The Artist-Built Museum: On the Whitney’s Opening, in 1931

A view of the new Whitney building from the West Side Highway, September 2014. ED LEDERMAN/COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM

A view of the new Whitney building from the West Side Highway, September 2014.


Today, the Whitney Museum of American Art opens its doors in the Meatpacking District with “America Is Hard to See,” an exhibition of 600 pieces from the museum’s 21,000-work permanent collection. In honor of the much-anticipated opening of the new Whitney, we turn back to 83-and-a-half years ago, when the the museum opened its doors on 8th Street with a show of selections from its permanent collection, which, at the time, held just 1,300 works. In the November 21, 1931 of ARTnews, Ralph Flint covered the Whitney’s grand opening and all the excitement surrounding it. “The Whitney Museum will live,” Flint wrote, “not only because of its fine collection but also because it was founded by an artist, was built by artists and is to be run by artists, Mr. More and his assistants all being represented in the collection.” If the flurry of positive reviews surrounding “America Is Hard to See” is any proof, Flint was right. His full article follows below. —Alex Greenberger

“Whitney Museum of American Art Formally Opened”
By Ralph Flint

An interesting selection of living American art comprises the inaugural display at the former Whitney studio

Out of the early enthusiasm of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for contemporary American art has come by gradual stages the Whitney Museum of American Art, a fine flowering of high and discriminating patronage in the best sense of the world. Mrs. Whitney’s initial idea of harboring worth while artists in her Eighth Street studio some twenty years ago proved so potent that she later organized the Whitney Studio Club. Owing to a far greater response than she had ever dreamed of, this group was disbanded in a remarkably short time to make way for the Whitney Studio Gallery. For three years those American artists deemed worthy of support were here provided with exhibition space. Now, in its final form, Mrs. Whitney’s initial gesture has become a concerted movement, a concrete monument that will stand and expand in the years to come as the American artist continues to find himself. The original Eighth Street houses that were formerly used for the Whitney Studio Gallery have undergone a surprising transformation at the hands of talented architects, designers and craftsmen, so that the new edifice now stands as one of the finest and most individual of American “depots” of the arts.

The facades of the three original brownstone mansions have been combined by skillful regrouping of the first floor members and a general refurbishing as to detail and color. The new museum stands cheerily in its new dress of tempered rose—a light earth red is perhaps as close as one can come to describing the actual hue—with a fine central doorway surmounted by a spread eagle in chromium. We thus have as inviting an approach to a display of the fine arts as could be desired. The general style of the museum is modern, with sufficient deference to American Colonial to give it tone. Two handsome glass and metal doors—the second of which is set with sculptured glass panels by Carl Walters, the celebrated ceramist—admit to a gracefully designed and decorated entrance hall, which contains a double staircase leading to the main gallery floor.

There are nine galleries in all, located on four different levels and beautifully lighted and treated to a varied and unusual color scheme. None of the galleries are particularly notable for size, except perhaps the hall for sculpture which is the remodeled studio once used by Daniel Chester French. Some of the gallery walls are done in opulent yellows, some in soft pinks, and in between are grays and whites, according to the need of each room. The hallways have been done with attractive figured papers, such as would hardly be found in the stereotyped art institution, but which fit into the freely devised decorative treatment of the Whitney Museum. The furniture, which is set about informally is of great distinction, some of the lounges and settees being ultra-modern, some of period design. The lighting fixtures are novel and aid in keeping the whole effect of the museum in a cheerful key. The hanging, movable globes that light the upstairs library are particularly ingenious and effective.

In keeping with the highly artistic and up-to-date quarters that Mrs. Whitney has given her collection, is the policy and program entrusted to her staff, which is headed by Julianna Force as director and Herman More as curator. Mrs. Force has been, lo, these many years Mrs. Whitney’s right-hand worker, and is the ideal choice for head of the museum. She will not only direct its program and arrange its various exhibition but will continue to live on the premises, much as Mrs. Jack Gardner did in her Fenway Court museum. She will thus bring that living element to the galleries that is so signally wanting in the average art museum. Her offices have been smartly decorated by Robert Locher.

For the opening exhibition the picture galleries have been hung with a selection of works from the general museum collection which already numbers some five hundred paintings in oil and water color, more than a hundred pieces of sculpture, and drawings and prints that add more than seven hundred items to the list.

As the intention of the Whitney Museum is to center its activities around the work of living American painters, it has left to the older and larger museums the tsk of recording American painting from the historical angle. A small section of the collection is devoted to the earlier men and there are canvases by Eakins, Ryder, Blakelock, La Farge, Theodore Robinson and Twachtman, as well as prints by Whistler and Audobon, and sculpture by Saint Gaudens. But the special emphasis is on the moderns; the insistence is upon those who are shaping the aesthetic destinies of America here and now.

Roaming through the galleries, one feels the impetus of the new art at every turn. While there are not many of the ultra-modern types on hand—Stuart Davis, Weber and Matulka are among the abstractionists shown—the general tone is toward the individualized and unconventional, as opposed to the academic. The sculpture gallery is the one doubtful note in the museum, perhaps due to the fact that the approach through the yellow galleries tends to increase the coldness of the setting. Sculpture is cold enough as a rule and is perhaps the trickiest part of a museum to dispose of successfully, since any miscellaneous group of pieces comprises a variety of forms and attitudes worked out in all manner of different scales. But the smaller pieces of sculpture tucked here and there in the hallways and available niches in the picture rooms, add immeasurably to the effect of the museum as a whole.

The inaugural ceremonies brought together a distinguished body of art lovers, critics and those connected in one way or another with the working out of the museum. Mrs. Force presided at the luncheon which preceded the press opening and discoursed wittily on the various innovations that she, as director, would contribute to this distinctly different “depot,” as she calls it—of American art. Royal Cortissoz gave a rounded peroration on the artistic activities of the Vanderbilt family in earlier days, paying homage to Mrs. Whitney in her own person as a patron of the arts and as an artist. Hugh Ferriss spoke on the architectural aspects of the new museum, and Forbes Watson and Christopher Morley added felicitous and pertinent remarks. The following day a large private reception was held which severely taxed the capacity of the building and brought forth more well deserved plaudits for Mrs. Whitney and all concerned in the making of this splendid addition to the artistic holdings of New York City. The Whitney Museum will live not only because of its fine collection but also because it was founded by an artist, was built by artists and is to be run by artists, Mr. More and his assistants all being represented in the collection.

The present hanging of the galleries will continue until the first of the new year, after which a second selection will be placed on view. The Whitney Museum will also invite outside groups to exhibit and the recently resuscitated New Society is to have its annual showing here some time during the coming winter.

Among its other activities, it is interesting to know that the Whitney Museum is issuing a splendid series of monographs on American painters, some seventeen now being available, with more to come.

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