Whitney Museum's Monumental New Digs Open May 1

Whitney Museum
The Whitney Museum of American Art opens in its highly anticipated new location in lower Manhattan on May 1, 2015. Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

Days before the much-anticipated reopening of the Whitney Museum of American Art, its galleries are full of special visitors reuniting with favorite works and staff making final preparations. The move from New York City's Upper East Side into an enormous, brand-new building downtown has been seven years in the making and has cost nearly half a billion dollars, and yet the atmosphere just prior to opening feels calm and collected. Lobby staff directs museum members to the elevators (or tells nonmembers to return on May 1), a mechanic on a scissor lift works on some window shades, restaurant waitstaff in red and silver aprons sit for a meeting, and visitors gather patiently around a curator discussing Asian-themed art.

The scene is not the frenzy one might expect before what some art industry insiders consider the most important change to the New York art scene in the past decade. The Whitney closed its Breuer Building doors last October. The new Whitney building, designed by Renzo Piano of Centre Pompidou fame and situated in the Meatpacking District, opens to the public May 1, with an Empire State Building light show designed around certain artworks and a dedication ceremony featuring Michelle Obama.

With 50,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space and about 13,000 outdoors, the new facility is vastly larger than the former one, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art will use to exhibit work starting in 2016. The Whitney's new nine-story building sits between the Hudson River and the High Line, near the galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood, considered the epicenter of the world's contemporary art industry.

Sarah Douglas, editor-in-chief of the magazine ARTnews, says the move downtown makes a statement and serves pragmatic purposes as well. "Their space was limited before. Their collection grew to a huge degree over the years, and now they're able to show these really, really historically and aesthetically important things."

"We've been in here as a staff, some of us from October," says Donna De Salvo, chief curator and deputy director for programs at the Whitney. "Now, to me, it's really becoming a museum as people begin to come in. I think Friday is going to be unbelievably exciting and moving."

Gallery Space
The new Whitney galleries are bright and feature reclaimed pinewood floors. © Nic Lehoux

Visitors are meant to begin on the eighth floor and work their way down. Each floor is larger than the one above it, sort of like a stepped ziggurat and the reverse of the layout of the museum's previous facility. The inaugural exhibition, "America Is Hard to See," occupies every major gallery space. (In the future, the permanent collection will occupy two floors.)

Each floor has a unique character. The higher levels have outdoor terraces with views of the Standard Hotel, the World Trade Center and rooftops and water towers. As in the previous building, the elevators open directly into the galleries, and on this day, some visitors made a beeline for the terraces before taking in the artwork.

The eighth floor appears to be the brightest, thanks to skylights. The seventh floor has dark blue and gray walls, contributing to a quieter feel. The fifth floor is the largest gallery space, with big wall-to-wall windows on the eastern and western sides and high ceilings, which extend above the lighting tracks. The space is divided into sections, with temporary partitions that don't extend to the ceiling, allowing light to filter in. The third floor, which has an education center and a small gallery, has portal windows like those on the nearby boats. All the galleries have reclaimed pinewood floors.

The new Whitney building, situated in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, features wall-to-wall windows and outdoor terraces. Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

The first floor has wall-to-wall windows on three sides; an uncluttered museum shop in one corner; Danny Meyer's buzzed-about restaurant, called Untitled, near Washington Street; and a gallery that is free to the public. (Another eating spot is on the eighth floor, Studio Cafe.)

"America Is Hard to See" is on view through September. Named after a line in a Robert Frost poem, the exhibition has more than 600 works from the museum's collection of 22,000, featuring American artists from 1900 through the present. To select works to include in the exhibition, De Salvo says it took her team more than a year to "literally go through, decade by decade, the holdings of the museum."

Of course, there were certain iconic works they felt compelled to display, she says, such as Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning, originally painted just blocks away. (Art critic Jerry Saltz has called Hopper "the Whitney's Picasso.") "We went in very open-minded, looking at what we had," De Salvo says. "But we were actually most interested in seeing some of the less well-known works, and what it was that we could gain and learn by looking at those…. We did not want to open with the 'greatest hits.'"

The exhibition is organized chronologically by floor and thematically on each floor. "The Whitney's collection is vast, but [the museum] never had the kind of space to really examine it," she says. The new facility enables it to do that.

On Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, Piano's building is the museum's fourth location since its founding in 1930. The connection to the architect's Pompidou, in Paris, is perhaps most evident in the exterior staircases, but whereas in Paris they feel like an extension of the plaza below, in New York the Whitney's resemble fire escapes and seem like safety features.

ARTnews' Douglas says the opening is the most important development in the contemporary art world since the Museum of Modern Art's expansion in 2004. "There's been a lot of discussion about museums and what certain museums are doing right, and what others are doing wrong, and these kinds of populist art exhibitions," Douglas says. "Because of where it's located, this is bound to become—let's face it—a tourist attraction…. And yet this is an incredibly scholarly institution that I feel like is really doing its job as a museum."

"The building has been ours, and now it's going to be everyone else's," De Salvo says. "I hope people really come and enjoy the Whitney and really celebrate and question and think and look. There's a lot of joy in looking. That's hopefully what people will find here."