Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Visiting the (new) Whitney Museum

I've said it 500 times before, but I love me a good art museum. And when the Whitney Museum opened to the public in its new downtown location (after its midtown home closed in 2014), I knew that I simply had to be there - except that I was in the middle of a crazy rehearsal process and could barely get to the grocery, let alone spend an afternoon at a museum. But somehow the show happened and we stopped rehearsing and at the first sight of an afternoon off + the museum being open + gorgeous summer weather (a more complicated equation than you'd think) I headed downtown.

Let's get one thing straight - I am not a professional art critic, historian, or reviewer. I am simply someone who took a few art history classes in college and enjoys spending free time amongst works of modern art. That being said, I have some thoughts on the new Whitney Museum.

First of all, the Renzo Piano-designed building is gorgeous. But of course it is gorgeous - there's no way a newly constructed, starchitect-created building would be anything but visually stunning and skyline-changing. And some aspects of the building are truly great - there's what looks like a delightful little restaurant in the lobby, and almost all the floors have outdoor terraces with to-die-for views of the Meatpacking District/Hudson River/Statue of Liberty/Jersey. But it's as though everyone thought so long and hard about the building itself (and it's subsequent money-making aspects, i.e, a restaurant AND a cafe AND a heavily-branded bookstore) that they forgot about the art.

Not that there isn't art all over the place. There absolutely is, and it's all interesting and reflective and very important to the history of American art. But the problem, as I see it, is that the art gets lost in the building. Each floor has little nooks and enclaves that suggest different galleries, but I found there to be no obvious flow to any of the floors. I had to double back many times thinking that I had missed a section, only to get trapped by a giant group of people going around a corner. As is the case with most museums, various works of art were grouped according to a theme or subject matter indicated by a short blurb printed on a nearby wall, but it was nearly impossible to figure out where one collection ended and another began.

And then there were the staircases. As I said before, nearly all the floors had access to an outdoor terrace, and some of those terraces also had staircases leading to subsequent floors - but only some of them. So If you are trying to see the entirety of a floor and then spend time on the terrace and then head directly to the floor below you, sometimes you will be able to accomplish this, but sometimes you'll have to double back through the gallery to find the indoor staircase that then leads to another floor. These indoor staircases, though, are cramped and industrial, and made me wonder if I was supposed to be using them at all. I guess the idea is for everybody to take one of the two giant elevators, but the crowd of people in front of the elevator bank was most off-putting. That, and shouldn't we be taking the stairs for our health anyway?

And lest I forget to mention the noise level. High vaulted ceilings and hardwood floors are gorgeous to look at - but there's a reason that assembly and concert halls also employ those two architectural features. It. was. so. loud. in. there. From the sonorous teachings of a tour guide to the squawking of small children to hearing-deficient old ladies discussing their lunch plans to the constant click of an iPhone camera, I half wondered if the ambient sounds were an ill-advised immersive installation piece. Dear Museums: alongside the popular #empty days, how about you also provide some #silent hours? If I were so inclined to re-visit the Whitney, I'd give some serious consideration to paying a premium for a child and phone-free morning.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm disappointed in the museum. It was frustratingly crowded for a Monday afternoon (I hate to see what it's like on a free Friday evening), but I think that is largely due to the design. Tiny and confusing galleries created a sense of claustrophobia, and most patrons had looks of mild confusion and angst - the very opposite of what I'd want my museum-goers to feel. The opportunities to stand back and contemplate a piece were few and far between. In fact, the largest collections of chairs and benches were, ironically, not in front of art works at all, but placed in front of giant picture windows that looked out over the Hudson. Great views, sure, but I don't go to an art museum to look at a river.

I get that many museums have to make do with the building they're given - whether they're housed in an old mansion, converted castle, warehouse, etc., there are some instances in which you have to simply deal with an oddly placed support beam or random staircase - but the Whitney was created from scratch. It could have been anything, and they chose to focus on everything but the art.

That being said, I'm probably being way too harsh on a successful new art museum. I'm all for the creation and support of new venues for arts and culture in any city. I also realize that my thoughts are completely unfounded and based on one three-hour visit, so my data points are in no way comprehensive. But, at $22 a visit for adults, it's probably going to be a minute before I make another journey to that museum in the Meatpacking.

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