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History of the Whitney
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 Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, which opened in 1966. Programming at the Breuer building concluded on October 20, 2014. The Whitney's new building at 99 Gansevoort Street opened on May 1, 2015.
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, just before the Whitney Museum of American Art opening, November 17, 1931. Photograph by Edward Steichen
The Whitney’s collection includes over 21,000 works created by more than 3,000 artists in the United States during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. At its core are Museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s personal holdings, totaling some 600 works when the Museum opened in 1931.
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.
Juliana Force, first director of the Whitney Museum
Designed by architect Renzo Piano and situated between the High Line and the Hudson River, the Whitney's building in the Meatpacking District vastly increases the Museum’s exhibition and programming space, providing the most expansive view ever of its unsurpassed collection of modern and contemporary American art.
Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph by Ben Gancsos