It’s a bold move for a museum to up sticks and cross town, even in a city that ebbs and flows as much as New York. And so it was with much anticipation that I visited the Whitney last week, NYC’s most glittering new cultural institution that has been accompanied by a fair share of hype.
The American contemporary art museum opened its doors at the beginning of May at its new westside berth just metres from the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. It’s quite a move, heading diagonally downtown and leaving behind the grandiose, old-world confines of the Upper East Side. But the new site made sense for the museum: it has been able to double its exhibition space while relying on strong support from former mayor Michael Bloomberg, including a $55m (€50.4m) cash injection from City Hall to help with construction.
The building – some 28,000 tonnes of steel – is a strong statement, an industrial slab created by Italian architect Renzo Piano and counterbalanced by the greenery of the High Line located next to it. One of the great aspects is the open-air space. Several of the floors have what the Whitney calls “outdoor galleries”, essentially art installations placed on viewing decks. You do have to deal with visitors’ obsessions with taking pictures of the view – and themselves – but it is some vista.
I was there on a late-night Thursday opening and while the museum was busy it was by no means overrun. As the sun went down the view was reflected in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the museum, creating an intriguing mix of indoor and outdoor: from outside I could spy people walking around the gallery, with the reflection of the surrounding buildings and a giant water tower almost superimposed on top of them.
Of course, there’s the danger that punters might get distracted by all these external influences. But that would be hard, given the wealth of art on display and the expansive, column-free exhibition spaces featuring everything from Edward Hopper’s American take on surrealism to ultra-contemporary installations covering the Obamas and the Twin Towers attack.
It will be interesting to see if the new Whitney is able to rival the Moma or the Met in terms of visitor numbers. But perhaps more interesting is what it promises to do for the neighbourhood. Once one of the places to be seen in New York, the Meatpacking District has fallen out of favour in recent years, losing out to the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Now the neighbourhood has a major cultural icon, perhaps it’s time for the area’s second renaissance. Well, stranger things have happened in New York.
Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.