The Whitney Museum of American Art was borne out of sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s advocacy on behalf of living American artists. At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists with new ideas found it nearly impossible to exhibit or sell their work in the United States. Recognizing the obstacles these artists faced, Mrs. Whitney began purchasing and showing their work, thereby becoming the leading patron of American art from 1907 until her death in 1942. (whitney.org, 2016)
The Whitney, as a space, began in 1914 as a gallery in Greenwich Village, and evolved to become a museum in 1931. The museum has existed in a number of spaces since then, most recently it moved from the Upper West Side to its new home on Gansevoort Street in Chelsea right off of the High Line.
The new space is contemporary in fashion, with wide open spaces, and direct access to outdoor gardens and seating areas with beautiful views of the river, the Highline, and downtown.
I visited the Whitney on December 12, I had been wanting to visit the new space since it had opened, but hadn’t found the time to go visit. I had planned to go to a museum for my birthday, and luckily, The Whitney is one of the few that are open on Mondays. I love going to museums on Mondays, they are quiet and calm, it’s easy to wander around and to find a place to sit. I never feel like I’m in anyone’s way. This Monday was no different. The museum was still quite full of people, but the large open spaces leant to feeling anything but claustrophobic.
Accessibility wise, the space feels very welcoming. The floor plan is open so there is a lot of room to move around without feeling like you are in anyone’s way. There are many elevators which open into the center of each floor’s gallery space. The elevators feature digital screens which outline what exhibits are on each floor and highlight the number as you approach the floor. I really loved this design. Not only does it allow the curators to update and change the display to match the museum’s current structure, but it also allows patrons to move without feeling attached to a brochure. All signs that direct towards bathrooms, stairs, elevators, and cafés are clearly marked at any turn or junction and there are many employees floating around who are willing to answer any questions that you may have. I was struck by what an advantage the museum had by being able to design and build their new space. The amount of thought and intention that went into creating a welcoming and intuitive space must have been fueled by seeing so many museums and institutions that have been forced to make due with old structures and designs.
Because I was strapped for time, I decided to concentrate my time on two main exhibits, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, and Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. I felt that both would give a good perspective on the museum’s approach to special exhibits and their permanent collection, and showcase their approaches to explaining the works of art.
The Whitney does not offer much in the way of printed written material about the works in their collection or that are part of their special exhibits. On occasion, when a salon style wall is displayed, there will be printed materials in a small mailbox that number the pieces and display information about each one.
Wall mounted information tends to be printed rather small, and I saw quite a few people in glasses having to squint or get up very close to the plaques so that they could read the information that was provided.
When available the wall mounts list the number and category that correspond to their audio guide. Patrons can access the audio guide from their smart phone, or they can rent a device from the museum in exchange for their ID.
I accessed the audio guide from my phone, which is what I saw most people doing in the space. The system can operate in two ways, either by punching in the number of the pieces that you are looking at, or by browsing the collection of guides based on the genres of artwork that the museum suggests. They even offer an audio guide that is specifically designed for kids. All audio comes with a transcript that can be viewed from the phone, web, or audio guide. I found that the transcript was spot on, the text was clear and easy to read, and the audio was interesting and had been recorded by many people who were somehow directly connected to the artist. I was only able to access the audio guide in English and Spanish, but I did hear many other languages being spoken throughout the museum and wondered if the museum might consider offering audio transcripts in other languages.
When I did some more research through their website I also found additional documentation and interviews that were conducted in American Sign Language (ASL) that provided captioned translations as well. The Whitney is doing a really amazing job of making information accessible!
I found that a majority of the visitors were using the audio guide even when visiting the space with a group, this might have been because there is so little written information provided about the work, but I kind of enjoyed that aspect because it allows you to experience the art without being influences by whatever the plaque has to say. It allows you to develop your own interpretation before diving into the opinion of someone else.
I didn’t observe a lot of conversation about the pieces, but on each floor there are clearly marked gathering spots for free tours that happen regularly throughout the day and I was able to listen in on a few of the discussions that were happening within those groups.
Additionally, on each gallery floor there are patio garden spaces that feature sculptures and places to sit. Along the wall that faces the windows and doors that lead out to those spaces they offer very comfortable couches to sit on and relax while watching the city-scape or taking a moment to recharge.
Overall, I felt that the Whitney provides an open and inviting space that allows not only for inspiration and learning, but also for relaxation and recharging. The accessible and laid back atmosphere lends itself to a welcome social setting where people can respectfully interact. Information about the work is readily available in multiple formats, and online supplementary information is also incredible accessible.