The New Whitney: Celebrating the Importance of the Present

The following are remarks as delivered by Adam D. Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum, at the opening ceremony for the new Whitney Museum of American Art on Gansevoort Street, Manhattan.

Welcome to the Whitney Museum of American Art. We are greatly, greatly honored to have The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, here with us this morning. Thank you so much. And thank you, Mayor de Blasio, of the City of New York, with us today to dedicate our new building.

The Whitney Museum originated over a century ago just blocks from here in Greenwich Village. It began in MacDougal Alley, the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney -- an artist and an heiress of America's wealthiest family; there she hosted salons for artists, exhibited and purchased their work and encouraged their aspirations. Her support of artists was not so much born of her success but of her doubts, insecurities, and struggles and the profound awareness that artists -- daresay more gifted artists -- had far greater challenges than she. She believed that great art and great artists have the responsibility to lead the public to greater insight and more effective thought.

Gertrude's growth as a person, a woman, and an artist were parallel journeys that ultimately led to the creation of this singular museum, the embodiment of who she was and who she hoped to be.

As her biographer wrote, "in addition to expressing herself in... sculpture she expressed herself in patronage." Mrs. Whitney sponsored artists, exhibitions, publications, arts programs for poor immigrants at settlement houses, and so much more. She found herself in giving back to others. And, her ultimate, lasting gift was the museum she established in 1930.

Since then her legacy has been passionately carried on by subsequent generations of visionary Whitney women, including her granddaughter Flora Miller Biddle and her great granddaughter Fiona Donovan.

In recent days, a word that has come up often with visitors and critics to describe the design of this magnificent Renzo Piano building is "generous": meaning not only that it is generous in space for art of all descriptions, but it also unfolds to the city, is welcoming to the public, respectful to the neighborhood, airy, open, light but comfortable and warm.

Our architect, Renzo Piano, has done an extraordinary job merging the private with the civic: creating spaces that reaffirm one's humanity through scale and material. He has connected the world of art within, with the experience of the world without--making room for contemplation of art, and of life. In short, in collaboration with the talented, generous, and missionary staff of the Whitney Museum -- notable among them Donna De Salvo our Deputy Director for Programs and Chief Curator--they have created a museum that exemplifies and furthers Gertrude's vision of a home for contemporary art and artists--remembering that even historical works on view were contemporary in their time and, presented effectively as the curatorial staff has done here today, can be as potent as the day they were made.

As my predecessor, Lloyd Goodrich, wrote at the time of the dedication of the Whitney Museum on 75th Street in 1966, presided over by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's daughter Flora Miller and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, "The museum should never forget that the source of art is the artist; it should respect his individuality and not impose a own viewpoint on him or her. It should always welcome the young and the innovator. Recognizing the diversity of contemporary art, it should represent all creative tendencies. It should eschew a narrow definition of 'American', disregarding foreign birth or citizenship and accepting as American any artist resident in this country."

The Whitney has always believed in the importance of the present. The capacity for artists to act in and effect the life of our times, to alter perceptions in such ways that might enable one to change the course of history. The following words of President Barack Obama are words that Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the artists we champion would embrace: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

The Whitney Museum believes deeply in these words, before they were ever spoken. This too is our creed, to serve as a platform for artists who affirm that the world that we see and experience today is not all there is and not all that can be. New worlds can be imagined and created, as President Barack Obama said, now and in this time. We are here for those artists as they are here for us. Our new home was designed for, and is now re-consecrated in this belief. This is our gift to our city, our nation, and the world as it was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's in her time.

The gift was made possible by so many, particularly the Board of Trustees of the Whitney Museum, led by Bob Hurst, Brooke Neidich, and Neil Bluhm. They, and many generous individuals, believed when others said it could not be done, persevered when the obstacles appeared, and supported when others were hesitant to give, and trust me they were. All of us here today, and those who will visit for decades to come, can be grateful to these extraordinary people.
Now it is my great pleasure to introduce Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mayor de Blasio is committed to leaving a lasting arts legacy in this City. Last summer and not long after entering office, the Mayor stood proud with Comptroller Stringer and Schools Chancellor Farina to announce a $23 million increase in arts education support for NYC public schools. Bravo. Mayor de Blasio said: "We want every child to feel the spark that comes from learning something they are passionate about. And so often, it's taking up an instrument, honing an artistic craft, or performing for the first time that helps a young person come into their own."

And I see so many young people out there today. We are fortunate to have a Mayor who shares our belief that art is a right, not a privilege. Thank you.