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Downtown Whitney: NY Times-Generated Crisis of Confidence—Part I

The western end of the site for the planned Downtown Whitney

Do the NY Times‘ art writers really want to kill the planned Downtown Whitney? If so, they’re doing a really great job.

I was astonished last week when the Times’ new arts reporter Kate Taylor (formerly of the NY Sun and very briefly with the Wall Street Journal), old hand Carol Vogel and veteran art critic Roberta Smith triple-teamed the project—first with a Taylor/Vogel joint report alleging dissension on its board about whether the expansion plan should go forward, followed up the next day with Smith’s heated diatribe against both Marcel Breuer‘s design for the current uptown building and the choice of architect and location for the proposed downtown facility.

The Whitney desperately needs to succeed with its Renzo Piano-designed project, and I ardently hope that it does. If it fails in its fourth attempt, good luck trying to launch a fifth. They would need at least a decade and a new director to regain credibility with donors and architects. Two other architects previously created unrealized Whitney designs—Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas. This is Piano’s second try, after his expansion plan for the uptown site was scrapped.

The Whitney’s “silent phase” of fundraising, which has dragged on way too long and too publicly, was finally ended not by the museum, as part of a well-orchestrated capital campaign, but in a leak to the NY Times, which buried the news on the p. 3 continuation of its front-page story of Apr. 12.

This unorthodox stealth announcement was one symptom of the Whitney’s management malaise. Another is director Adam Weinberg‘s strong assertion to the Times that the expansion of the uptown building, for which the museum had worked long and fought hard under his leadership, was a bad idea from the start. Piano’s plans for that expansion were dropped only after the Whitney had made vigorous efforts to defend its merits against opposition from hostile neighbors.

Nevertheless, Adam told the Times:

It became apparent that to try to expand uptown meant building vertically or ruin the integrity of the Breuer building. And vertical museums don’t work because in order to show the kind of art being made today, we need large open spaces.

Doing the museum’s work of announcing the end of the capital campaign’s silent phase, Taylor and Vogel informed us:

Whitney officials [names, please?] say they have promises and signed pledges totaling $371 million [towards the $680-million goal] and expect to have $105 million more from the sale of adjacent brownstones and its annex building uptown.

The Whitney refused to confirm this or any other facts published in the Times story when I several times attempted to fact-check. (There was one foolishly false statement that I knew would require correction—now in italics at the bottom of the online version of the article.) The $371-million figure is now confirmed on the museum’s website. But its spokesperson would not answer my questions about the current size of the endowment, nor about the amount of the operating budget in fiscal 2009. (The Times said the endowment is $190 million and the expenses for fiscal 2008, not 2009, totaled $36 million.)

Many museums, for transparency’s sake, post their annual reports on their websites. Not the Whitney. (At the bottom of its FAQs page, the Whitney says you can get its annual report by clicking a link to the GuideStar website. However, no annual report is posted there. If you register with GuideStar, you can peruse the museum’s IRS returns, which are public documents. (The most recent posting is for the 2007 tax year.) You have to subscribe to “GuideStar Premium” (I didn’t) to see a Whitney balance sheet.

Perhaps the most potentially damaging unsourced assertion in the Times story is that the Whitney’s most generous patron, Leonard Lauder, who in 2008 promised the museum $131 million (mostly for endowment), is against the Downtown Whitney:

A handful of longtime [board] members, including Mr. Lauder, the chairman emeritus…view the plan as a vanity project [!?!] the Whitney can ill afford….Although Mr. Lauder declined to be interviewed, people close to him [which people? how close?] have described his opposition.

Lauder’s munificent gift came with very restrictive strings attached—that no matter what its expansion plans, the Whitney could not sell its Breuer building for an (undisclosed) extended period. Kate and Carol may well know that they’re 100% correct about Lauder’s negative views on the Downtown Whitney. But the reader needs better evidence than anonymous assertions of “people close to him.”

At the very least, I hope the Timeswomen contacted Lauder’s spokesperson, informing him of what they intended to publish and saying that they they wanted to make sure they weren’t mischaracterizing his views. In my experience, such a good-faith attempt at fairness—“Please stop me if I’m about to say something wrong”—elicits a substantive response.

The day after her colleagues got the Downtown Whitney on the ropes, Roberta unleashed a flurry of aggressive jabs.

More on that—COMING SOON.

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