Volume 80, Number 52 | May 26 - June 1, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Tequila Minsky

Architect Renzo Piano described his design for the new Downtown Whitney as a gigantic “meteorite” that will “fly” gracefully next to the High Line.

The Whitney returns to its roots with Downtown groundbreaking

By Lincoln Anderson


Photo by Tequila Minsky

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb redefined the term “groundbreaking” with her performance-art piece for the occasion at the Whitney Museum site on Tuesday. After all the “ground” had poured out of the tank, the mayor, the Whitney’s director and others grabbed shovels for the traditional digging-in photo.

Under a de rigueur white tent, from whose roof hung hundreds of turquoise-colored shovels suspended by clear filaments, the Whitney Museum of American Art broke ground Tuesday on its future home on Gansevoort St. in the Meatpacking District.

Opening the event, three men pounded African drums with thin sticks, building from a slow, minimalist  beat to an ear-splitting crescendo. Mayor Bloomberg took the stage and assured the audience that this would be a “groundbreaking groundbreaking.”

Indeed, the event’s finale saw the Streb Extreme Action Company put an avant spin on the concept. Wearing a black helmet, Elizabeth Streb strode forward and stood under what looked like a thin yellow water tank. A rope was then pulled and, not water, but dirt (i.e. ground) came pouring down on her. Meanwhile, amid the recorded sounds of bulldozers and shattering glass, the other dancers each, in turn, dove through clear panes of glass, breaking them.

The new, $720 million museum building — nine stories tall and occupying 200,000 square feet — is scheduled to open in 2015. It will have 50,000 square feet of indoor gallery space, half of it for showcasing the Whitney’s permanent collection, the other half for special exhibitions and artist projects. The structure will feature an 18,000-square-foot gallery for temporary exhibits that will be the city’s largest, column-free museum gallery space. There will also be 13,000 square feet of outdoor gallery space for art exhibitions, projects and performances.

The new Downtown Whitney will be located next to the southern end of the High Line park, at Gansevoort and Washington Sts., but will not be directly accessible from the elevated park. The museum entrance will be at street level. Security concerns were reportedly the reason why the High Line and Whitney won’t connect directly.

About 500 people filled the tent at Tuesday’s groundbreaking, just off the West Side Highway.

Flanked by screens flashing signature works by American artists, from Hopper to Basquiat, the mayor called the Whitney one of New York’s “most popular and revered institutions.” He said the museum’s moving to the Lower West Side is another example of how the city continues to open up neighborhoods for new uses by utilizing rezoning and targeted investment.

For the Whitney to relocate to the Meatpacking District “would have been unthinkable a generation ago,” he noted. “Here in the Meat Market, the investment was in an old railroad trestle — the High Line,” he said. “Now the Whitney, together with the High Line, will establish this neighborhood as one of the most exciting in this city — or any city.”

Bloomberg noted the city has made a $55 million capital commitment to the museum project, which will create 530 construction jobs.

The mayor also praised the unique mix of the block, which, along with the High Line, is also home to eight meatpacking businesses — virtually the last remnant of the former Meat Market, which once saw the area teeming with hundreds of meat businesses.

“Only in New York can you mix the way we do,” Bloomberg said, “and that’s the strength of New York — whether you mix uses, or ethnicities.” He noted that the city has given a 20-year lease extension to “The Co-op,” the remaining meat businesses on the block, which carries a deed restriction dating back to the Astors for market use.

The relocation of the Whitney below 14th St. also represents a return to its roots. In 1914, sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village to present exhibitions by living American artists. In 1931, the Whitney Museum of American Art — the first museum devoted exclusively to American art, a radical concept then — opened on W. Eighth St. The museum moved Uptown in 1954, and in 1966, into its current building at Madison Ave. and 75th St. designed by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will occupy the Whitney’s E. 75th St. building once the new Gansevoort St. museum is completed.

The new Whitney strategically also will be just south of the Chelsea art gallery scene — the world’s largest art gallery district.

Bob Hurst, president of the Whitney’s board of directors, said the new building will allow the museum to take it to the next level.

“We now have the opportunity, with this beautiful location, with an incredible building by Renzo Piano, to be the defining museum of modern and contemporary American art,” he said.

Hurst noted that the Whitney has already raised more than $500 million toward the project’s construction and endowment.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s granddaughter, Flora Miller Biddle, said she was lucky to have seen the museum in every building that it was in. She said the Whitney has been able to flourish, “while keeping its intimacy, its heart and soul.”

“The Whitney is an idea — neither a building or place,” stated Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, “and ideas need room to grow.” The concept of a Downtown Whitney on Gansevoort St. is “brilliant,” he said. He assured it will continue to be a museum that is always open to young and upcoming artists.

Speaking to the significance of the new museum, Borough President Scott Stringer said, “This a great moment for the borough I represent — but it’s also a great moment for the world that we live in.”

Cradling a small white model of the future museum building in his arm, architect Piano described it as a “25,000-ton meteorite coming down and landing by the High Line.” But, he said, by creating an overhang along the museum’s Gansevoort St. side and leaving the sidewalk open beneath it, the feeling will be as if the building is “flying.” This will model the openness of the space under the adjacent High Line, and create an exciting public space.

“What makes a museum a great cultural place is that they fertilize down,” Piano explained. “They create human places, they create life. That’s the reason this building doesn’t ‘touch down,’ ” he said of the overhang.

Afterward, David Reck, chairperson of Community Board 2’s Land Use and Business Development Committee, called the Whitney, “great, overdue. This is one of the good things about being on the community board,” he said of the exciting project. Museum officials, from the start, have reached out to the community, he said, and are “good people to work with.”

David Gruber, chairperson of C.B. 2’s Arts and Institutions Committee, said the new museum will be “a neighborhood changer.”

Reck recalled it was the Dia Art Foundation that initially had the idea for a museum at the end of the High Line. But when the Dia project fell through five years ago, the Whitney stepped in — “with a world-class architect,” he added.

At a press conference afterward, asked if the meatpackers would still be on the block in, say, 50 years, Bloomberg said he couldn’t say.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We have to have industry as well as art. We have to have food as well as housing.”

He added that cultural institutions, like the Whitney, “fuel the city’s tourism boom,” and that it’s expected that 50 million tourists will visit New York City in the next year.

He said that, ultimately, the Downtown Whitney’s inspiration was the acclaimed, Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Asked her thoughts on the new Whitney, Amanda Burden, commissioner of the City Planning Department, said, “It’s extraordinary. It’s going to be a signature cultural icon in terms of its design, and also an important building at its location.” Saying she was intrigued by the various spaces in the building’s design, including its outdoor plazas with views of the city, she said eagerly, “There are already a dozen places I want to be in that building.”

Burden said the correct term for the area under and near the overhang on Gansevoort St. is a “largo,” meaning a public square that is narrower than a “piazza,” or plaza.

Speaking later in his office around the corner, John Jobbagy, head of the meatpackers’ co-op, said, “We’re thrilled and happy that the Whitney’s going to be our new neighbor.” He had been seated in the second row during the groundbreaking ceremony.

Some firefighters from Engine 3, Ladder 12 on 19th St. in Chelsea stopped in to buy meat. He sells to the first-responders “for cost,” without any profit.

“We want to thank the mayor and the city for extending our lease and allowing us to keep making a living and supporting our families,” Jobbagy said. “It’s no joke in an economy like this.”

The meat businesses have scant interaction with the parkgoers flocking to the High Line, since the meatpackers start at 4 a.m. and finish around 11 a.m., right when the number of people coming to the park starts to rise. It will likely be the same with the museum’s visitors, he predicted.

Occasionally, tourists do stop to take photos of the “beef quarters” hanging on hooks outside his place, he said.

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