The Old-School Secret to the Whitney’s Success

THE DAILY PIC: A radical new concept – leave us alone to enjoy the art.


THE DAILY PIC (#1301, Whitney Edition): I think I’ve got a new angle on why the reopened, re-hung, super-sized Whitney is getting such good press: Without even knowing it, maybe, we critics have fallen in love – or back in love – with the old-fashioned idea that museums are mostly about the art that they own, and putting it on display for us to enjoy as we please. It’s what I call the “library model” for museums, where visitors are allowed to walk in and “check out” (in both senses, almost) whatever art they feel like looking at that day.

That’s what today’s Daily Pic is showing – just art lovers wandering among a pile of works – and it’s a situation that we haven’t been seeing much of lately, as museums have got used to herding their visitors through the pre-packaged experience of the “special” exhibition. Exhibitions have become a vital part of an entertainment-industrial complex that makes corporate-style demands – for growth, throughput, profit, publicity – that a permanent collection can never satisfy. (In the Strictly Critical video I just shot at the Whitney, with my fellow critic Christian Viveros-Fauné, I used stronger language to get across the same idea; in a great artnet essay, Ben Davis makes similar points, more politely.) Jeffrey Weiss, now a senior curator at the Guggenheim, once told me that “exhibitions are the tail that wags the dog, now—or maybe they’re just the dog.”

But of course, until very recently, it was the older, flaneur’s pleasures of the permanent collection that we expected, and got, from all the West’s greatest museums – the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi. Here in New York, right now, we critics are all enjoying the fact that the Whitney is filled, top to bottom, with its holdings, and haven’t quite absorbed the fact that this will only last until September, when the museum climbs back on the exhibition treadmill.

But maybe, if the praise keeps flowing this summer, another day will come when “all” that’s on view is the art the Whitney holds – in trust, for us. (Photo courtesy Whitney Museum, © Nic Lehoux)

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