Whitney Museum re-opens with more space for risk-taking artists

Read the Full Transcript

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Like all buildings, it begins as a construction site.

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI, Renzo Piano Building Workshop:

    Everything needs to be ready so there will be a moment when…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And when we visited the new Whitney Museum recently, work was still going on all around.

    Architect Elisabetta Trezzani managed the project with world-renowned museum builder Renzo Piano.

    On a large outdoor terrace, she showed us how she and her colleagues thought of their mission here.

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI:

    To create places that are connected with the neighborhood and all the city.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So the city is the canvas in a way.

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI:

    Yes, exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what a neighborhood this is — or was. Trezzani told me of her first time here.

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI:

    When we came there was only meat packing on this street, there was working 24 hours. And there was blood on the street.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There was blood on the streets?

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This is New York's Meatpacking District. Long a busy and messy and once-dangerous area where few residence or tourists ventured.

    Now, it's a bustling neighborhood in a new way — of restaurants and high-end shops.

    The museum is adjacent to New York's "high-line" — the hugely successful above-street level park that attracts thousands of visitors every day for an almost whimsical walk through the city.

    The Whitney — which certainly has a ship-like look, with the Hudson River on its other side — becomes a kind of anchor of this new area.

    It lived in its old area — Manhattan's Upper East Side — for 48 years and made its name as a showcase for American art and contemporary artists eager to push boundaries.

    But times changed and a move to a larger, new building in a new area was necessary.

    ADAM WEINBERG, Director, Whitney Museum of American Art: It was a little bit like getting a suit when you're a young person and you loved that suit and it's a great suit but you bit by bit outgrew that suit.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You've grown

  • ADAM WEINBERG:

    We outgrew the building.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Adam Weinberg has been director of the Whitney for 12 years. Now he and his team of curators have a $422 million dollar building, with eight stories, 200-thousand square feet, beautiful and large new galleries to play with.

  • ADAM WEINBERG:

    All of the walls in the galleries are not fixed. You can tear down any wall and build anything you want in these spaces which is pretty extraordinary.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Weinberg also knows that something else has changed in american culture: the competition for our time and attention. These days, museums, like ballparks, video games, and so much more, promote themselves as 'experiences'.

  • ADAM WEINBERG:

    You know, art has always been about an experience. I mean people stand in front of art to have a connection to something. There's the experience where you do it with thousands of people and there's something great about that collective energy and there are times when you are in a museum, there are lots of people around you. But there's also that wonderful feeling when you happen to be in a gallery and there are not so many people around. And you actually to get spend time with a work of art.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Fred Wilson is an artist who's spent a lot of time with museums. He's made them his subject — what they do, who they're for. Long ago, he worked as a museum guard and that led to this sculpture, now in the Whitney.

  • FRED WILSON, Artist:

    I always felt like we were on display. Just like everything…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Like you were on display? The guards were on display like the work.

  • FRED WILSON:

    Uh-huh. But ironically, also I felt invisible.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Many years later, Wilson is not only shown in the Whitney, he's on its board of trustees, its one artist representative.

    And in a city crowded with great museums, he's a true believer in the Whitney's particular mission.

  • FRED WILSON:

    What the Whitney gives to artists and has is a partnership in risk-taking. You get the sense that the curators are really in your corner. Not that other curators aren't, but they really get that. That you have to do what you do, take a risk. It's not the common situation for a major institution.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In its inaugural exhibition, called "America is hard to see," many of those former risks are now on display…Including works that were long consigned to storage for lack of space.

    DONNA DE SALVO, Chief Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art: We really built this building to show the permanent collection.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Donna de Salvo is the museum's chief curator.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is it true that some of these you just sort of found in the basement?

  • DONNA DE SALVO:

    Well, we had them carefully in our storage area. But this work is pretty extraordinary. And using the TV as this creative medium in this way is one we really have not shown in many, many years. So it's a great revelation for us, the idea of the television in that 60s moment, you know, it's such a rich idea.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In addition to being able to show a lot of things you couldn't, was there a theme?

  • DONNA DE SALVO:

    Our title "America is hard to see" is because it's impossible to sum up what American art is. It's not a greatest hits show. It's not a highlight show. It's really a thematic interpretation of different pre-occupations across a hundred fifteen years that come up over and over for artists.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A quiet moment in the new galleries…but not for architect Trezzani.

    Do you like this moment when everything is sort of raw and the workers are all around us?

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI:

    I'm just waiting for them to arrive. Tomorrow!

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You just want it to open?

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI:

    Yes, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Enough of this!

  • ELISABETTA TREZZANI:

    I just want to see people inside and want to look at their faces.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She'll get her chance tomorrow when the museum opens its doors to the public.

    From the new Whitney Museum in lower Manhattan, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

Listen to this Segment