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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.
In 1914, Mrs. Whitney established the Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village, where she presented exhibitions by living American artists whose work had been disregarded by the traditional academies. By 1929 she had assembled a collection of more than 500 works, which she offered with an endowment to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the offer was refused, she set up her own museum, one with a new and radically different mandate: to focus exclusively on the art and artists of this country. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930, and opened in 1931 on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village.
The Museum moved to an expanded site on West 54th Street in 1954. Having outgrown that building by 1963, the Museum acquired its present site on Madison Avenue at 75th Street. This building, designed by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith, with Michael Irving as consulting architect, opened in 1966.
The Whitney was the first museum to take its exhibitions and programming beyond its own walls by establishing corporate-funded branch museums in other parts of New York City and the surrounding area. The Whitney branches were located in downtown Manhattan; at the Equitable Center at Seventh Avenue and 52nd Street; at Champion International Corporation in Stamford, Connecticut; and at the corporate headquarters of Altria (originally the Philip Morris Companies) on Park Avenue and 42nd Street.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s personal holdings, totaling some 600 works when the Museum opened in 1931, served as the basis for the founding collection. It included paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Maurice Prendergast, and John Sloan. Mrs. Whitney continued to add to the Collection throughout her lifetime. In 1948, in an effort to keep pace with the burgeoning artistic activity in the United States, the Museum began to accept gifts from other sources.
The Whitney received major works and materials from the estate of Edward Hopper in 1970. Bequeathed by his widow, Josephine, it is the largest gift in the history of the Museum, consisting of about 2,000 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints dating from Hopper’s student days to his later years. The Lawrence H. Bloedel Bequest, including works by Milton Avery, Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Larry Rivers, and Charles Sheeler, was received in 1976. A gift of Morgan Russell’s works and papers, including paintings, drawings, notebooks, and correspondence, was presented to the Museum in 1979 by Henry M. and Mary Ann Reed; and in the same year, Felicia Meyer Marsh, the widow of Reginald Marsh, bequeathed more than 850 paintings, oil studies, drawings, and sketches, making the Museum the owner of the most significant collection of work by Marsh.
In 1980, the Museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebration included a donation of approximately ninety sought-after works by artists such as Calder, Gorky, Hartley, Hopper, Lachaise, Nevelson, O’Keeffe, Prendergast, Rauschenberg, Reinhardt, and Sloan. Also that year, Jasper Johns’s Three Flags (1958) was acquired. Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926–31), which had been placed on deposit at the Museum by the artist in 1970, was purchased from the artist’s estate in 1982. A photography collection was begun in 1991. Significant acquisitions of the 1990s included Agnes Martin’s The Islands (1979), a suite of twelve paintings considered to be her most important work, Gerald Murphy’s Cocktail (1927), and Jasper Johns’s Untitled (1996), and an extraordinary collection of drawings by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. In 2002, the Museum received an unprecedented gift of eighty-six masterpieces of postwar American art by such artists as Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Franz Kline, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
The original 600 works in the permanent collection grew to about 1,300 by 1954 when the second Museum building opened, and to approximately 2,000 with the opening of the Breuer building in 1966. Today the Permanent Collection is comprised of approximately 19,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and photographs, representing more than 2,900 artists. In addition, the Museum’s Frances Mulhall Achilles Library maintains a comprehensive, non-circulating reference collection of 50,000 books and exhibition catalogues, and more than 500 current periodical titles pertaining to twentieth- and twenty-first-century American art, specifically to support the Museum’s collection of objects. The library is also the repository for the original documentation assembled by Lloyd Goodrich and the American Art Research Council (AARC), considered critical to the study of nearly 200 American artists, such as Arshile Gorky, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, Charles Sheeler, and Max Weber.
Since its inception in 1931, the Whitney has championed American art and artists by assembling a rich permanent collection and featuring a rigorous and varied schedule of exhibition programs. By emphasizing seminal artists and artworks from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the museum organizes important exhibitions both from our holdings and from the collections of individuals and institutions worldwide.
Exhibitions range from historical surveys and in-depth retrospectives of major twentieth-century and contemporary artists to group shows introducing young or relatively unknown artists to a larger public. The Biennial, an invitational show of work produced in the preceding two years, was introduced by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1932. It is the only continuous series of exhibitions in the country to survey recent developments in American art. The Whitney also presents acclaimed exhibitions of film and video, architecture, photography, and new media.
Upon the founding of the Museum, Juliana Force, a close associate of Mrs. Whitney, was named director. Her curatorial staff was composed of three artists: Edmund Archer, Karl Free, and Hermon More. After Force’s retirement in 1948, Hermon More was appointed director and served until his retirement in 1958, when Lloyd Goodrich assumed the position. John I. H. Baur was appointed director in 1968, following Goodrich, and upon the former’s retirement in 1974, Tom Armstrong became director. David A. Ross was director from 1991 to 1998, and Maxwell L. Anderson assumed the role from 1998 to 2003. Adam D. Weinberg is the current Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum.
Whitney programming in the Breuer building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street concluded on October 20, 2014.
The new Whitney will open at 99 Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District in spring 2015. Designed by architect Renzo Piano and situated between the High Line and the Hudson River, will vastly increase the Whitney’s exhibition and programming space, providing the first comprehensive view of its unsurpassed collection of modern and contemporary American art.