Whitney Museum’s Birthplace
The art world, in fact the entire world in general, was very different in Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s day. In New York, the hub of American art, females, modernists, and American artists were not respected; Whitney was not okay with this standard.
On her mission to change the city’s perception of artists like her, Mrs. Whitney worked out of a makeshift space, comprised of studios and salons carved out of townhomes and carriage houses on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. This eclectic workspace became the birthplace of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931 and continued to house the museum until 1954.
In 1967, another artistic institution found its home in the interlocked building: The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture. The quirky space, imagined and realized by an artist eager to create, would surely be considered an artistic landmark, if, that is, the public were admitted on a regular basis.
Beginning June 3, 85 years after the founding of the Whitney Museum of American Art, a limited number of public visitors will be welcomed into Whitney’s original workspace for free, 45-minute tours. This all thanks to a $30,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the willingness of the New York Studio School faculty.
“We think this place is a treasure, and one that deserves more recognition for its history and more of an opportunity for the public to engage with it,” said Stephanie K. Meeks, the president and chief executive of the trust. This quote came from Meeks as she stood in Whitney’s studio absorbing the rich history of its creation and the creative secrets its walls hold.
Robert Winthrop Chanler, an artist with Astor lineage, converted a hayloft to create the studio for Whitney is the early 20th century. The 20-foot-tall fireplace was an integral part of the space, its flames licking the high ceiling, which boasted vibrant figures of dragons, snakes, and cephalopods, all presented under the watchful eye of a radiant sun. At one point in time, the creative space contained seven stained-glass windows incorporated into the hayloft doors.
Whether Whitney found the colors and designs stifled her own creativity or for other interests, she relocated into a larger ground-floor studio with a rear entrance onto the artists’ enclave of Macadougal Alley. Here she created some of her most famous sculptures, like the Washington Heights-Inwood Memorial and “Spirit of Flight.”
Though talented and wealthy, Whitney was not oblivious to the condemnation her actions and works received. She pressed on, however, not only creating her own art, but collecting and exhibiting it as well. With the help of her assistant, Juliana Reiser Force, Mrs. Whitney founded her own museum in 1931.
The $30,000 grant was recently used to renovate the Studio School, from floors and baseboards, to stairs, handrails, walls, and a reinforced structural beam. This renovations have made it possible for the school to open its doors to visitors.
Graham Nickson, the Studio School’s dean, spoke graciously about the donation. “We’re a nonprofit,” he said. “We have to raise a tremendous amount of money just to do what we do on a regular basis.” Nickson, whose office connects to Whitney’s original loft space, said, “We refer to the good ghosts that inhabit this building. There can be wonderful new buildings, but it takes time for them to get good ghosts.” For more information, [Click Here].