To cap off a two-week press blitz leading up to the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building in the Meatpacking District on May 1, First Lady Michelle Obama, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Whitney director Adam Weinberg, and architect Renzo Piano attended a dedication ceremony Thursday morning on the street outside the institution. A few things I learned there:
-Jerry Saltz, Peter Schjeldahl, and Roberta Smith get better seats than the rest of the press, who were corralled in the back in two rows of chairs behind a rope.
-Secret Service agents don’t put the toilet seat down, or at least the one who was in line in front of me for a gender-neutral bathroom didn’t.
–Artforum publisher Knight Landesmann’s bright orange suit is the same hue as Art in America editor Lindsay Pollack’s skirt. (They, too, had better seats.)
-Bulletproof vests also make fine penholders, which turned out to be the super convenient extra function of the one worn by the Secret Service Police K-9 Unit (as far as I could tell, the unit was one well-built bald guy with meaty arms and an excitable dog).
At around 10:40 a.m., a loud, droning tenor saxophone of unknown origins played through speakers, giving the proceedings the aura of that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the spaceship tries communicating with scientists, and for a moment the sleek new Whitney building on Gansevoort Street looked like it might lift off on an interstellar journey through the cosmos. The music slowly morphed into a kind of free jazz version of the National Anthem, and right around this time, Frances McDormand walked purposefully from the VIP seats up to the press pool and sat down in the back. “Yes, this is much better,” she announced. So, uh, take that, nation’s most prominent art critics! Her presence went entirely unremarked upon by anyone.
The ceremony was to begin at 11 a.m. At 11:07, someone audibly cracked an inevitable joke about de Blasio always being late.
The museum board’s co-chairman Robert J. Hurst made opening remarks before introducing Renzo Piano, who walked up to the microphone and said, “Mama mia!” Anyone still doubting Piano’s Italian cred—because, who knows? There were a lot of people present—was quickly silenced by Piano referring to the building as a “piazza.” “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m Italian. There’s nothing I can do.” He discussed how American art should be “a bit wild, maybe impolite, but free.” He then opened his arms wide and said, “The building is yours,” to which the audience jumped to its feet and applauded.
The usually scruffy Weinberg was clean-shaven, and received a bigger applause than the mayor. He referenced the 1966 dedication of the Breuer Building, the Whitney’s old location on the Upper East Side, attended by Jacqueline Kennedy. He also quoted President Barack Obama: “‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time,’” he said. “‘We are the change that we seek.’ This is our gift to the city, the nation, and the world.”
Mayor de Blasio seemed to be campaigning—“Even jaded New Yorkers know it’s special when Michelle Obama is present,” he gushed, before rattling off tourism statistics and touching on the following topics: discrimination in public schools, LGBT youth, seniors, and people with HIV and AIDS, then hammered home his point. “When everyone knows they belong here, it makes this a great city.” He also amped up his Italian-American heritage, saying Renzo Piano’s name in an exaggerated accent and shouting, “Bravo Renzo! Che Bella Piazza!”
Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of the museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, introduced the First Lady. She said she had just taken a tour of the Whitney’s inaugural show in the new building, America Is Hard to See—“too brief a tour, Adam,” she remarked. (“This is the most beautiful freight elevator I’ve ever been on,” she added.) She focused on the Whitney’s community outreach.
“There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls, and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, Well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood,” she said. “In fact, I guarantee that right now there are kids living less than a mile from here who never in a million years dreamed that they would be welcome in this museum.”
She noted her own upbringing on Chicago’s South Side and said, “I know the feeling of not belonging in a place like this.”
With this first show, the First Lady continued, the Whitney is sending a message “that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen. And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here–reaching out to kids of all backgrounds, and exposing them to the arts.”
Perhaps as a result of the intensity and earnestness of these speeches, the event ended with a dollop of snark, courtesy of the art collective the Wooster Group, who appeared on the steps of the building for the ribbon cutting. One of their members sang a song into a microphone with an acoustic guitar. It began, “On Gansevoort, a flower blooms, rise up from the cobblestones,” and only became more ridiculous in the chorus: “It’s the Whitney dedication,” the whole group sang. “It’s a Whitney celebration.”
They were all dressed in dull corporate attire, and as they spoke, they appeared on large screens, their appearance distorted slightly through image-enhancing technology so that the men seemed to have goatees and paunches, and the women had stringy gray hair. One member, wearing a bright blue suit, appeared on the screen as a big blue dog mascot. The events on the screen looked more like the opening of a new Chase Manhattan branch. They all shuffled in unison to the right, then back to the left, as they talked. In their speeches, they said things like, “Just to provide more conveniences for the patrons, that’s what it’s all about,” in the tone of a salesperson giving a Powerpoint presentation to potential clients. They unspooled a red ribbon and held it amongst themselves. One member had an enormous pair of scissors. She cut the ribbon, and it fell gently to the ground.