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Whither the Whitney: Michelle Obama and the Question of Outreach

During the last of my three visits to the Whitney Museum’s new digs in the NYC’s Meatpacking District, I was struck by how the location had changed but the ethnically non-diverse demographics of the visitors had stayed the same.

This was at variance with First Lady Michelle Obama‘s remarks (full text here) at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the day before the public opening.

Michelle Obama addresses attendees at Whitney's ribbon-cutting, while director Adam Weinberg looks on Photo from the Whitney's Instagram page

Michelle Obama addresses attendees at Whitney’s ribbon-cutting, while director Adam Weinberg looks on
Photo from the Whitney’s Instagram page

Here are excerpts from what she said:

There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, “Well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.”  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum….

And with this inaugural exhibition…you’re telling them that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen.  And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here.  You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute [emphasis added].

The Whitney does, as the First Lady suggested, have several programs that serve young people. What’s more, its enlightened admissions policy for them is one that all art museums should emulate: Anyone under 18 gets in free. Its teen programs are not only free, but participants are given a Metrocard for subway fare to and from the program, as well as all needed materials and art supplies.

But the Whitney Kids program for younger children is another story. Its come-on is: “Free with Museum admission—skip the line and buy your admission ticket online in advance!”

Hold the exclamation point! The $22 price for adults will be enough to deter financially strapped parents from walking in the door. Adults who take their children to Whitney Kids should get in for free. It’s all about serving the needy’s needs and growing the audience base.

For now, the only black faces that I saw during my visit belonged to the guards…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and the food-service staff:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The above photo also illustrates what I described, in my Wall Street Journal review of the new Whitney, as “the inexplicable, accident-inviting intersection of the paths of waiters from the kitchen to the eighth-floor café and of visitors to the outdoor terrace.”

Terrace-seekers must walk straight into the path of the very wary waiters, from the exit sign (in the background of my photo) to the end of the corridor, where the revolving doors to the terrace are located. I saw one near-collision during my brief time there.

How did the architects let this happen?

An artwork in the inaugural show that directly addresses the racial divide between museums’ support staff and their visitors—Fred Wilson‘s “Guarded View,” 1991—has an added element that reviewers who toured the facility before it was completely installed likely didn’t see. (I didn’t see it during my first two visits):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I asked the motionless live mannequin at the end of this line-up of headless black museum guards if he had been instructed to become part of the piece. He answered affirmatively and resumed his stoic pose.

There is much else at the museum that might resonate with black audiences. Directly in front of Wilson’s guards is David Hammon’s untitled floor sculpture that bristles with wires threaded with hair culled from African American barbershops, behind which is Kara Walker’s series of five ominous etchings and aquatints, “A Means to an End…A Shadow Drama in Five Acts”:


Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

(Mike Kelley‘s “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” is the work to the right in the above photo.)

In my WSJ piece, I wrote about the Whitney’s trove of rediscovered images of the lynching and torture of African-Americans. They were created in the 1930s by artists of diverse backgrounds, as part of a campaign to end lynching and to promote the passage of an anti-lynching bill in Congress (which, shockingly, failed to pass):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s the agonizing image that I singled out for mention:

Harry Sternberg, "Southern Holiday, 1935 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Harry Sternberg, “Southern Holiday, 1935
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Jack Whitten, a black abstract painter whom I greatly admired in the Whitney’s 2013 “Blues for Smoke” exhibition, is represented, in another gallery, by this 2015 acquisition:

Jack Whitten, "Sorcerer's Apprentice," 1974 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Jack Whitten, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” 1974
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

After America is Hard to See comes down, a retrospective of Harlem Renaissance artist, Archibald Motley, organized by the Nasher Museum, Duke University, will go up (as will a Frank Stella retrospective, organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth).

Coming this fall is a Whitney-organized retrospective of Cuban-American Carmen Herrera, a painter of geometric hard-edged abstractions, whose “Blanco y Verde,” 1959, was purchased by the museum last year.

“I think Latino/Chicano artists is an area that we’ll grow more in the future,” Donna De Salvo, chief curator and deputy director, told me as she described the museum’s “diversity initiative” during our walk through the installation.

By no means do I mean to suggest that black audiences can only appreciate black art, or Latinos only Latino art. But for some, the art of their own people may provide entrée to far-ranging, profoundly rewarding cultural explorations.

Perhaps that’s what the First Lady had in mind when she asked this question:

How can we truly, fully witness the melting pot of cultures and sensibilities and struggles that make America unlike any other country on earth?

an ArtsJournal blog