The walls were barren. The Koons sculptures had been wheeled out. The 48-year-old building on Madison Avenue was finally empty. “Somebody put out the big light,” Elvis Costello sang from the third floor.
It was the Whitney Museum’s last dance at the historic Marcel Breuer building. On May 1 of next year, the museum will relocate with much fanfare to the Meatpacking District on New York’s bustling West Side, not too far from the High Line and Pier 54, where Barry Diller has bold plans to build a new state-of-the-art park.
This story first appeared in the November 21, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The gala was not the last chapter in the story of one of the grande dames of the Upper East Side — the Whitney is leasing the space to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — but it was the beginning of its settling down for a long winter’s nap. And it’s only middle-aged.
“It’s the end of a very important era,” said David Lauren.
The only parts of the austere Brutalist building that remained in use were the fourth floor, the site of an after party that was decked out with decorative empty crates — get it? They’re moving — and the third floor, where a gala dinner, presented by Louis Vuitton, was served beneath dozens of Chinese lanterns inscribed with the names of all 98 living artists who have had survey exhibits at the Whitney.
Some of them — Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Kara Walker, Chuck Close — had come out of the woodwork, like long-lost relatives making the trip for one last big family reunion, to pay their respects.
“I’ll miss it for nostalgic reasons, for the exhibitions I was in,” said Fred Wilson, whose work has been featured in some of the museum’s most provocative exhibits, including the 1993 Biennial and the 1994 “Black Male” exhibit, which opened amid national debates about race in the aftermath of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson controversies. Wilson created four headless black mannequins that were initially sold to another museum but are now back in the permanent collection.
Wednesday was also something of a homecoming for Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was 20 years to the day since, as an up-and-coming curator, she had opened the “Black Male” exhibit on this very floor.
“For me, that exhibition resonates because I was a very young curator with incredible ambition for what I thought could happen in the art world,” she said.
Some of the people in the room remembered the first time their work was displayed at the museum.
“The first time I had a painting at the Whitney was in 1974,” said Julian Schnabel. “I thought it was a big deal at the time.” That was back when he wasn’t married to his first wife, Jacqueline Beaurang. Several wives and girlfriends later, the artist was now with his latest conquest, Tatiana Lissa.
The gallerist Gavin Brown preferred to reminisce about the museum’s good ol’ bad-boy days, like when, during a Biennial, the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija installed a replica of his gallery that featured music so loud, the power was shut off. Could the same thing happen at the new location?
“It looks like a prison on Mars,” Brown said of the soon-to-be-unveiled Renzo Piano building.
Wilson, as a trustee, saw things differently. “This is still going to be a museum,” he said. “That’s one thing I’m glad about. It’s not going to be a Barneys.”