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Whitney Museum of American Art

The vision for The Whitney under new leadership: less isolationist; diverse, rather than deep

David Ross, the new director reveals his ideas

The Whitney Museum of American Art will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary later this year. But it still seems to be treated the way it was in the days right after its inception like something of a wayward child. Some scorned it as a charity pet, the creation of a rich heiress. Many questioned the very legitimacy of a museum devoted to American art.

Over the past year, the debate over the Whitney has intensified, but it’s become no more positive. While the institution has evolved, in the eyes of many, into a showcase for the gallery superstars of the late 1960s, the museum seemed to have backed off from any purposeful scholarly concentration in twentieth-century American art. It was seen as blithely lacking curatorial depth, run by a board of trustees who had spent years arguing over an addition to its sepulchral Madison Avenue building, and spilling out into the public with a bitter feud over the museum’s last director, Thomas N. Armstrong III.

It’s been a year since the Whitney’s board dismissed Tom Armstrong, best known as a moneyraiser and collection builder, who left a wake littered with charges (often unsubstantiated) ranging from imperiousness to anti-Semitism. Now, after months of hand-wringing and fervid promises of a return to a more serious commitment to its founding mission, the Whitney announced that David Ross, formerly director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, would be its new director. Mr Ross has been in his job for about a month now, and the museum is abuzz with talk of the optimism and charisma of the forty-two year old newcomer.

For now, that mood seems to have blunted general anxieties about the direction of the Whitney Museum, in public at least. But there’s no doubt that those anxieties remain. And, it would be silly to expect David Ross to quell them soon.

Many of the anxieties concerned the Whitney focus on the permanent collection, which grew from over 6000 to more than 8000 works of art under Armstrong’s stewardship between 1974 and 1990. The collection is considered to be the finest of American art in the world. What the museum lacks, however, say critics again and again, are curators who might use that collection thoughtfully in the sorts of thematic shows and scholarly retrospectives that have now become routine, not at the Whitney but at its rivals the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Brooklyn Museum, and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art. David Ross – who came to his first museum job in 1971 as a video curator, armed with a communications degree – admits that his last post was at a “non-collecting institution”. Ross says part of what drew him to the Whitney was the chance to work with the permanent collection. But he candidly dismisses scholarship as a “buzz-word that nine out of ten people are going to define differently”. A Whitney curator, who said the museum’s atmosphere was already more relaxed with Ross’s arrival, argues, “You don’t need a PhD to do contemporary art”. In an interview in his first week on the job, Ross implied that diversity, rather than depth, would get first priority at the Whitney.

The Whitney’s greatest obstacle to showing its collection now is space. The museum simply can’t put more than fifty works of art from its permanent collection on display at any time, if its rotating schedule of shows is to continue. Plans to expand the Whitney have been under discussion for at least a decade. Objections to those plans from the Whitney’s neighbours have been heard for just as long. A third Michael Graves version of the new wing, estimated to cost about $40 million (£21 million) to build, is now on hold, according to a Whitney spokesman. Ross and several trustees acknowledge that the building project is among the most pressing issues facing the museum. But according to one critic, who has followed the Whitney closely over the years, members of the Whitney board, notorious for ruthless social-climbing instincts, may not accept any Graves design, especially since Graves is associated with a style from the previous decade: “They have taken a long time to figure out what they want. Now they’re not going to want to be stuck with a huge building on Madison Avenue that isn’t fashionable”.

Contention among the Whitney board is also thought to have discouraged potential candidates from actively seeking the job – much, it turned out, to the Whitney’s surprise. “The Whitney thought people would come flocking to the job”, says one critic. “It just didn’t happen”.

The Whitney’s relationship to contemporary art raises other concerns. It’s been more or less accepted that the museum’s biennial exhibition will always be its most criticised show. What’s come under greater scrutiny, though, in the last five years, are the Whitney’s ties to New York dealers and its function as a conduit from the downtown art scene to the museum world. Some dealers expect this to change, but not because of any transformation at the Whitney. They say the depression of contemporary art prices and what threatens to be the closing of additional downtown galleries with the approach of summer will keep “flavour-of-the-month” artists from emerging the way they did over the last five years. (An upcoming exhibition of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat may prove, however, that the flavour of the month has an afterlife.)

Still, dealers and artists complain that the Whitney’s explorations of the contemporary art scene have been circumspect and unadventurous, ignoring much of what was happening in New York and around the country, in favour of a stable of favourites. After all, some lamented, the institution created, in part, to be a guardian of artists’ interests “is supposed to be a museum of American art”.

David Ross hopes to take that scrutiny of contemporary American art in new directions. He says it won’t violate the museum’s charter to move away from viewing American art in its “isolationist” context and turn toward an examination of international influences on and by American artists. Echoing the current nostrums that there is “more than just one art history ... based on masterpieces”, Ross also promises collaborations with folk and craft museums in the city and around the country. (Ironically, for a short time, the Whitney had a fine folk art collection donated by its first director, Juliana Force. In part of what could be one of the greatest curatorial blunders of the post-war museum world, the Whitney Museum sold that collection and, more importantly, all its nineteenth-century holdings, in 1949, for bargain prices.)

There are reasons for optimism at the Whitney. Not surprisingly, at an institution created by the descendants of America’s robber barons, one of those reasons is money. Unlike most American museums facing staggering public budget cuts that coincide with a steep drop in tourism, the Whitney counts overwhelmingly on private money, both from individual donors and from the corporations that fund its four branch galleries. If that money is used effectively, it may help convince critics that the museum has finally shed Clement Greenberg’s prescient 1945 characterisation of the Whitney vision as “affable timidity”, “eclectic conformity” and a lack of “strong-mindedness”. As of now, many critics still remain unconvinced.

Almost unanimously, Whitney staff at all levels say morale is good. It may take more than firing one director and hiring another to keep it that way. In a cordial letter offering his own resignation from the Whitney’s board of trustees, the journalist Brendan Gill pointed to one possible solution: that the seventy-five year old contemporaries of Gill’s still on the board resign to make way for younger blood, ready to tangle with the “give-and-take” of today’s art world.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 6 March 1991