Moving downtown from Madison Avenue, the Whitney Museum now sits as an anchor at the base of the High Line in the meatpacking district. The museum’s fourth incarnation is yet another signifier of the city’s changing cultural landscape.
These two photos are murals by J.R. and Njideka Akunyili Crosby and were taken from the Fifth floor window while viewing Open Plan – a five-part exhibition using the Museum’s fifth-floor as a single open gallery, unobstructed by interior walls. The space
measures 18,200 square feet and boasts feature windows with striking views east into the city and west to the Hudson River, making for an expansive and inspiring canvas. (and a great photo op!)
On this day, I was viewing or perhaps I should say listening to and experiencing, Andre Fraser’s site specific project, Down the River. Spanning performance, institutional critique, video and audience engagement Fraser uses audio recorded at a correctional facility to bridge the social, cultural, and geographic divide separating museums from correctional facilities. I found it to be a very powerful, disconcerting piece. Since the mid-1970s, the United States has seen a parallel boom in museum and prison construction, with some states, such as New York, recently reversing this trend with prison closures. Fraser’s sound installation seeks to reflect on the parts we play in sustaining these disparate institutions.
“The Whitney Museum is New York’s newest architectural landmark, enjoying a high-visibility location along the Hudson River and at the end of the High Line. Its glass-walled lobby welcomes the public with a promise of transparency and access. Inside, visitors find airy, light-filled spaces and terraces opening out to endless views. Public spaces share glass walls with offices, exposing functions often hidden from view. Yet, nowhere is the openness of the museum more dramatically constructed than this 18,200-square-foot space.
Thirty-two miles to the north, in the town of Ossining, Sing Sing Correctional Facility is also located on the Hudson River. It is surrounded by thick, high walls topped with razor wire and movement into, out of, and within the maximum-security prison is strictly controlled. Inside, inmates serve sentences of up to life without parole in six-by-nine-foot cells. Sing Sing’s A Block, almost six hundred feet long and with six hundred cells, is one of the largest prison housing units in the world.
Since the 1970s, the United States has experienced a boom in both museum and prison expansion, with the number of each institution tripling nationwide. During the same period, studies estimate that museum attendance has grown by a factor of ten while the prison population has exploded by 700 percent, making the United States the world’s largest jailor. Beyond this parallel growth, museums, and in particular art museums, would seem to share nothing with prisons. Art museums celebrate freedom and showcase invention. Prisons revoke freedom and punish transgression. Art museums collect and exhibit valued objects. Prisons confine vilified people. Art museums are designed by renowned architects as centerpieces of urban development. Prisons are built far from affluent urban areas, becoming all but invisible to those not directly touched by incarceration.
And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) their extreme differences, art museums and prisons can be seen as two sides of the same coin in an increasingly polarized society where our public lives, and the institutions that define them, are sharply divided by race, class, and geography. The gulf that separates art museums and prisons, and our exposures to them, is a product of this polarization and may also help to perpetuate it. Down the River brings ambient sound recorded in Sing Sing’s A Block to the Whitney’s fifth floor to link museums and prisons across this social and geographical divide.”
I thought this an interesting article on the early days of the Whitney. I am not sure where I found this or who the writer is….
“At the beginning of the twentieth century, sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney saw that American artists with new ideas had trouble exhibiting or selling their work. She began purchasing and showing their artwork, eventually becoming the leading patron of American art from 1907 until her death in 1942.
In 1914, Mrs. Whitney established the Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village, where she presented exhibitions by living American artists whose work had been disregarded by the traditional academies. She had assembled a collection of more than five hundred pieces by 1929. After her offer of this gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was declined, she set up her own institution, one with a distinctive mandate: to focus exclusively on the art and artists of this country. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930, and opened in 1931 on West Eighth Street near Fifth Avenue.
Following a move in 1954 to an expanded site on West 54th Street, the Whitney opened the Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street in 1963. The iconic building housed the Museum from 1966 through October 20, 2014. The Whitney’s new building is at 99 Gansevoort Street opened on May 1, 2015.”