The New Whitney Museum of American Art: What Retailers Can Learn

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\"RRMuseums and retailers have much in common. Each needs to create an engaging experience for customers. Yes, retailers need to sell their wares and make a profit doing so—no easy feat in today’s over-stored, over-saturated marketplace. Museums must attract visitors to maintain their vitality and relevance, and also to cultivate donors. What good is displaying art if no one comes to see it?

Too Much Stuff, Not Enough Space

The Whitney Museum of American Art shared a problem faced by many N.Y. retailers. It did not have enough space. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an artist, sculptor, and great granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt— ranked the 2nd wealthiest person in American history by some metrics, just behind John D. Rockefeller and ahead of Andrew Carnegie—moved into her art studio in Greenwich Village in 1907. It also became a gathering space for the other artists working in the then seedy neighborhood. In 1914, Mrs. Whitney opened the Whitney Studio, the first public space devoted to the presentation of work by living American artists. At the time, American art was not considered fashionable; collectors and museums looked to Europe for art. In 1929, Mrs. Whitney offered her collection of 500 modern American paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her offer was turned down leading her, the following year, to found the Whitney Museum of American Art with the then radical mandate to focus exclusively on American art.

In 1954, the Whitney moved uptown to West 54th Street but outgrew that space in less than ten years. In 1966, with Jacqueline Kennedy front and center at the ribbon cutting, the Whitney opened its Marcel Breuer-designed Brutalist building on Madison Avenue and 75th Street with, by now, 2000 works in its collection. The museum wrestled for decades over the expansion of that building with both brand name architectural fits and starts and significant neighborhood opposition to its expansion plans. By the time the Whitney’s new downtown Gansevoort Street location was announced in 2010, its collection had grown to 18,000 pieces, with room to show only about 150 pieces of its permanent collection at a time in the existing space.

Go Where the Market Is

Leonard Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of the Whitney, and its largest benefactor, had opposed the downtown move for financial and market reasons. But, in 2010 when the Whitney Board formally announced its move to the Meatpacking District, he said: “downtown is a new city…. why shouldn’t the Whitney be the museum of record there?”

In fact, the art market had moved downtown years before, first to SoHo in the ’70s and early ’80s and then to Chelsea where it is anchored as the center of the art world with over 350 art galleries located there, up from 12 in 1996. The transition of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District directly to its south was also fueled by the preservation of the Highline, a no-longer-used, mile-and-a-half spur of elevated railroad track that has been successfully repurposed as an urban park and connects the two now historically designated, landmarked neighborhoods.

Fashion staked a claim there too. An advocate for, and the largest financial supporter of, the preservation of the Highline, Diane Von Furstenberg moved there in 1997. Jeffrey Kalinsky opened Jeffrey in 1999 in a former warehouse when the Meatpacking District still packed some meat. Those days are long gone. The neighborhood has since become a gentrified blend of old and new with some cobblestone streets and plenty of tourists and restaurants. Andre Balazs’ Standard High Line Hotel opened in 2008 and sold in 2014 at $1.2 million per room, a near record in the city. The Gansevoort Hotel, a few blocks away, opened in 2004 and was recently renovated. The Meatpacking District is now firmly established as young, upscale, hip and hopping, a hot bed of high tech commercial space—Google and Samsung are there; so are luxury condos, co-ops and rental apartments, and more than fifty name-brand retailers from Apple and Alice & Olivia to Warby Parker and Zadig & Voltaire.

Get a Good Architect, Let in the Light and Connect with the Hood

The new Whitney Museum of American Art, designed by Renzo Piano, opened with great fanfare in May 2015. Michelle Obama cut the ribbon. The $760 million building (total cost), well received by art and architecture critics, connects to the south terminus of the Highline—you can even walk from the Highline onto the museum’s third floor terrace. Eight floors and 220,000 square feet, it features plenty of light and open space. Natural daylight, views of the Hudson River to the west, and the city in each of the other directions engage the senses and provide an inviting showcase for the art and the city. The ground floor is glass walled; it connects the museum directly to the street. The inside is at once outside; the outside in. There is a sense of openness and brightness throughout. By some architectural feat there are no columns in the building, which makes for larger and more open galleries. An outdoor switchback steel grated staircase connects three of four large exterior terraces, also accessible from the galleries. These terraces are both a showcase for art and a respite from it. Sometimes you just need a breath of fresh air.
New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, writing about the museum opening, said that if visitors’ “experience was anything like mine, they probably felt they were walking on air,” describing the atmosphere as “euphoric, unlike anything I’d experienced in over four decades in the New York art world.”

Yes, it is difficult to bring light into interior spaces, especially retail spaces. And, it is hard to bring the outside in and vice versa. But, it makes a difference. The sense of oneness with the neighborhood, the sense of light and air and openness elevates the museum going experience in every way. And it can for retail, too. Personally I always feel like I’m in a crypt on a nice day whether museum visiting or shopping. I’d rather be outside. Whether done with lighting or glass, daylight and open space is important. That’s why people, especially younger people, want lofts versus apartments. That’s why office interiors became open space plans versus individual offices. Letting in the light and the outdoors lifts spirits.

Tell a Story and Keep it Spare, Even if You Have More Space

At the Whitney, galleries are on the highest floors, the sixth and seventh are home to the Whitney’s permanent collection where 200 works are currently on display. Entering the seventh floor directly from the elevators, commissioned as art installations themselves, a visitor is met by the well-known Calder Circus, a moveable model of a circus which is the centerpiece of the first
gallery. What surrounds the Calder is a series of paintings about entertainment in early 20th-century America that tells a story of life at that time by different artists.

Like retailers, museums always have to come up with something new. Or, a new way to show something old that people have already seen. It is the job of a museum to tell a story that engages visitors. To create excitement about something that may be iconic or new and unknown. Or, by merchandising known pieces differently to tell a new story. To do something within a set space that makes people want to come back again and again.

Thus far, the Whitney is doing well on two counts. First, it is providing some exciting new “product,” like the Open Plan exhibit by multiple artists. For this project, the Whitney uses its 18,200 square foot fifth-floor space—unobstructed by interior walls, which is remarkable in itself—to a show the work of five artists: painters, performance artists, a jazz composer, and a video artist/filmmaker. The artists present unique projects, on display for several days to two weeks each.

Next, the Whitney has chosen not to overwhelm. Its collection now numbers 22,000 pieces by 3000 artists. The current exhibit of its permanent collection displays only 200. My guesstimate is that there are less than 1000 items on display at the Whitney at any given time. In this equation, less definitely equals more.

It is a lesson retailers, who too often cram too many goods in too little space, might find difficult to learn. But you can tell a compelling story with a few items. Yes, it may require more help or technical support to find sizes and colors or similar merchandise not displayed, and that can be expensive. But, often displaying less goods while telling a convincing tale about them will make customers want to buy more, and, also come back again to see what’s new.

Get a Great Restaurant: Ask a Genius Restaurateur to Create and Run It for You

The Whitney has two restaurant spaces. The Studio Café: small, sleek, spare, bright and inviting, with an interesting, appropriate, and sensible menu, good service and an expansive glass wall that opens onto one of the museum’s terraces. Untitled, a larger full service restaurant, is on the ground floor of the museum abutting the lobby. An all-glass exterior connects Untitled directly to the street. A visitor approaching the museum first notices the restaurant tucked practically under the Highline, guests enjoying themselves as if in a piece of performance art. The restaurant, also designed by Renzo Piano, fits seamlessly into the building and is open beyond museum hours, a destination in itself.

Both restaurants are operated by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, arguably the most successful American restaurant company, recently of ’no tipping’ policy fame, owners of Union Square Café, Blue Smoke and others, including The Modern at MOMA, Meyer’s other highly rated and successful museum restaurant. Meyer spun off Shake Shack, his fast food venture, as a public company in January 2015. It was valued at $1.6 billion after doubling its price on the opening day of trading.

Clearly Meyer knows restaurants and has been successful at almost every turn. Perhaps a retailer has already asked him to create a restaurant? Perhaps he has declined. The point here is that restaurants aren’t stores. They are complex entities with a high failure rate. To be successful they require an innovative concept that serves the brand and meticulous execution. Restaurants have always been a convenience business for retailers; a recent survey from Target—who is tweaking its restaurant offerings with artisanal pizzas from Pizza Hut and “good for you” Freshii stores—showed that 40 percent of customers visit one of the chain’s in-store cafes. But I think the lesson here is to ask a restaurateur to create and manage a concept that is special and specific to the space and the brand, one that offers customers a unique and enhancing experience: A reason to come to your store.

Experience and Learn

What’s the takeaway here? First, if possible, visit the new Whitney and see for yourself its well-designed space and how it connects to the street and neighborhood. I guarantee you will feel a sense of excitement when you approach the building. And you will see lots of ’customers’ there, engaged and enjoying their experience. Think of the ways better lighting, more windows, a more open space plan, access to the street, or the use of exterior space might work in your next renovation or new store prototype. Consider ways to think of merchandise more as narrative, a way to tell a thematic story for customers, whether in design or color or historic reference, rather than just goods for sale in a particular season. Display less merchandise to tell a better story. And, if you are feeling particularly bold, give Danny Meyer a call. Who knows what his answer will be.



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