The Whitney Museum's new outpost downtown opens on Friday, May 1. In the fall, the institution dedicated to contemporary American art bid adieu to its iconic, Marcel Breuer-designed Upper East Side home. This week, it reopens in a $422 million building by Italian starchitect Renzo Piano that's been compared to a "prodigiously misassembled" item from Ikea, and given lukewarm praise as a space that marries "temple and hangout."
But visitors are not architecture criticsthey want to know what to expect. (Besides the $22 admission fee.) The answer? Spacious, flexible galleries with more room to display the permanent collection as well as temporary installations, plus multiple outdoor spaces that serve up art with the city as a stunning backdrop. You can't not Instagram. So here's a floor-by-floor guide, complete with tons of photos, of the new cultural destination anchoring the southern tip of the High Line.
But first, some highlights. A brief stroll around the outside of the building shows this view when approaching from the intersection of Gansevoort and Washington streets to the east.
But from the West Side Highway, the building has two distinct sides. The southern chunks (to the right) are all gallery space, for the most part, while the northern ones (to the left) are offices and other administrative space. In between is a large elevator bank. This angle has been likened to a sanitation plant or other industrial buildingbut in its defense, it's not so different from other structures in that vein that have faced the Hudson for decades.
Also, for the average visitor, isn't it what's on the inside that counts? Piano, who worked on the building alongside the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Cooper Robertson, appeared in the flesh last week to welcome swarms of media to a press preview from a podium in the lobby. "A building for culture, for beauty, should be open, un-intimidating, unpretentious," he said. "Almost, you don't see where is the limit between the street and the building. It's about welcoming people."
"You enter into a different world when you go up [into the museum]. You enter into the world of art and freedom," he said. "The art you see is about freedom. I hope you will feel that the building is designed to make that freedom visible."
What most distinguishes the new Whitney from the old is its proliferation of outdoor space. Three levels on the sixth through eighth floors connected via sets of stairs that are architectural works in and of themselves, plus there's a spacious fifth-floor terrace.
That fifth-floor space, overlooking the High Line, has a bespoke installation of 40 colorful chairs by Mary Heilemann called "Sunset."
Before the complete tour, one more look at Piano's utilitarian exterior, which has to let in enough light to be lovely but not enough to damage the art.
Let's start at the top: the eighth floor, where the four-story inaugural exhibition, "America Is Hard To See," starts. We begin with some classic Alexander Calder.
Immediately outside the cafe, there's the highest of several outdoor spaces.
Descending to the seventh floor, we peruse its outdoor offerings first.
Then duck inside the gallery.
Down to the sixth floor, the third floor of the inaugural exhibition.
There's a art conservation lab, with all the bells and whistles for keeping the collection in pristine shape.
Then onto the sixth-floor terrace.
Down on the fifth floor is the largest outdoor gallerythis is Mary Heileman's work, mentioned above, which includes not only the chairs but the pink geometric work on the facade as well as a screen playing a video installation she shot in the Meatpacking District in 1982.
You can't forget you're in the Meatpacking District, though. From the fifth-floor terrace, spy on the meat-processing plant to the south. Buckets of waste and all
The inside of the fifth floor includes a theater as well as two seating areas that allow for city-gazing in both eastern and western directions.
The fourth floor is entirely dedicated to staff. The smaller third floor has staff offices, education space, and a theater that can double as more exhibition space.
The lobby, gift shop, staircases, and elevators even deserve mention.
People don't really want to leave.