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Lauder to the Whitney: There’s No Place Like Home

Leonard Lauder at the Whitney
Photo by Christopher London, ©Manhattan 2007

By Martin Filler, Guest Blogger

It’s long been assumed that the donor of a new museum
building or addition will play a central role in selecting its architect (as
Paul Mellon did with I.M. Pei‘s East Building at the National Gallery of Art),
or will reserve that right for himself (as Eli Broad did with his new Renzo
addition at LACMA).

In an unusual twist on the architectural implications
of philanthropic leverage, Leonard Lauder, the Whitney’s longtime chairman and
mega-benefactor, stipulated that his $131-million gift to the museum, announced
on Mar. 19, was conditional on its not selling the landmark Marcel Breuer
building of 1963-66. (He wouldn’t publicly reveal how long his caveat will
remain in effect.) Given the disastrous results of some recent museum building
programs, it’s easy to understand Lauder’s wanting the Whitney to avoid the
kind of personality transplant lately suffered by MoMA, to name the most
conspicuous local example of how architecture can profoundly change a museum’s
essential character.

obdurate concrete monolith, a squared-off variant on the inverted-ziggurat
Guggenheim, fourteen blocks uptown, differs internally from Frank Lloyd
‘s spiral gallery configuration. The rap on both buildings is that
they’re display spaces from hell. Yet the Guggenheim can make certain kinds of
art look great–sculpture in particular, but also certain single-artist surveys,
such as the 1978 Rothko retrospective I can still see in my mind’s eye. And
Whitney curator Donna de Salvo‘s inspired 2006 installation of Ed Ruscha‘s
“Course of Empire” series tapped into Breuer’s powerful surround in a way that
enhanced the architectural subject matter of the artist’s paired paintings.

Explaining his decision, Lauder
told the NY Times‘ Carol
, “Like so many architecture lovers, I believe the Whitney and the Breuer
building are one.” That’s hard to dispute after one big-name architect after
another–Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano–tried and failed to expand
the Whitney over the past 25 years. Graves’s ponderous Postmodern
proposal and Koolhaas’s antic Deconstructivist scheme were unsuitable in
antithetical ways, whereas Piano’s successive reworkings (in a futile effort to
overcome implacable community opposition) became more and more boring,

One retired museum director told me
he thought Lauder was making a terrible mistake by trying to control the
Whitney’s architectural destiny for years, perhaps decades, to come. “You can’t
create the future by clinging to the past,” he warned. But that was easy for
him to say, as someone who commissioned a museum building that everyone in the
art world still loves. Only time will tell if Lauder has done the right thing,
but his enforced moratorium at a moment of notable architectural disarray could
turn out to be one of his most valuable gifts to the Whitney.

an ArtsJournal blog