A plan to expand the Whitney Museum of American Art by building a second museum downtown has created a rift on the museum's forty-five-member board, which includes some of the wealthiest art patrons in New York City, the New York Times reports.
A majority of the board favors the project, which would create a new 185,000-square-foot building in downtown Manhattan, seeing it as integral to the future of the museum, which is renowned for its collection of American art. When the Whitney, which has been grappling with space problems for decades, moved to its current home on Madison Avenue and 75th Street in the 1960s, it had 2,000 works in its collection — a number that has since mushroomed to 18,000. The museum has been trying to expand its landmark building since the 1980s, hiring several star architects to design additions. Each time, however, the effort was abandoned because of cost or design concerns, or both.
Despite the museum's space issues, a handful of longtime board members view the new plan as a vanity project the institution simply cannot afford. Among those opposing the plan is cosmetics heir and Whitney chair emeritus Leonard A. Lauder, who has given the museum tens of millions of dollars in postwar American art in addition to multimillion-dollar cash gifts. Among the latter was the biggest donation in the Whiney's history — a $131 million gift two years ago that came with the stipulation the museum could not sell its present building for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the museum quietly has been securing support for the $680 million project, with officials saying they have promises and signed pledges totaling $371 million and another $105 million expected from the sale of adjacent brownstones and an annex building. The museum's endowment is just $190 million, however, and the question of whether the museum can afford to operate two sites remains to be answered.
Brooke Garber Neidich, co-chair of the board, said she is confident the Whitney will be able to afford the plan. "The museum has been in the black for years," she said. "We are prudent fiscal guardians. The fact that we were able to raise more than half the money at this moment in time says something."