I just read an article by Carol Vogel on the New York Times.
The Whitney Museum finally decided to build a new building in downtown NY, just next to the High Line, in the Meatpacking District. To make this possible, the board, that voted anonimously, also decided to sell some brownstones near the original building on Madison Avenue. And this, if possible, it’s the most interesting aspect of this event; as she wrote: “Without room to grow uptown, and without the income necessary to run two museums, the Whitney now faces the question of what to do with the Breuer building — which may end up being shared, at least temporarily, by another institution, perhaps the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
So, here it is the real problem: even if the museum doesn’t have neither the money to grow where it is now nor the possibility to manage two museums at the same time they just decided to build a new one! And where? In what Leonard A. Lauder, chairman emeritus and benefactor of the Whitney, calls “a new city, a new nation”. So, “why shouldn’t the Whitney be the museum of record there?”.
And that’s the point: now it’s the time when museums are no longer the places to go for visitors and tourists and a source of urban regeneration and growth, but they have become the followers of the trends, they just move where they believe there’s going to be the new cultural, economic and social centre of a town, in this case the Downtown Meatpacking district, full of galleries, showrooms, clubs and, of course, the so stylish High Line.
Lauder continued: “there is no better time to build than now, with construction costs and interest rates at an all-time low. There is a new generation of people who have come on the board who are not rooted to the past,” Mr. Lauder said. “It would be unfair for someone like me who grew up near the Whitney to believe it should stay there.”
But there’s much more besides that. In fact, since in 2008 the benefactor had decided to give a $131 donation to the museum with the stipulation that the building on Mad Av could not be sold, here comes the problem of what to do with it and how to make it financially sustainable. And it is at this point the the Met comes on stage, promoting a partnership with the Whitney in order to use it as a “secondary” exhibition space for the Met!
“The timing could work particularly well for the Met. The partnership would not take place until the Whitney’s new museum was completed in 2015, at which point the Met could embark on a much-needed renovation of its galleries of modern and contemporary art. Having a space to temporarily house those galleries just a few blocks away would be ideal, Mr. Campbell (Met’s director) said. “No one should take away the notion that we are off-loading our modern or contemporary collections to another site,” Mr. Campbell said. “On the contrary, they are a vital part of a story the Met tells.” He added that a collaboration between the two museums could also result in some exciting institutional cross-pollination.”
But the real question is: where is the Whitney going to find the money to do that?
And here’s the solution as proposed by the board: “Certainly such an alliance would lighten the Whitney’s financial burden. So far the board has raised about $372 million toward the downtown project, which it estimates will cost $680 million, a figure that includes construction and endowment. The sale of the brownstones and the annex building is expected to raise about $100 million more.”
And what about the other $200 million?.
“Last year, the museum signed a contract with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to buy the city-owned site, at the entrance to the High Line, the abandoned elevated railway line that had just been converted into a park. The museum agreed to pay $18 million, about half the appraised value of the property. Since then the Whitney has been making nonrefundable monthly payments of $50,000, credited toward the purchase price, to continue until the closing date, which has yet to be determined. The city has allocated $55 million toward the downtown building.”
That’s the problem: museums are now looking at their future trying to imagine where to find the money to create new buildings and the main solution found so far is to raise money by partly “selling” their old buildings, but is it the only solution? Can’t we find different strategic solutions to this difficult situation?