The opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art on West 8th Street in November 1931 was the culmination of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s long campaign on behalf of American art. Beginning in 1914, she organized exhibitions, lectures, and classes for artists at the Whitney Studio and Whitney Studio Club. At a time when American art was largely overlooked in favor of that of Europe, Gertrude Whitney’s efforts to gain a public for it, combined with her enthusiastic collecting and financial assistance to artists, nurtured the growth of contemporary art in the United States.
By 1929, Gertrude Whitney turned her attention to creating a permanent home for American art. That fall, just weeks before the stock market crash, she announced the founding of the Whitney Museum. Working with Juliana Force, who would serve as the Museum’s first director, she began a concerted effort to bolster the collection of six hundred works she had amassed in the previous two decades. Two hundred works were purchased shortly before the Museum opened; an equal number followed in the Museum’s early years. Together these approximately one thousand objects make up the founding collection, which Gertrude Whitney deeded to the Museum in 1935. Breaking Ground features a selection of these works.
In creating a museum, Gertrude Whitney sought to retain the intimacy and informality of the Studio and Studio Club, as well as their egalitarian, nonhierarchical spirit. Rejecting the severe, white-box model of museum display, she and Force painted the galleries in soft hues of rose, yellow, and blue and decorated them with streamlined Moderne furniture; hallways featured patriotic stars-and-stripes wallpaper. The labyrinthine layout of the galleries—the result of having joined together four residential brownstones—predisposed visitors to meander rather than follow a preset trajectory.
This exhibition is inspired by the Museum’s early approach to installation and its democratic collecting philosophy. Rather than feature the work of only a few artists or selected stylistic movements, the early Whitney aimed to convey the breadth and diversity of American art, from conservative portraiture to modernist abstraction. Tastes change over time; the founding collection includes objects that are now considered icons of American art as well as works that were once esteemed but are now less well known.