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This video documents the May 24th 2011 groundbreaking ceremony for the Whitney’s new building in downtown Manhattan.

On May 24th, Mayor Michael Bloomberg presided over a ground-breaking ceremony for the Museum’s new site in the Meatpacking District. In a decidedly unconventional take on the traditional ritual, the morning began with percussion quartet So Percussion summoning revelers to their seats with a performance of an excerpt from composer and longtime Whitney artist Steve Reich’s Drumming. The excitement was palpable, as the crowd comprised the Whitney’s closest community of supporters—artists, patrons, and longtime friends of the Museum for whom the day’s festivities were less a formality than a true celebration of a project decades in the making. The Museum began its earliest expansion efforts in the 1980s with a series of proposals that were, for various reasons, ultimately unrealized.

“Today is not the end of the beginning, but the beginning of the beginning,” exclaimed Alice Pratt Brown Director Adam D. Weinberg. He began with warm thanks to city officials, the architects, and the Whitney’s board and staff, many of whom were present in the packed tent, which was pitched directly atop the building site. In speaking about the Museum, Weinberg invoked the words of Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Honorary Chairman of the Museum, and patron of the arts who has long supported the Museum’s mission, echoing her oft-quoted characterization of the Whitney “not as a building, but a living idea.” Biddle spoke next, reaffirming her family’s commitment to her grandmother’s mission. Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, Whitney Board of Trustees Co-Chairs Robert J. Hurst and Brooke Garber Neidich, Board President Neil G. Bluhm, and architect Renzo Piano also spoke enthusiastically about their roles in the project. As Piano triumphantly hoisted a scale model of the building over his head, he proclaimed, “What we want to do, is this!”

Courtesy Paula Court

Then came the actual breaking of ground, a high-octane performance by Elizabeth Streb’s STREB Extreme Action Company, commissioned for the occasion by the Whitney. Wearing a hard hat, goggles, and her trademark black boots, Streb marched solemnly to center stage, where a container hoisted high overhead poured 1,500 pounds of dirt onto her. Outfitted in goggles and superhero-style costumes designed for the piece, six of her dancers then launched themselves through panes of theatrical glass one by one, each landing full-force on the mats below with a decided crash.

Only a minute long, the performance drew a moment of stunned silence from onlookers. But they erupted into cheers as Weinberg and the Mayor strode onto the stage, bright red shovels in hand, to toss a few shovelfuls of dirt into the mound surrounding Streb. As all took a bow, the project was officially under way!

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