Interview by Katie Cercone with additional questions from Linda DiGusta, Laurence Hoffmann, Scotto Mycklebust & Randee Silv
KC: You are considered an innovator in terms of your contributions to the field of museum education, what do you have planned for the new Whitney?
AW: First of all we have very open column free gallery spaces. It’s an opportunity to do pieces on a scale that we’ve never quite done in the same way. We have one gallery that is 18,000 square feet and it doesn’t have a column. One idea is that an artist could take the whole space and we’re looking at certain opportunities where that could happen. That’s one thing we’re very excited about. Another is that we have two black box performance spaces. One is indoors and the larger one is indoors and outdoors. I’m very excited about how we might start to work with artists and engage the exterior of the building and the neighborhood, have you been in the building yet?
AW: We plan to engage people from the High Line and from the streets, with performances, installations and projections. We also have both an outdoor gallery and our outdoor plaza. Over the next year or two, we’ll start to engage the waterfront. That’s a more long term thing, I really love the idea of artists engaging with the waterfront. The waterfront is right there. These are the things that I‘m excited about, how do we engage the public in a different way? Not only on the interior, but on the exterior of the building. Another thing is we are going to be amping up our performance program. We have a wonderful curator who oversees performance Jay Sanders, who has lots of ideas of things he wants to do. All of our floors are set up so you can do dance and performance in any of the galleries, that’s another thing we’re looking forward to.
KC: How was the West Chelsea site chosen, were there other sites in the running and where were they located?
AW: There were other areas. There were other sites in the neighborhood we were looking at and a few other neighborhoods. The difficulty was we knew that we wanted to stay in Manhattan and it is very very hard to find large open sites of land. There are not that many of them and there are not that many that we can afford. This land was owned by the city and they sold it to us at a very good price because they wanted to have a cultural organization on the site. That’s really how we chose the site. It’s one of the only sites. I think it’s about forty thousand square feet on the ground, and that’s big. And it’s a very horizontal space. There are lots of spaces in New York where you can build high and not a lot where you can build wide. Especially as a cultural organization without the resources corporations have.
KC: How much of a role did the museum curators and you as its director play in laying out the exhibition space of the new building, and what went into consideration most?
AW: For the opening of the new building the curators and I knew that we were doing a show completely from our collection. The exhibition that is currently up America Is Hard to See is about 650 works from our collection. We knew we were going to do it largely chronologically. The show, which takes up the entire museum, runs bottom to top and top to bottom. It starts in our lobby gallery, which is free and open to the public so anyone can see it. You get a little sample of it right when you come in. Then it starts from the top of the museum and works its way down. The chief curator Donna De Salvo worked with a group of curators to develop the installation plan for the opening show and it was about three plus years of work. Five core people worked on it and many others as well.
KC: What is the relationship between the Whitney as the home of American art and its “foreign makers”: designer Italian architect Renzo Piano (and the construction materials coming from Canada and European countries)?
AW: First of all a lot of the construction materials came from the United States. There were some that came from Europe and some from Canada. It is probably the first green museum in Manhattan that I know of and we will be given gold league status. Bronze, gold or platinum status indicates the degree of “green” of your building. For a museum to be gold is very hard because we have to run all of our systems 24-hours a day seven days a week at full blast. Most office buildings can shut down at night, lower temperatures… that type of thing. Museums can’t do that because of the artwork. It’s hard for us to be as green. We have a green roof and gray water, recycling, and we used lots and lots of local materials in addition to things that came from abroad. Concerning the Italian architect. We did not pick the architect based on where they came from, we considered many American architects and we picked the architect that was going to give us the best building for what we are doing. It’s interesting that the last Whitney building was designed by an architect named Marcel Breuer. While he was a citizen he trained in Germany during the Bauhaus era. His sensibility was completely German. I think for us it’s really about what’s going to create the best building, it’s not where they’re from. We were happy to consider an American architect and had great American architects on our list.
KC: Are you aware of the serious concern on the part of several art and activist groups surrounding the Spectra Pipeline, potential health and safety concerns, in particular concerning the vault beneath the Whitney that connects Spectra with ConEd?
AW: Yes, I’m aware. It was something that was designed, created and approved long before the Whitney even moved here. It was many many years in the making before we even came here and it was not anything we had control of. It is not on our property. At the point that we bought the land this was a done deal. I understand people’s concerns and sensitivities about it, but I also know in New York City everywhere you go there are pipelines. We had a big gas explosion in the east village recently. Unfortunately, this is an urban environment, utilities are everywhere. My only hope is that because there is a lot of attention on it and it’s brand new that the utmost care is being paid to it, but there is nothing we can do about it, unfortunately.
KC: With Governor Cuomo having recently banned fracking from New York, don’t you think all institutions, public and private, should support the stopping of all fracked gas coming from other states?
AW: Art engages political and social issues but it is not for the museum itself to take a stand on it, whether I personally agree or disagree. We show the work of artists all the time who are very critical of all kinds of things. We’re more than happy for the artists themselves to engage political, social and environmental issues and there are many artists in the current exhibition who do that. There are a lot of politically charged works in the show. It’s not for the museum itself to take a stand on it. I actually don’t know enough about the fracking issue for me personally to feel that that would be the thing to do.
KC: The move to West Chelsea and the museum’s new dramatic design have helped further cement the Whitney as one of the most important American art institutions historically. How does the museum plan to engage with the surrounding West Chelsea community, particularly its fairly large, pioneering population of artists?
AW: We’ve already been working with a lot of the community groups here for years. As soon as we knew that we were going to move downtown we immediately got involved, and actually have been involved with a number of public schools and community groups here. We’re working with the LGBT groups here in the neighborhood. We have programs involving the NYCHA houses of the New York Housing Authority. We really feel very strongly about engaging the community and not just the well to do people in the community, but people who do not have the access. I don’t know if you saw Michelle Obama’s remarks (this is online) at the opening of the Whitney? If not you should take a look at it. She talks about how she grew up and a lot of people grow up near museums and don’t realize they can make it a part of their lives. We’re making the museum as accessible as we can and working with the community. We have dozens and dozens of partners throughout the community and it’s not just West Chelsea it’s in the village and in the meat packing district and you know it’s all around the larger neighborhood itself.
KC: Excellent. What advice do you have for artists that hope to one day have their work on view at the Whitney Museum, especially those who might feel intimidated by the consistently low numbers of work by women and minorities?
AW: Our curators are out in the world all the time looking at work, galleries, getting recommendations, going to exhibitions. Our curators and I are very committed to diversity in the presentation and the acquisitions of the museum. If you look at the opening exhibition America Is Hard to See it is quite a diverse group of artists of Asian American, African American and Latin American heritage. One can always do better. Actually in terms of women it’s a very strong presentation. As our chief curator Donna De Salva says, it’s not just the number of works you have to look at the scale of the works. You look at the Jackson Pollock, you see the Lee Krasner which is much larger. The works by women and non-white artists are not just quite a number but they are with great presence and great power. Whether you’re talking David Hammons or Glenn Ligon or Barbara Kruger or whoever – Basquiat – you can go on and on there are lots and lots of artists that represent that.