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Why MoMA is a huge disappointment and the Whitney gets it

A view of the westside exterior of  the new $422 million Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
A view of the westside exterior of the new $422 million Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Bebeto Matthews/AP
A view of the westside exterior of  the new $422 million Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
People walk through a gallery at the relocated Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan's meatpacking district. The building, which was designed by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano and has 50,000 square feet of galleries, opens to the public May 1.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A view of the westside exterior of  the new $422 million Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
New York magazine's cover story on the new Whitney Museum was written by art critic Jerry Saltz.

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Established museums almost never relocate — look how much trouble LACMA's gone through just to renovate part of its campus. So it's a big deal that the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City just moved from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the borough's Meatpacking District.

Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic for New York Magazine, wrote a recent cover story about the new Whitney. He says he's "in love with what the building represents." On the day of the new Whitney's public opening, Saltz told us about the spectacle surrounding museums today, the crushing realities of trying to be an artist in New York and what the major New York museums would be like if they were your college friends.

Interview Highlights:

The Whitney's chief curator, Donna De Salvo, said that the Whitney "is not a building, it's an idea." What does she mean by that?

It's a beautiful quote, and it says a lot about the new Whitney, which is just spectacular and wowing people — at least in New York. It also says something about our bigger moment.

More and more, especially in New York, where our museums are very crowded, the building becomes a flashy, circus-like destination that's over-programmed — there's always something going on, you can always hear something from the next gallery and it's almost impossible to get any space for yourself just to look at art, talk to yourself while staring at inanimate objects and change the world.

I think the Whitney will be able to accommodate crowds, although it's not clear. What I think De Salvo meant is that the Whitney had a brilliant solution to this current plague of bad museum architecture: They built enough usable, beautiful space for the permanent collection and enough beautiful, usable space for contemporary art.

Previously, we've had MoMA, which is the Garden of Eden for all of us in the art world — it's where we're from — but the collection is almost being held hostage in inadequate, very disagreeable space, so you now have the greatest collection of modern art in the world in the worst conditions.

For people not in New York, describe the difference in personality between the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Met and MoMA right now.

MoMA is that friend in college who had all the promise, all the gifts, had everything, and somehow got distracted by shiny money and big production and really didn't deliver on what you thought they would be.

The Guggenheim is that friend that has an amazing apartment but has no idea what to do with it, and they're always going off half-cocked and coming back with a big mess.

The Whitney is that friend that always needed money, had a lot of promise, was very old school, stayed up late, knew what was going on, but had the crappiest apartment ever. That has now shifted — suddenly the Whitney's collection looks tremendous, not embarrassing like the way American art is often looked upon, especially the early 20th century, and their commitment to art and artists seems off-the-charts spot-on. (The new Whitney is pictured below.)

A view of the redesigned, relocated Whitney Museum of American Art

The [Metropolitan Museum of Art, below] is Mecca, it's our Jerusalem. Even if The Met goes the full Tate and gets kind of glitzy and cheesy and it's packed, the Met will still be the Met. I'm never going to say a bad word about that museum. For me, it's my favorite encyclopedic museum in the world. Take that, Louvre! Nobody can navigate once they get under that stupid glass pyramid!

The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Let's take a step back from the museum itself to talk about the world for artists in New York. As friendly as the Whitney might be to artists, how hospitable is the city to artists, given the high cost of living and exhibition spaces?

You've just put your finger on part of the gift and the promise of the Whitney. Right now, I'm so jealous of you people in L.A. that I can't stand it. We all are — we love you, you hate us, and I don't know why.

You're just jealous! We don't hate you.

No, I'm totally jealous. I've always wanted to live there. I don't know why I can't, but I'm stuck here. If there are jobs there, call me. It's very expensive to live here. Do artists live here? Damn right they do. Is it hard? It's crushingly hard. It's crushing for any artist in New York right now.

They live in dumps out in the boroughs, but maybe that's the way we always lived — in no space, staying up late together, arguing, doing what they have to do. The point is that somehow the Whitney makes it feel like, Yeah, there is a place we could go that isn't just about hierarchy, power, money, that feels like it's fluid and open, and you forget for milliseconds that New York is too expensive for anyone to live in anymore.

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