After three centuries, the Whitney Museum of American Art celebrates a quarter century in Brooklyn

Although some of the unifying themes of the city’s famous cultural institutions have clearly changed, things remain remarkably the same. Take New York’s City Opera. Incorporated in 1922, its roots ran deep. Composer Eugene…

After three centuries, the Whitney Museum of American Art celebrates a quarter century in Brooklyn

Although some of the unifying themes of the city’s famous cultural institutions have clearly changed, things remain remarkably the same. Take New York’s City Opera. Incorporated in 1922, its roots ran deep. Composer Eugene O’Neill founded its costume department, and it helped nurture a globally renowned opera company with the talents of O’Neill and Edward G Robinson. Then, of course, came the dark days of musical despair, when City Opera’s home, Lincoln Center, was destroyed during a World Trade Center attack in 1993. The revival and consolidation of the Greater New York Council on the Arts in the mid-1990s, with funding from the city, cleared the way for continued renewal and growth. New York’s City Opera performed its final ten concerts in 2008.

In 1988, the Whitney Museum of American Art became the flagship arts institution of the then-new museum district on Fifth Avenue, designed by Philip Johnson. The building, known simply as the Whitney, has been celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2019. When it opened, its most important feature was not the two hulking white and red terra cotta façade that hug the gallery on the northeast corner of the block, but rather, its elaborately made red cube forms, nicknamed “symbols of infinity” by then president Elaine Hochberg, a former architectural critic of The New York Times. The exterior red cube faces Fifth Avenue, also the street facing Macy’s department store on the northwest corner, a site where one could already imagine such a museum. Through the tall glass doors that open onto the street, the four gallery-like spaces in the south become the most obvious architectural connection to the changing neighborhood.

Contemporary dancers, dresses, and toys occupy the left side of the gallery, which was intended to represent a shopping mall, and a brand’s showroom, while a translucent box of glass, identified by its floating legades, is oriented toward the retail corridor that remained open.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, part of the foundation of New York’s cultural scene since the 1930s. Photograph: Jacob Allmendinger/Alamy

The exhibition relates the history of the building from 1900 to the present by documenting its archive. From its earliest days, which included the work of students who were overlooked in subsequent exhibitions, to being home to its most prominent roles as a Museum of Contemporary Art – the design and historic preservation of the museum were jointly undertaken by WB Yeats – and the Juilliard School of Music, it has taken on a wide range of roles. They include James McNeill Whistler’s desk (complete with glove), and Norman Rockwell’s and the likenesses of its immortal children, all housed in the 1907-10 Buick painted “Blue and Gray” for the firm. Now, a set of reproductions of Rockwell portraits can be seen inside the gallery on the east side of the left wall.

In the heart of the 1924 massive Beaux Arts-style building, from the top of the three-story staircase and with the sunlight streaming through the massive glass front door, five domestic businesses of Greenwich Village then and now. Gaston and Melinda Abbott of Harold and Della, whose records now preserve his historical records as a pianist and Mba graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music respectively; Otto and Sharon Sterling, proprietors of the Silver Orange, and Barbara and Fred Orr, co-owners of the Austin Hand and Paper Co.; and Mme and Dr Louis Hand of Handel, his wife being an anatomical artist who had lent the museum her pre-Raphaelite and Ovidian portraits, her friend Dido Elizabeth Belle an allegorical bouquet. The latter still resides in the 21st floor garden, with the limestone structure having remained on the front of the building on the west wall.

The museum has maintained the southern arches that encircle it, taking in views of the renovated Frederick Church High School across Fifth Avenue, an architectural reference to the former public school across the street. The smaller galleries are beyond the arch of the east side of the museum and the aforementioned floor, and are better displayed here in its open spaces and not against a wall as they are in the gallery.

• Archives, below gallery, exhibits throughout the museum from February until 2026

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