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Piano Lessons: Whitney’s Capital Campaign Still $176 Million Short CLARIFIED

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Construction at the new Downtown Whitney
April 2013 photo by Lee Rosenbaum

CLARIFICATION: The Whitney’s spokesperson, Stephen Soba, took strong exception to what he said were “factual inaccuracies” in this report. I am reprinting the full text of his three objections at the bottom of this post, with my responses.

At the Metropolitan Museum’s press lunch yesterday, director Tom Campbell broke some news concerning a sister institution: He announced that the transfer of the Whitney Museum’s Breuer building to the Met will take place in September 2015, after which the Met will make (unspecified) modifications to the building and begin exhibitions and other programming in Spring 2016.

As just two months ago, a Whitney spokesperson had told me that the transfer to the Met, in anticipation of the Whitney’s move to its new Renzo Piano-designed downtown facility, would occur in late 2014. [See Whitney’s response, below.] The updated date appears to be another nine-month delay in an already much delayed construction project. At the time of its unanimous approval by New York’s City Planning Commission in August 2008, the Downtown Whitney was due to open at the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013.

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Framework for metal-panel cladding on south side of Downtown Whitney
April 2013 photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Setbacks have included the painstaking process of demolishing existing buildings, found to be laden with asbestos, and the remediation of basement flooding problems (recently described to me by a construction supervisor on site) that occurred last fall in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

But the biggest hurdle—a major factor in delaying groundbreaking to May 2011—was the onerous burden of raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the escalating price of this nine-story, 200,000-square-foot megalith, originally intended as a satellite sister facility for the flagship Breuer building.

View of north side of the in-construction Downtown Whitney April 2013 photo by Lee Rosenbaum

View of north side of the in-construction Downtown Whitney
April 2013 photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I had suggested might happen, in my New York Public Radio commentary back in August 2008, the Whitney ultimately determined that it just couldn’t handle (at least for now) the financial and administrative burdens of operating a farflung, two-building art complex.

The Met stepped in with its eight-year (possibly renewable) lease of the Breuer building, to be used for displays of modern and contemporary art while it renovates its own contemporary art wing. As Carrie Rebora Barratt, the Met’s associate director for collections and administration, told me in a brief chat recently, installations may juxtapose related works from the Met’s encyclopedic holdings with the newer works from its collection.

According to the page devoted to the new building on Whitney’s recently redesigned website, the museum has raised $584 million towards its $760 million goal, which includes $225 million for endowment. This nest egg includes $95 million from the sale of real estate in 2010 and $131 million from chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder, mostly for endowment. Additional money was raised through last month’s sales at Sotheby’s of contemporary art consigned to benefit the Whitney. Selling for a total of $19.1 million (including buyer’s premium), the works were donated by artists, artists’ estates, private collectors and dealers.

The Whitney’s current fundraising goal exceeds by $180 million the original target of $680 million (later upped to $720-million, as reported by Carol Vogel on May 11, 2011 in the NY Times). One of the reasons for the most recent increase to $760 million, according to Whitney spokesperson Stephen Soba, was the need for “greater flood mitigation measures, based on what we learned from the experience of Superstorm Sandy.”

The $176 million yet to be raised is greater than the total cost of the St. Louis Art Museum’s new David Chipperfield-designed East Building (opening later this month), which, at more than 200,000 square feet (approximately the same size as the Whitney’s new building), cost a thrifty $160 million, including about $30 million for endowment.

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Left: St. Louis Art Museum’s David Chipperfield expansion
Right: the museum’s 1904 Cass Gilbert-designed facility
April 2013 photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Speaking of the Whitney’s Breuer building: At a recent panel discussion that I attended at the Museum of the City of New York—Ada Louise Huxtable and the Shape of New York—architect Stanton Eckstut stated that “one of her favorite buildings was the Whitney.” An invitation-only memorial service celebrating the life and work of the Wall Street Journal‘s late, great architecture critic takes place this afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum.

STEPHEN SOBA, THE WHITNEY’S SPOKESPERSON, WRITES:

Your post regarding the Whitney and the Met contains factual inaccuracies that we insist you correct immediately.

1) Your statement that the Whitney “told you that the transfer to the Met, in anticipation of the Whitney’s move to its new Renzo Piano-designed downtown facility, would occur in late 2014” is absolutely incorrect and misleading. At no point did we give a date the building would be transferred to the Met. You asked for the “projected date for closing the uptown building during the transition from its use by the Whitney to use by the Met.” The Whitney will indeed be concluding its uptown exhibition program and closing the building in late 2014, as I told you. But I said nothing about the Met’s plans for moving in.

There has been absolutely no delay in the transition process with the Met and furthermore it has no bearing on the construction timeline for the downtown building. Your statement that, “The updated date appears to be another nine-month delay in an already much delayed construction project” is completely wrong. Please correct.

MY REPLY: My written question, from two months ago, was (as Soba states) about the “transition [emphasis added] from use by the Whitney to use by the Met.” I meant that as the “transfer,” but my imprecise language is open to Soba’s interpretation. I did have a pending question (sent to Soba last night) for clarification regarding what seemed to be the revised timing of the transition, and I alerted him this afternoon that I was about to post, more than an hour before I actually did so (at 2:08 p.m.). I received no reply, other than Soba’s 11:11 a.m. note that he would “get back” to me “soon” on my questions.

2) Re your statement that “Setbacks have included the painstaking process of demolishing existing buildings, found to be laden with asbestos, and the remediation of basement flooding problems (recently described to me by a construction supervisor on site) that occurred last fall in the wake of Hurricane Sandy”: Neither the demolition work nor the impact of Hurricane Sandy have affected the construction timeline, which has remained on schedule since we confirmed a 2015 opening two years ago. Please correct.

MY REPLY: I had also asked in yesterday’s note whether the opening date had been pushed back, in light of what seemed to be a delay in the transition to the Met, and received no answer. I thought I was just double-checking what he had already told me. Again, this stems from my failure to appreciate the difference between the “transition” and the “transfer.” I also had thought it reasonable to assume that the problems with asbestos and flooding had some impact on the construction timeline.

3) The downtown building was never intended or announced as a “satellite facility for the flagship Breuer building.”

I have corrected this to “sister facility” from the previous “satellite facility.” (See above.)

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