Jerry Saltz on the New Whitney Museum

Curatorial staff and art handlers placing artwork on the sixth floor for the inaugural exhibition,“America Is Hard to See.” Photograph by Nic Lehoux, Courtesy of the Whitney

Curatorial staff and art handlers placing artwork on the sixth floor for the inaugural exhibition,“America Is Hard to See.”
Photograph by Nic Lehoux, Courtesy of the Whitney

How the Whitney might just solve the impossible problem of contemporary art.


“Put simply, it is this: The museum used to be a storehouse for the art of the past, the display of supposed masterpieces, the insightful exploration of the present in the context of the long or compressed histories that preceded it. Now — especially as embodied by the Tate Modern, Guggenheim Bilbao, and our beloved MoMA — the museum is a revved-up showcase of the new, the now, the next, an always-activated market of events and experiences, many of which lack any reason to exist other than to occupy the museum industry — an industry that critic Matthew Collings has called “bloated and foolish, corporatist, ghastly and death-ridden.”


“What makes this all so startling is that these museums have never been all-out competitors before. Until now, they had distinct missions, collections, and curatorial identities: The Met specialized in 5,000 years of art; the Whitney was about American art; MoMA was modernism’s Francophile Garden of Eden; and the Guggenheim — well, the Guggenheim has always been a bit confused, mostly distinguished by its incredible building. But now, all of a sudden and for the first time, it is not unusual for curators to speak of being unable to do shows because “that artist is already taken.”

“Each of these museums still preserves, collects, and exhibits the art of the past. But with the action and big money centered on contemporary art, galleries, auctions, art fairs, and biennials, each is more committed than ever before to the art of the now and the cult of the new. I love the new. I am a member of that cult, in part because the art world has become my surrogate family of gypsies and dreamers (yes, I’m a mush). But that cult, and the ascendance of spectacle, may be the end of museums as we know them and has been the subject of countless conversations I’ve had over the past year with curators, artists, gallerists, and collectors, all of whom acknowledge a major shift under way. “The problem is museums trying to be as up-to-date with contemporary art as galleries are,” says painter and critic Peter Plagens. “The cultural distance between what a museum preserves (Cézanne, Joan Mitchell, etc.) and how it spotlights the present (Björk, interactive art, etc.) is greater than ever.” As former Venice- and Whitney-biennial curator Francesco Bonami puts it, “They’re like those in the fashion world who only follow the last collection and are content to have their shows look like those of other museums.” Plagens says that a few years ago, ex–L.A. MoCA director and impresario Jeffrey Deitch told him that “museums needed young audiences and that what young audiences wanted to see is events, whether the events are fashion shows, rock concerts, or exhibition openings.” And now? “I mean, fucking James Franco is everywhere,” Plagens says. “Miley Cyrus is on art-world tongues, curators are courtiers, museums are the runway.” Of course, he acknowledges, “museums will survive. But in what form?”


“The new Whitney, opening May 1 and designed by Renzo Piano, is the first totally new museum to be unveiled — an angular, asymmetrical, ship-shaped building at the base of the High Line, deep in tourist country and adjacent to the heart of the art-market beast, the bluest-chip gallery district in the world, Chelsea.”

“The audacity of the building shows that, yes, the Whitney will survive the new era. But the better question is whether it has found a way to thrive in it. And, believe it or not, I am in love with what this building represents — and with its perfectly titled inaugural show, “America Is Hard to See.” The show includes 600 works by around 400 artists, drawn entirely from the museum’s collection of over 21,000 works by 3,000 artists, and it makes me think this museum might just point to one way through the current morass.”


Yet no one thinks that museums should stop showing current work. The new is a foyer to the past, reinventing, changing it — a mist one looks through, is refreshed and vexed by. To deny the new is as “death-ridden” as to obsess over it. So how much can these other museums learn from the Whitney’s example? It’s not a perfect template, and, to be sure, the Whitney is bound to mess some of this up, too. But there are a few lessons: Make enough space to show your permanent collections, and make them work with and for new acquisitions (and vice versa); concentrate on quality and original thinking, not quantity and entertainment; most of all, never forget that the reputations of museums are built on the backs of artists. If art is not the center of an institution, it turns out the institution cannot hold. As for the particularities of the Whitney mission, well, the Met justunveiled details of its first show in the Breuer building — “Unfinished,” which will place old and new together, from Renaissance masters to the present, Titian to Luc Tuymans. This announcement came nearly a full year in advance, and just happened to be made right before the new Whitney opened. They must have been feeling competitive, though they had the right idea.

“Museums will find the right balance between the historical and the contemporary,” Anne Pasternak, the forward-looking director of Creative Time, reassures me. And those that don’t — they may just spawn new institutions, too. It’s happened before, with spectacular results. MoMA was born in 1929 of the Met ignoring modern art. The following year, the Whitney was organized in response to the Met and MoMA shunning American art. When these two institutions began shying from “provocative decisions” in the 1970s, visionaries like Alanna Heiss created what has become PS1, and Marcia Tucker left the Whitney and founded the New Museum. That’s how explosive museums being unresponsive can be. But maybe, just maybe, the new Whitney is being explosive enough, and showing us the way.

*This article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

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