NEW YORK — Street banners for weeks have teased: “Whitney, Unpacking in the Meatpacking, May 2015.”
Finally, after four years of construction, the Whitney Museum of American Art is unpacked and ready to greet fans old and new in its new home: a gleaming asymmetrical steel-and-glass architectural sculpture with sweeping views of the High Line and the Hudson River in Manhattan’s hip Meatpacking District.
The $422 million Renzo Piano-designed building is a game-changer for the museum. The 220,000-square-foot space, including 18,000 feet unencumbered by structural columns and 13,000 feet of outdoor terrace galleries, doubles its former home on the Upper East Side.
That translates to more room for its 22,000-object permanent collection, more galleries for temporary exhibitions, more programming and for the first time room for a works-on-paper study center, a 170-seat theater and an education center with state-of-the-art classrooms.
The Whitney officially opens May 1 with an inaugural exhibition that showcases the airy, light-infused building and the breadth and depth of its permanent collection.
“America is Hard to See,” which takes its name from a Robert Frost poem, features 650 works by 400 artists from 1900 to the present, filling every gallery floor of the eight-story building.
Roughly one-quarter of the art has never been seen before or not for decades, and more than 150 are making their debuts.
Probably best described as industrial modern, the facility is an eccentric mix of shapes and angles with many floor-to-ceiling windows.
In an interview, Donna De Salvo, the museum’s chief curator who worked closely with the architectural team, spoke animatedly about the opportunities the design presented for “new narratives about how we think about American art.”
The museum has raised a total of $760 million, which includes $225 million for its endowment.
The game changer is the space, De Salvo said. “We didn’t have adequate space in our prior facility to really fully take advantage of all the things we have to offer.”
Now two floors are designated for its permanent collection; two other floors and the lobby house temporary exhibitions. The elevators are custom-designed with works by artist Richard Artschwager.
De Salvo said she believed artists will be inspired by the new spaces and will “reinvent them over and over again.” They’re tailored to the needs of how artists, and curators, work, she said. Floors throughout are sprung, allowing for both performance and installations. Open-grid ceilings permit walls and art to be arranged into a multitude of configurations.
The column-free gallery, which is the size of a football field, can hold multiple exhibitions or a single show.
Four open-air terraces provide a place for sculpture, installations, projections and performance pieces and open up to the neighborhood and its trendy restaurants, luxury apartment buildings, boutiques and clubs. The gallery-rich Chelsea area lies north and Greenwich Village is just south of the museum.
Bounded on the east by the High Line and the Hudson River Park on the west, the Whitney serves as “a metaphorical bridge between the two spaces,” said museum director Adam Weinberg.
Outdoor metal staircases connect to the terraces on three floors, steps from lower building rooftops.
People strolling along the 1.45-mile elevated park can get a glimpse of the museum’s conservation lab and art handling area.
“You can actually see art moving through the building to give you a sense of the process of what goes on behind the scenes,” said Weinberg. “The idea is to connect to the process of the art and the museum, to reveal what goes on inside.”
The inaugural show begins in the lobby gallery with an introduction to the museum’s precursor, the Whitney Studio Club in Greenwich Village, and its founding in 1930 by heiress-sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The museum migrated north over the years, moving into its third home in 1966 at the Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue, now leased to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition continues on the top floor and works down chronologically, presenting works in 23 “chapters,” each named for a work of art. One section called “Music, Pink and Blue,” derived from a Georgia O’Keefe painting, looks at art-making in the 1920s when artists tried to capture the feeling and sensation of music in their art form. Another section looks at the engagement of artists as activists during the 1930s.
Each section presents works across all media — painting, photography, video, installation and drawing — because “it’s a much truer picture of how artists work,” said De Salvo.
A major exhibition of the works of Frank Stella that will occupy the entire fifth floor will be presented in the fall.
“I love the connectivity to the city,” said Laurel Emery of the building as she came down from the High Line with Jim Kegley.
The two real estate developers from Atlanta said they loved how the design interacted with the surrounding architecture.
“It’s very approachable. It’ll attract a lot of art people,” said Kegley.