The Whitney’s Chief Curator on How Renzo Piano’s New Building "Stretches the Mind"

Donna De Salvo talks Renzo Piano, delves into the often-fraught relationship between art and architecture, and explains why the new Whitney just works.

North side view of the new Whitney Museum of American Art, as seen from the High Line

Courtesy Paul Clemence

Last week, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new home in New York’s Meatpacking District. But for the past two years, since it began taking shape, the building’s design and its author, the architect-maestro Renzo Piano (and his namesake-building workshop), have generated much chatter. In an interview last summer, Piano cautioned that “people should wait for the building to be finished and see,” while promising that the project would have an “uplifting” effect on the city. 

Now complete, It’s interesting to hear what the Whitney’s chief curator and deputy director for programs, Donna De Salvo has to say about the museum’s new residence. After all, De Salvo will make plenty use of the building, and will perhaps play as critical a role in shaping the visitor experience as Piano has. I recently spoke with De Salvo about her thoughts on the new Whitney, the brilliance of the old Breuer building, and the dramatic, often-fraught relationship between art and architecture.

Paul Clemence: In your career you have had opportunity to work in several museum buildings, some of which have been designed by very high-profile architects—Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts and Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London, among others. From your experience, what would you say makes for a good museum design, a good gallery space?

Donna De Salvo: I think there are certain basics that are essential, from the curatorial perspective. We need to think of the needs of the art works themselves, and then, of course, of how the visitors work within those spaces. We have some basic essentials—the type of floor, the height of the ceiling, the proportions of the room. More than those, there is the idea that the plane of the floor is as much an exhibit space as is the wall; the sense that there is the totality of the space. I often cite El Lissitzky’s Proun Room (1923) and the idea that the entire space could be the work of art. The artist is thinking about the whole space and the space obviously influences how we, as observers, think and feel. I think one of the biggest challenges is to create spaces that are very flexible but that, at the same time, have real character. A museum building has to work for works of art!

A study model of the Whitney, on display at DVF’s flagship store in the Meatpacking District, depicts the concentration of programs that determined the building’s form.

Courtesy Paul Clemence

PC: Could you expand on that issue, of an art space having character and yet being appropriate for the art?

DDS: Every building brings something different by virtue of its materials, layout, and attitude. There’s a conceptual attitude that is expressed with each building. Breuer had an attitude, Eisenman has an attitude , Herzog & de Meuron has an attitude. And then the work of art has an attitude as well, sometimes multiple attitudes.

There’s often this tension between the art and the architect’s idea, how they want to shape the space. At times that collision between the two can be a very exciting one. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is the obvious example of this kind of collision. I think that building is really interesting in terms of its capacity to look at people. You’re able to see people in this hall while still keeping distance from afar. It’s the most successful atrium space that I can think of.

In a way is like, is the building dancing with the art? Are they in a tango? Is this a marriage? Does the art go well together with the building? Or are they arguing? With Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts building, there was an argument. He was putting forward a position about architecture and theory and reacting against what had come before. So whatever you did in that building ended up arguing with the architecture. That was interesting! What you don’t want to have is something that just feels anonymous. That’s the big danger when we talk about flexibility—you could end up with nothing.

Whitney’s Chief curator Donna De Salvo

Courtesy Scott Rudd/The Whitney Museum of American Art

PC: What is the limit of this attitude? Can a building really “dance” with the art it contains?

DDS: It’s a museum. Renzo always says it’s a house for art, and I rather like that expression because it’s about the functionality of it. If the function of a museum is principally to house and experience works of art then you have to start there. I was interested in what they [the Centre Pompidou with architect Shigeru Ban] did at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. When you enter, there’s a social space that is open to the outside. Go into the galleries, however, and they are very rectilinear. I thought that was an interesting decision, retaining the clarity and usability of the space while allowing for an open area that sets people in a social environment.

We are grappling with all that a museum is now asked to be and do. The expectations are many. But it’s important to be aware of what our priorities are and staying clear about what the museum is about. As a curator I look at things in a very formal way, I look at the works and try to understand what’s going on within the space of the work. What you don’t want to happen is to have a giant fight with the conceptual attitude of the architect. This is where the attitude of the architect is critical because it can define, or provoke, how you go forward.

PC: What was the process of selecting Renzo Piano for this project?

DDS: I arrived after he had been already selected but my understanding is that they asked many artists who they thought was a good architect, and Renzo’s name kept coming up. Artists have a real respect for him, so think that was one of the principal’s reasons he was asked to take on this project.

The building’s eastern half sports striking catwalks and egress stairs.

Courtesy Paul Clemence

PC: What were some the considerations for the program and development of the new building?

DDS: We talked a lot about how to look at art and how to deal with history. One item was cross media. We believed in looking at works of art not just as photography, paintings, or works on paper, but to look at them in a more integrated fashion—as how artists themselves work. We also spoke of the possibilities of a space like this that did not have the verticality of the typical urban situation, so we could conceptualize history in a different way. The horizontal floor plates allow a certain fluidity, almost a continuum, as opposed to the more hierarchical scheme inherent with a vertical circulation. We spoke of multi-use spaces, for dance, for screenings. We talked a lot about  retaining the intimacy of the older building—how do you expand but remain intimate? How do you retain the clarity of the Breuer building, of how? And then there were some very pragmatic items, like having a proper loading dock.

PC: And what makes for a good loading dock?

DDS: One that you can back a substantial size truck right into. At the Breuer building it was a tiny dock and they often had to off load onto Madison Avenue and bring artworks through the front of the museum. Here we won’t have this problem. There is a leveling device so the bed of the truck comes right up the loading dock. And there’s a proximity of the loading dock to the freight elevator. It will now be a much more seamless operation. It’s a very efficient building!

Installation view of De Salvo’s exhibition America Is Hard to See (May 1—September 27, 2015)

Courtesy Ronald Amstuz

PC:  What other qualities from the Breuer building did you think was important to retain in these new galleries?

DDS: There’s a sense of aspiration to the Breuer building, especially in that expansive fourth-floor gallery. I like that about our large-scale gallery on the fifth floor in the new building. After much discussion and back-and-forth, our gallery actually has the same height of the Breuer one. This is where the sense of proportion comes into play, and that is so critical for any architect. And Renzo is extraordinary on that. He really feels things. In that sense he is really kind of a humanist.

PC: How do you feel the new building design connects with the Whitney’s mission?

DDS: It very much connects with the mission of the museum. The building’s open vistas make for a metaphor of today’s standing of American art. It is not like the old days, when we had to make a bold statement that American art mattered. We are now in a more international, connected world. There is something about the porosity of this location, of these views—the openness of it that is very much at the center of what the Whitney is about. The perspectives are always shifting on what constitutes American art, and I love the fact that there’s all these places in the building that you look out onto and see New York, but you can still see beyond it. You look out West towards the river, and you see as much as your eyes can see. You have the sense it continues for thousands of miles, that there is Chicago, there is Los Angeles, there is the Far East. The design really stretches the mind.

Piano’s sketch for the museum’s main gallery illustrates the various emotions (“wonder, amazement, stupor, surprise, daze”) the architecture is meant to engender.

Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop

PC: How was dealing with an architect of the stature of Renzo Piano?

DDS: In part, I always I felt a connection to Renzo because I met him when I was very young. I was working at the DIA Foundation, and he was designing  the Menil Collection, an organization I felt a strong connection to how they thought about art. Later, when I was curating an exhibit at the Lingotto, in Turin, Italy, Renzo was in charge of that building, and I found out that I would be working with his firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, to install the show. So I felt very comfortable with him, like I had a kind of spiritual connection with him. I’ll never forget—there was a wall in this installation in Italy I wanted to have painted gray. I gave Renzo’s team an idea of the tone range and asked them if I could look at a couple samples. The next morning there were 10 different samples on the wall. It was a curator’s dream. They understood that kind of sensitivity and nuance. That’s why we can have a conversation about one-eighth of an inch of a reveal. Because that understanding of subtle nuance, that sophisticated thinking matters.

The fifth-floor gallery, along with the auditorium below it, feature huge windows that frame vistas of the Hudson River.

Courtesy Paul Clemence

PC: What would be an aspect of the building you would highlight that might have gone unnoticed?

DDS: Renzo really understands that the building comes alive when it is used. You can see how this building is activated on the exterior, the way it reflects what’s going on inside. It’s conceptualized as a whole and you have to experience it as a whole. That for me is the  strength: It’s not built as a shell, it is organic.

PC: Do you start your process by thinking of the spatial requirements of a piece? Of the context it will be in?

DDS: Yes, with the help of a floor plan and a model, which make me think about how art works will live together. You have to construct a narrative, a visual essay, but it can not remain at the level of an essay—it’s not a book on a wall. And that’s where you make a leap, which is the exciting part, to see where these objects will exist in space. That’s where the merging with the architecture comes into place. It is when the works show their attitude. The real object—the piece of art—has scale, and they each have their own sense of space. I always say that if you really study a work of art it will tell you what to do.

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