Michelle Obama on the New Whitney: ‘I Know the Feeling of Not Belonging in a Place Like This’


The massive (220,000-square-foot) new Whitney Museum of American Art opens on Friday, and today during her remarks at its dedication ceremony, first lady Michelle Obama took the opportunity to remind the gatekeepers of culture to keep their institutions welcoming to all people.

“There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers, and they think to themselves, ‘Well, that’s not a place for me,’ ” Obama told the gathered VIPs and press, “ ’for someone who looks like me.’ ”

“I guarantee you right now there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. I know the feeling of not belonging in a place like this.”

The museum’s first show, the 600-work “America Is Hard to See,” seems to address that problem by including artists and works from diverse backgrounds, part of “a conscious effort to challenge assumptions about the American art canon.” The museum’s new efforts have already received some criticism, though: Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight writes that a Whitney wall text misrepresents his review of the 1993 Whitney Biennial show: “Being misquoted is one thing, but being completely misrepresented in an art museum wall text is quite another,” he says, before expanding: “The text seeks to evade the museum’s responsibility for its past focus on straight, white, male artists.”

Yet if the museum’s dedication ceremony on Thursday had a theme, it was inclusion. Mayor Bill de Blasio, in his remarks, said “we know when the doors of our cultural institutions are open wider and wider to every kind of New Yorker, when everyone knows they belong here, it uplifts this entire city. We know that walking through the doors of a great place like this, into the piazza, gives people a sense of belonging and gives them a pathway to a different and better future.”

Renzo Piano, the 77-year-old Italian architect who designed the building (and the Shard in London, and the New York Times building, among others), gave the most colorful remarks of the day, saying that “this building doesn’t touch ground, it flies.”

Piano explained that his design for the building was inspired by the art that’s inside it: “It’s American art. Art is a freedom, but American art is especially free. A bit wild, a bit impolite, but free. A building has got to be able to express this,” Piano said, before saying that its position facing west helps it “talk to the rest of the world.”

“It talks to the traffic of the highway — there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s New York — and then it talks to the [Hudson] river, and then further west and then it talks to Los Angeles a bit,” Piano said. “This building is a stretch between New York and the rest of the world.”

“Bravo, Renzo!” an enthused de Blasio exclaimed about the architect’s work in his best Italian accent, before complimenting the museum’s lobby, or piazza, as Piano had called it. De Blasio, an Italian American who recently made a trip to Italy, couldn’t resist: “Che bella piazza!

This is the fourth location of the museum, now situated between the High Line and the Hudson at 99 Gansevoort Street. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney first opened its doors in 1931 on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village. Her granddaughter, Flora Miller Biddle, recalled her remarks from the time, during the Great Depression: “It is especially at times like these that we need to look to the spiritual. In art we find it.”

On Thursday, Biddle said her grandmother’s words still ring true: “The need for art has never been greater,” she said. “For art can lift us, it can tell us who we are, who we’ve been, and who we can be.”

While admission to its lobby gallery is free, adult tickets to the Whitney are $22, senior tickets are $18, and it’s free to everyone 18 and younger.