I could say that I told you so, but in this case, I take no delight in being right.
By now you’ve probably heard the (heart)breaking news: “Sotheby’s said that it has purchased the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1966 Brutalist building by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue and will move its headquarters there from York Avenue in 2025,” (in the words of Robin Pogrebin‘s report in today’s NY Times (online yesterday).
Shedding crocodile tears, Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s outgoing (in both senses of he word) director, said this about his museum’s castoff:
The iconic Breuer Building will always be a beloved[?!?] part of the Whitney’s rich history. We are pleased that it will continue to serve an artistic and cultural purpose through the display of artworks and artifacts. Most importantly, this architectural masterpiece—thanks to its status in a landmark district—will be preserved. As the Breuer enters its next chapter, the Whitney, in its extraordinary Renzo Piano building, with a strengthened endowment—thanks to the proceeds from the sale—will focus its undivided attention and all of its energies on forwarding our mission in downtown in the Meatpacking District, where we are enjoying great success.
“Beloved“? Back in 2008, at a City Planning Commission hearing (which I attended) that was part of the approval process for the Whitney’s expansion, Weinberg himself had publicly mocked his museum’s Brutalist architecture by observing that “as much as I love the Breuer building, the darkness of it and the moat scare people who think there are alligators and not art in there.”
On a more serious note: The Madison Avenue Whitney had been hobbled by too little space. It had no auditorium, no education space, and it could exhibit only a small fraction of its very distinguished permanent collection.
As I wrote in my 2011 post about New York’s Museum Musical Chairs: “The Whitney bit off more than it could chew, both financially and operationally, when it thought it could manage a farflung, two-building operation.” Its “solution” was leasing the Breuer to the Met, which in turn passed it off to the Frick. Surely Marcel Breuer had never envisioned his art temple’s being downgraded into a temporary back-up space for other museums that were undergoing expansion and/or renovation.
When he interviewed me about the Whitney’s prospects in 2008, Brian Zumhagen of New York Public Radio (WNYC) had posed the key questions:
Zumhagen: Do you think it’s going to be hard for the Whitney to successfully run a museum on two different sites?
Rosenbaum: That’s the big question in the air. I spoke to Jennifer Russell, who [was then] deputy director of the Museum of Modern Art. She had been at the Whitney for 19 years and she had that question in her mind: Will the staff by shuttling back and forth, will there be a division of the functions between the two museums, what will be the administrative challenges? That’s still very much a work in progress. This is the Whitney’s fourth try at expansion. It’s gone through three architects and four different plans.
When Brian directly asked me if the museum was going to be able to pull this one off, I dodged:
My crystal ball is cloudy. Let’s just say, ‘I hope so.’ I think it’s a highly exciting project.
Over its eight years of operation, the Downtown Whitney (in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District) has hosted many worthy exhibitions, shown off to good advantage in Renzo Piano‘s flexible spaces. But the burdens of running two sites ultimately resulted in a problematic denouement: The uptown space, which had been intended strictly for a nonprofit educational and cultural purposes (with all the attendant tax deductions for donors) is now poised to become (gulp) a for-profit art-auction site. Sotheby’s announced yesterday that it “plans to acquire the iconic Breuer building from the Whitney Museum of American Art, relocating its flagship galleries and auction room to the heart of New York’s Upper East Side alongside the Museum Mile.” The undisclosed price for the Sotheby’s Breuer is said to be “about $100 million,” according an anonymous source quoted in Pogrebin’s NY Times piece. (A bargain? That’s less than half the price of Whitney trustee Ken Griffith‘s NYC apartment!)
Weinberg, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, astonishingly characterized the building’s commercial conversion as “allowing the Breuer to ‘continue to serve an artistic and cultural purpose through the display of artworks and artifacts.’” In truth, this transfer to Sotheby’s doesn’t serve the building’s intended purpose; it subverts it.
Whitney board member and chairman emeritus, Leonard Lauder, had attempted to safeguard the Breuer’s museum status by imposing an onerous condition on his $131-million benefaction: According to the NY Times’ 2008 report of that windfall, then said to be the largest gift in the Whitney’s history, Lauder insisted that this gift be contingent on the museum’s not selling its Breuer building “for an extended period, although he declined to specify how long.”
When I asked a Whitney spokesperson whether that “extended period” had expired and whether Lauder was on board (literally and figuratively) for the Breuer’s sale, she replied: “Leonard Lauder is still the Whitney’s Chairman emeritus and a board member. The Whitney has received all necessary support from its board for this sale. You will have to ask him to elaborate further.”
I had already tried to contact him, through his curator, Emily Braun, but I have thus far received no reply.
In the words of the Sotheby’s announcement, the auction house “will retain ownership of its current global headquarters at 1334 York Avenue, its home on the Eastside of Manhattan since 1980.” It plans to continue to present exhibitions and auctions there, until it opens its new galleries in the Breuer building in 2025.
The timing of these manifold maneuvers is particularly irksome in light of the Whitney’s very recent dicey disposals at Sotheby’s of seven paintings that (as evidenced by their exhibition histories in Sotheby’s auction catalogue) had previously been deemed worthy of the walls of the Whitney and/or other museums (via Whitney loans). As described to Daniel Cassady of ARTnews by Jane Panetta, the Whitney’s curator/collection director, historic works (including Hoppers left to the museum by the artist’s widow) were sold off to build a nest egg to fund purchases of newer works.
With the take from these dicey deaccessions coming in considerably below their presale estimates of hammer price (as documented in the table provided to me by Sotheby’s), it almost seemed as if responsible buyers didn’t want to be parties to the museum’s ill-considered disposals.
That’s probably giving too much credit to buyers’ scruples. But the results do seem like a form of poetic justice.
The sad epilogue of this sorry episode is that it has sullied the otherwise shining record of Adam Weinberg as the Whitney’s 20-year director. On Oct. 31, he passes the baton to Scott Rothkopf, currently senior deputy director. Adam’s future plans, at this writing, have not been announced.
A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl via PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column of the desktop version or the “DONATE” link in the menu at the top of the desktop and mobile versions. Contributors of $15 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of new posts.