With the Whitney Museum of American Art poised to throw open the doors of their new location in the meatpacking district this weekend, now is a perfect time to look back on museum’s history and its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

On January 9th, 1875, Gertrude Vanderbilt was born into one of the richest families in American History. Her family’s fortune was made by her great grandfather “The Commodore”, Cornelius Vanderbilt who established an empire in railroads and shipping. With adjustment for inflation, the net worth of the Vanderbilts at the time of Gertrude’s birth was around 160 billion dollars; this would have constituted about 1/5th of the US economy. Because of the position of her family, Gertrude was afforded a great deal of privilege including access to the best schools, private tutors and inclusion in an exclusive social sphere that exposed her to people and culture from all over the world. The history and movements of the Vanderbilt family have been recorded somewhat obsessively over the years. You can even visit some of their summer homes in Rhode Island if the mood strikes, but for the sake of this article we will focus on Gertrude Vanderbilt as an artist and patron of the arts.

While traveling in Europe in her mid to late 20’s, Gertrude was exposed to the growing intellectual and artistic communities thriving in neighborhoods of Paris. By this time she was known as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, having married Harry Payne Whitney when she was 21 years old in 1896. The neighborhoods in question, Montmartre and Montparnasse, had become a haven for artists, writers and philosophers looking for cheap rent and an accepting atmosphere. The artists working in France in the early 19th century were pioneering the shift towards modernism, with new styles like  expressionism, fauvism, post-impressionism and cubism gaining traction. Thanks to this exposure and her top notch education, Gertrude was inspired to develop her own talents as a sculptor.

Gertrude studied in New York and Paris, establishing working studios for herself in both cities. Despite the fact that she was in a fine position to pursue art financially, neither her family nor her husband approved of her choice of career. In fact, Gertrude herself was worried that her work would not be taken seriously by the art world and that she would be dismissed as a socialite with a hobby. Regardless, she accepted commissions and entered competitions that showed her work in America and abroad. The pieces of hers that are best known now are the large public monuments completed from 1912-1930 including the Titanic Memorial in washington D.C.

Thanks again to her financial position, Gertrude was also able to commission and collect works herself – and she did. In particular, Gertrude supported american artists like Robert Henri, Jo Davidson, Edward Hopper and exhibitions like the monumental 1913 Armory show which is credited with bringing modernism to the United States. In 1918 Gertrude established the Whitney Studio Club which provided a forum for american artists to work and discuss issues together. Shortly after, the Whitney Studio Gallery was founded in the same building as Gertrude’s own studio in Greenwich Village. This small gallery would later become what we now know as the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Now 83 years after it’s founding, the Whitney has made its move into their fourth and biggest location in downtown New York’s meatpacking district. My first impulse seeing the building was ”Wow…that’s ugly”, but in comparison to the brutalist concrete box that has been housing the collection since 1966, this new place isn’t bad.  It has a sort of Jekyll and Hyde vibe with the central spine dividing two very differently designed halves. The pretty half is the public half anyway, the side that I think looks like an industrial shipping plant is mostly administrative space.

The building is by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and features nearly double the exhibition space of the old location along with a theater, education suite, library and two cafes. The special exhibition gallery alone is 18,000 sq. feet and as of now is the biggest column-free gallery in the city.  This extra space will allow for parts of the permanent collection to be on view at all times, something that has never been possible before. The building sits in an area big with tourism and art nestled in with the galleries in Chelsea and the High Line Park. This combined with the fact that their first floor will have a small gallery, museum store, and restaurant, none of which require paid admission will surely get the foot traffic going when they open on the first of May. Videos and photos are already being posted from the new location showing impressive views of the Hudson river which raised another concern in my mind, flooding. However after a lot of inquisitory clicking I found that the new Whitney has already dealt with this problem. The building did flood, during hurricane Sandy when it was only partially finished, and has since been retrofitted to protect the structure and the art in event of another weather disaster.  The museum is also pursuing a gold LEED rating, setting a standard for efficiency and sustainability.

The inaugural show at the new Whitney is titled America is Hard to See and is already getting rave reviews. The permanent collection has been arranged alongside contemporary pieces in a way that shows an expanded timeline of movements in american art. One thing that has stood out for me in reading about it is that the collection is heavily weighted towards men. This in general isn’t a surprise but considering that Gertrude Whitney herself was a huge advocate for women in the arts, it does raise some questions. The museum has promised “fresh perspective” for american art and I wonder how  true that can be if the demographics are the same old same old.

I unfortunately won’t be in New York in time to see this show but I’m hoping that more information will be available online once the place is opened to the public. I’m anxious to see how the institution will grow and change with it’s newest incarnation and what  will mean about changing or retaining the legacy of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

Originally Published by FabulouslyFeminist.com

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Further Reading:

Guerrilla Inauguration of the Whitney Museum covered by Hyperallergic

Video: Inside the new Whitney Museum

Full List of artists hanging in America is Hard to See

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