In New York, an opening can draw crowds like few other events, and 2015 was a big year, from the box office debut of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to the Broadway premiere of the musical “Hamilton,” which fast became the city’s hottest—and priciest—theater ticket.
But few debuts in 2015 were as anticipated as the opening of the new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which moved from its longtime residence at 75th Street and Madison Avenue to 99 Gansevoort Street, in the heart of what’s become one of the city’s most luxe neighborhoods.
The $422 million building designed by architect Renzo Piano opened on May 1 in the Meatpacking District. The Whitney capped off nearly four years of construction with an opening ceremony a day earlier that featured First Lady Michelle Obama as its keynote speaker, and continued the celebrations with a free neighborhood block party on May 2. The inaugural exhibition, a building-wide show of 600 pieces from the Whitney’s collection titled “America is Hard to See,” was in a way a celebration of American art and the museum’s holdings.
“I think we’re all proud to have them there and I think it’s good for the neighborhood,” said Tobi Bergman, the chair of Community Board 2. Bergman added that the institution infused culture in an area noted for its nightlife.
The museum’s presence has also changed the midday neighborhood demographic, according to Cecilia Alemani, the Donald R. Mullen, Jr. Director & Chief Curator of High Line Art.
“It has definitely brought a new influx of people especially during the day: it’s been quite surprising to see how many more people come during the day in a district that has been historically much more vibrant during the night,” said Alemani in an email.
The Whitney’s arrival in the neighborhood, where it counts buzzed-about restaurants and high-end fashion boutiques as its neighbors, also solidifies the upscale nature of the Meatpacking District and neighboring Chelsea.
Rafael Risemberg, who leads gallery tours through his company New York Gallery Tours, contrasts the Whitney’s arrival in the Meatpacking District to the New Museum’s role on the Lower East Side. When the New Museum opened on the Bowery, galleries followed, he said.
“The New Museum was a harbinger for change,” he said. “The Whitney is following the change.”
As New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman pointed out in his review of the building, the Whitney’s arrival also signifies a cultural migration of sorts. “The move confirms a definitive shift in the city’s social geography, which has been decades coming,” he wrote. “It ratifies Chelsea and the once-funky far West Village as something closer to what the Upper East Side used to be, say, circa 1966, the year Marcel Breuer’s Whitney building opened at 75th Street. Those neighborhoods serve up the same cocktail of money, real estate, fashion and art—except that the financiers, Hollywood stars and other haute bourgeois bohemians stand in for the old Social Register crowd.”
The museum’s 2016 schedule continues to highlight the new building’s assets, such as its expansive column-free gallery on the fifth floor with the series “Open Plan,” which allows artists to completely take over the 18,200-square-foot open gallery. Five artists will present in the series, including sculptor Michael Heizer, whose 1970 large scale work “Actual Size: Munich Rotary” was too large to show at the Whitney’s former home. Filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose documentary “Citizenfour” won an Academy Award in 2015, will receive her first solo museum show as part of the series in February.
And another milestone opening will come in 2017: the first Whitney Biennial in the new building.
For Risemberg, who lives in the West Village and spends much of his time visiting the city’s galleries, the proximity of the Whitney to his home is a welcome addition.
“I love that the other day I walked to a major museum,” he said.