."
After the groundbreaking itself — a piece of performance art by Elizabeth Streb that involved her troupe leaping through panes of glass (trustees in the front rows were given protective goggles) while she stood under a pouring stream of dirt — ARTINFO asked Renzo Piano if it was intentional that his design, which features stepped floors facing the Hudson River, looks a bit like the Breuer building flipped on its head. "No, how does it?" he asked. Francesco Bonami, his fellow Italian and the co-curator of the last Whitney Biennial (an exhibition that will have dramatically expanded possibilities downtown), took the foam model and turned it upside-down. "It is completely coincidental," Piano said. "The only thing I like about the Breuer building is its boldness." Coming to the Meatpacking District requires boldness, too, he said. "It was not possible anymore" uptown, he said. "This place is much more vibrant."