SundayArts: Whitney Museum Honors Founder

SundayArts: Whitney Museum Honors Founder

August 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm

At the turn of the 20th century, struggling artists in Greenwich Village had few outlets to exhibit their work. European art dominated the industry.

When a young New York City heiress moved downtown in 1908 and began purchasing pieces from impoverished bohemians, it was considered an act of social service.

That heiress, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, originally had no intention of founding a museum; she was just supporting the local artists.

But by the late ’20s, American artists were beginning to be shown in galleries, and Whitney thought their work needed a permanent home. Just weeks before the stock market crashed in 1929, she announced the opening of The Whitney Museum of American Art.

Born in New York City in 1875 to the Vanderbilt family, Whitney was the great-granddaughter of America’s wealthiest man. At 21, she married Harry Whitney, who had also inherited a fortune from his great-grandfather. Whitney’s unusual wealth arranged a life of leisure and luxury, yet simultaneously afforded her the social freedom to pursue a sculpting career and later, become a patron of the arts. 

She maintained her mansion on 57th street, and then she would go downtown and be with bohemian friends and able to exercise this free spirit…which was so stifled in the world of the gilded age.

Eighty years later, lacking room to grow in its current space on the Upper East Side, the Whitney Museum is expanding into a new nine-story building in the Meat Packing District, set to open to the public in 2015.

But before the museum moves downtown, visitors will have an opportunity to view some of the institution’s earliest holdings. The first exhibition in a multi-year series which retraces a century of American art in chronological order.

“Breaking Ground: The Whitney’s Founding Collection,” a tribute to the museum’s founder, also serves a glimpse into the museum’s original view of American Modernism. SundayArts’ Paula Zahn recently interviewed Barbara Haskell, the exhibition’s co-curator of installation, about the museum’s history and its founder.


In this SundayArts Profile, Paula Zahn speaks to Barbara Haskell, co-curator of “Breaking Ground: The Whitney’s Founding Collection.” She has worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art since 1975.