NEW YORK - This May, Sotheby's New York hosts its Contemporary Evening and Day sales, during which several works by the likes of Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Glenn Ligon will be auctioned to benefit the Whitney Museum of American Art’s relocation to New York's Meatpacking District in 2015.


A rendering of the Whitney’s new downtown space, designed by Renzo Piano. Courtesy of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

The featured artists, who personally donated the pieces, have strong ties to the institution – Johns and Kelly, for instance, both appeared for the first time at the museum in the Whitney Biennial, Kelly in 1957 and Johns in 1959, while Ligon was the focus of a major retrospective in 2011. The sale includes works by other notable figures, such as Tauba Auerbach, who was spotlighted in the 2010 Biennial and was commissioned to create a project on the construction site of the new building; Alex Katz, who made his Whitney debut in 1960; and Mark Bradford, the subject of a 2007 show and recipient of the Museum’s Bucksbaum Award in 2006.

The Museum’s move to the southern tip of the city’s celebrated elevated park, the High Line, actually marks the Whitney’s return to downtown New York, where it first opened its doors in Greenwich Village in 1931. When the Museum opened the Breuer building in 1966, its current home on Madison Avenue and 75th Street, it had 2,000 works in its collection. Today, it boasts about 20,000. Thankfully, the Museum’s future Renzo Piano-designed digs will nearly double its gallery space.

The new 200,000-square-foot metal-clad design can be studied from 360 degrees – a feature that particularly engages the imagination of Whitney director, Adam D. Weinberg. “The idea that you can see this as a sculptural entity is quite wonderful,” he says, before noting that none of the architectural elements distract from the building’s purpose. “But, it is not sculptural for its own sake – the form relates to the needs of the art.” Weinberg enthusiastically highlights other strategic elements of Piano’s vision, including the outdoor galleries laced throughout three levels of the nine-story plan that are visible to those strolling along the High Line, and the more than 18,000-square-foot fifth-floor temporary exhibition space, which will be the largest column-free museum gallery in the city.

When the Whitney first inspected the formerly city-owned site, the High Line had yet to open. “What we liked about it, apart from the High Line, was that, first of all, it’s in a great arts district, and second of all, it resides at an incredible educational nexus,” explains Weinberg, who quickly catalogues some nearby cultural institutions such as the Dia Art Foundation, The Kitchen performance venue, White Columns' gallery space, the Chelsea gallery scene, as well as a handful of schools, including New York University, the New School, the Pratt Institute, the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts. “We have a young audience overall and we see ourselves as an educational institution, so the fact that there would be lots of students nearby struck us as a great opportunity,” Weinberg says.


Whitney Director Adam Weinberg and architect Renzo Piano at the Museum’s groundbreaking in May 2011. Photograph by Matthew Carasella. 

Beyond the exhibition rooms, the Museum’s cantilevered entrance will shield an 8,500-square-foot outdoor plaza, and the interior includes ample performance and education spaces, as well as a retail shop and a Danny Meyer-run ground-floor restaurant and top-floor café.

All of this innovation comes with a hefty price tag. The Museum has thus far raised 74% of its project goal of $760 million, a sum that includes the cost of construction as well as an endowment. The Museum paid the city $18 million for the site, about half of its appraised value, and the city contributed an additional $55 million towards the effort. In another generous public-private gesture, the Whitney will have first dibs on a parcel of city-owned land to the north of the new property should it wish to expand in the years ahead.

Fortunately, the Whitney will not have the burden of maintaining two spaces – the landmark Breuer building will be used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a minimum period of eight years. (When Leonard A. Lauder, the Whitney’s chairman emeritus, gifted the museum $131 million in 2008, the largest donation in its history, it was with the condition that the Museum not part with the Breuer building for the foreseeable future.) During this era, the Met will use the space as an outpost for its international collection of modern and contemporary art. Weinberg emphasises that while the Met will be in charge of the programming, there may be aspects of collaboration between the Met and the Whitney.

While uptowners adjust to the change in venue, the downtown community has much to celebrate, because the Whitney plans to fully engage with its surroundings. “We believe very strongly in what people refer to as ‘glocal,’ the notion that we are both a local and global institution,” says Weinberg. “Our strength as a local institution is that deep connection to the neighbourhood we’re in, which is the crossroads between the Meatpacking district, Chelsea and the Village. But at the same time, we are a global institution that is sending things out to the world and vice versa.”

Bridget Moriarity, based in New York, writes on art and culture.


[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]