American Art

It’s been over two years since ground was broken on Gansevoort Street. The massive new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art at the foot of the High Line on the edge of Chelsea is changing the landscape of New York both physically and culturally. The project clocked in at $760 million, dwarfing most museum renovation budgets. (By comparison, the Cooper-Hewitt museum’s recently completed two-year renovation cost $91 million.) And while the city and the art world watched the enormous steel and glass building rise in the Meatpacking District, chief curator Donna De Salvo led the team busily preparing America is Hard to See, the blockbuster exhibition that inaugurates the new space.

The Whitney has an incredibly rich, vast collection of 20th and 21st century American art, with over 20,000 pieces. It’s been De Salvo’s job to fill 8 floors and more than 60,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor gallery space with some 650 works by over 400 artists, showing how American art has evolved over the last 115 years. It’s the biggest show the museum has ever presented and the biggest she’s ever curated. De Salvo described the process as thrilling. It started, she said, with a hard look at the collection, followed by consultations with curators, artists and scholars to decide what should make the cut. “Then, we started working on models and little maquettes for each work, arranging and rearranging. It’s been a good two- to three- year process.”

De Salvo, who grew up and went to school in New Jersey, has been filling galleries with art at leading museums for over 30 years. After starting with an entry-level position at MoMA, she advanced to top curatorial positions, including at Long Island’s Parrish Art Museum and the Tate Modern in London, before coming home to New York. In 2004 she joined the Whitney, and in 2006 became its first-ever chief curator and deputy director for programs, a position in which she oversees all the museum’s exhibitions, presentations and programs.

The asymmetrical, sculptural new building is triple the footprint of the old Breuer building on Madison Avenue and contains 60 percent more gallery space. The museum will present more exhibitions than ever before, along with performances and films. There’s a new education center with classrooms, conservation labs and reading rooms. Shops, two restaurants and two theaters will provide extra ammenities for visitors.

“We have a skylit gallery on the top floor and we also have these amazing views. There’s a generous opening out into the city,” De Salvo said. “The other portion, of course, is the neighborhood and the incredible international audience that comes here. The High Line gets five million visitors a year.” Both the building and the neighborhood come together to create what she called a new “sense of place.”

Lately, De Salvo has been deeply involved in the building’s design and creating that sense of place. “I represented the curatorial voice from the design perspective—everything from selecting the floors for the gallery, the height of the ceilings, the finishes, the type of ceiling treatment, the furniture,” she explained. She even traveled to Genoa and Paris, to architect Renzo Piano’s offices, to tour other buildings. “To me that’s one of the powerful and transformative aspects of being in this building,” she said. “That [it] can be a place of the imagination. It doesn’t have to be something you can find on a Google map. It’s inspirational.”

De Salvo put that inspiration, her own creativity, and an artistic eye (she was a photographer before becoming a curator) into America is Hard to See. She’s presenting iconic selections of American art, including favorite pieces by Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Edward Hopper and the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.

The exhibition explores a century of the visions and passions, thoughts and beliefs that have made American art uniquely American. It examines the artists that gave voice to our shared experiences through personal forms of expression. Masterworks of painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation and performance are presented chronologically throughout the building, including the sweeping 18,000-square-foot 5th floor gallery where multi-dimensional works harmonize and dance in a way that sparks conversations.

There are surprises as well. “There will be things that people have never seen. There will be works that people have not seen in decades. And there will be works here that you know well, that you’ll see in a new light. You seduce people a bit with the familiar,” De Salvo explained, “and then maybe open someone’s thinking.” She likes that kind of response. “Art is challenging. It is difficult. It is about a certain kind of critical thinking, and, at times, a kind of sanctuary and retreat. I think it’s a kind of push pull, and I hope we’ve captured that in the choices we’ve made.”

America is Hard to See at the reopened the Whitney Museum of American Art in its new building at Washington and Gansevoort Streets. The inaugural show with some 650 key works offers an extraordinary chance to experience what defines American Art and how it’s evolved over the past century. May 1 – Sept 27.