Whitney Museum of American Art director Adam Weinberg was expecting 450 people for dinner in about three hours, but he sounded totally relaxed last week during a phone chat about Minnesota’s influence on the Whitney’s $422 million new building overlooking the Hudson River in New York City.
The new Whitney, which officially opens to the public May 1, was designed by Italian-born international “starchitect” Renzo Piano, whose signature buildings range from the 1971 Pompidou Centre in Paris to the 2009 Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
With its riverview perch in Lower Manhattan, the new Whitney is more than twice the size of its former home on the Upper East Side, a landmark 1966 bunker designed by Marcel Breuer. The Breuer building closed last year and has been leased to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Whitney’s downtown venue is close to trendy art galleries and adjoins the High Line, a popular elevated park built on a former train line that snakes through the city.
Weinberg, 60, has headed the Whitney for 12 years and was a curator there in the 1990s. A native New Yorker, he began his museum career at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, where he ran the education department and was an assistant curator from 1981 to 1988.
Q: What did you learn at the Walker that you’ve carried over into your career?
A: Martin Friedman [the Walker’s former director] was my most important mentor, which is why he’ll be at my table this evening. What I learned from Martin is you’re here for the art and the artists and basically everything has to serve that. Also, while art is a serious and important business, you can enjoy yourself. At the Walker we all had a missionary feeling about museum work; it’s a calling, not just a profession, and you dedicate your whole life to it.
Q: The Walker changed your personal life, too, didn’t it?
A: I met my wife, Lorraine [Ferguson], at the Walker. She was a designer working for Mickey [Friedman, the Walker’s design curator and Martin’s wife]. So the Friedmans became role models for us. While Lorraine and I don’t work in the same institution, she continues to work with museums and universities. Both of our lives are devoted to the arts. We see it as a life in art and not just work. It’s what we love.
Q: How has the Walker influenced your Whitney programs and new building?
A: The Whitney is not an arts center like the Walker, but film and performance have always been part of its program. In the Breuer building we never had space to accommodate them, so many of our events took place in the galleries or satellite spaces. In the new building we now have two performance spaces and sprung-wood floors — not marble or terrazzo — in all the galleries so dancers can perform on them without killing themselves.
Q: The Whitney’s buildings appear designed to accommodate the art of their time — intimate and domestic-scale paintings at the 1966 Breuer building, and big photos, paintings and sculpture in Piano’s new building. Are you going to be able to accommodate new art forms yet to be invented?
A: Yes. We’re creating aspirational space that’s not just for what we imagine now, but for what artists might do one day. We also have 13,000 square feet of outside galleries so artists can work on the plaza and project things onto the building. The building was conceived as a screen of sorts; the idea is that artists can take it over and do things on it.
Q: The first show in your new building is called “America Is Hard to See.” What’s that about?
A: The title comes from a Robert Frost poem and a film based on the poem as well. It’s the notion that no matter how revelatory you try to be, America is much more layered and complicated than you could ever show in one exhibition. Even though we’re showing 650 pieces out of 22,000 in the collection, we didn’t want anyone to think we were trying to be definitive. This is the first chapter. Art in the U.S. is always changing; this is just one take at this particular moment.
Q: Besides the $422 million for the building, you’re trying to pump up the museum’s endowment. Have you really raised $760 million?
A: Just about. We’re not quite there, but we will be, I hope, by dinner tonight.
Q: Do you work every night of the week, or do you get time off?
A: I’m out pretty much six nights a week for something art-related — an artist’s opening, trustees dinner, charity event, an exhibition. It’s always something.
Q: A lot of museum directors leave after finishing a big building project. What’s next for you?
A: I’m just getting warmed up. Now the fun begins. Working with Renzo and doing the building has been great, but the primary reason I’m here is for the art. I’m looking forward to spending more time with the art and raising money for it and the programs.
Q: You seem pretty relaxed, all things considered. Are you?
A: Yeah. If you don’t retain a sense of humor and humanity through all this, what’s it all for?