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Inclusion Was the Theme at the New Whitney’s Block Party

America may be hard to see, but the newly-relocated Whitney museum is trying hard to find it.

by Catherine LaSota
May 13 2015, 2:42pm

Rahel performing at the Whitney Block Party at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. May 2, 2015. Photo: Karl Jacob. Courtesy of the photographer

The Whitney has moved downtown to the Meatpacking District. Or, as the museum prefers to call it: Meatpacking. It was a schlep from one high-end shopping area of the city (Madison Avenue) to another, but the new location has a decidedly more inclusive—and younger—vibe. It's clear the recently maligned Museum of American Art is using the move as an opportunity to reinvent itself.

On May 2 the Whitney celebrated their new digs with a self-consciously New York-style block party, full of performances, interactive art games, selfie-taking, and booming music to distract the throng of people waiting to get in for free.

The new location at the bottom of Manhattan's High Line, a huge tourist draw that also overlooks the perennially crowded and increasingly upscale Chelsea Market, is sure to bring in the foot traffic. The inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, which takes its name from a Robert Frost poem critiquing Columbus and his "discovery" of America, presents over 600 pieces from the Whitney's permanent collection, divided into 23 themed galleries named after artworks (ranging from the aesthetics-focused "Forms Abstracted" to content-rich "Love Letter from the War Front," which highlights artworks responding to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s).

Considering the recent accusations of institutional racism against the Whitney, it was a bold move to name one of the galleries after Jasper Johns's White Target (1957). But like most of the Whitney's moves this weekend, this choice seemed to be self-aware.

A child with 'The Rose' (1958–66) by Jay DeFeo, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Photo by the author

On the Saturday of the party, trendy Gansevoort Street was lined with assorted booths. One of the notable ones included Bed-Stuy Love Affair, a mobile gallery that presents exhibitions by emerging artists, founded by artist Jared Madere in 2014 and currently housed in a janky 1978 RV. There was also a massive stage for performances by many New York-based artists such as poet and vocalist Tracie Morris, who began performing in the Lower East Side in the 1990s.

My conversations with curatorial staff and Block Party performers made clear that the Whitney was making a concerted effort to connect to the surrounding community as well as with artists in the "Whitney family." In fact, many of the Block Party booth participants were participants in previous Whitney Biennials (such as genre-bending artist K8 Hardy and nattily-dressed performance collective My Barbarian).

Whitney associate director Kathryn Potts, who was being serenaded for her birthday by the enthusiastic Whitney staff when I met her, introduced me to one John Jobaggy at the Jobaggy Meats booth. Jobaggy, whose family has been in the business for three generations, was helping visitors into white lab coats for photo ops with a blown-up photo of beef carcasses on hooks.

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"It's a great addition to the neighborhood," Jobaggy said. "The two buildings here before were vacant. Who wants a vacant storefront?"

Jobaggy, whose company is the last of the once-dominating industry for which the neighborhood is named, says he was behind the project from day one.

"How could you not support this?" he asked. "This will be here long after we're all gone," said John, who has seen plenty of changes in his working-class-turned-Sex and the City neighborhood.

Block party attendees at the Whitney Block Party at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. May 2, 2015. Photo by the author

The Whitney staff I spoke with said the crowd consisted of both tourists and New Yorkers, but most of the people I talked with were from the five boroughs, including Staten Island high school student Felicia and her social-worker brother Charles. The Block Party was the siblings' first-ever visit to the Whitney in any location.

"It's been so awesome," gushed Block Party performer Rahel, who sang with the music collective Camp & Street. "From what I know historically and what I've studied, in the past the Whitney wasn't necessarily so open to so many different kinds of people and what they represent and what they are trying to do. The crowd is totally diverse and not what you'd expect to see at a critically-acclaimed museum."

In fact, many attendees I spoke with had never visited the Whitney uptown. Can location have this much of an effect on who visits a museum? It seemed, from this exhibition and party, that the answer is yes, especially when that new location is partnered with a curatorial staff that is hell-bent on inclusion.

A dancer during a performance by A Tribe Called Red at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. May 2, 2015. Photo by Karl Jacob

"It's felt like such a celebration of the Whitney moving downtown," said curatorial assistant for performance Greta Hartenstein. "Opening up to new audiences, being closer to the boroughs and Brooklyn. It really felt like this welcoming of artists both on stage and in the booths, but also in the audience, having this community of people come [to the Whitney] for the first time."

It would help for some of these first-timers to actually enter the museum itself. Toward this effect, performance artist Ei Arakawa and painter Shimon Minamikawa dangled two of Minamikawa's day-glo paintings over the edge of one of the picturesque Whitney outdoor terraces, several floors above the street, teasing visitors to come up the stairs and into the galleries. At street level, visitors could use their smart phones to take pictures of the paintings through a digiscope, then post their photos on Instagram with the hashtag "#peepholewhitney."

Inside the galleries for America Is Hard to See, the crowd was incredibly diverse in terms of race, gender, and age, from young children to senior citizens. In the Raw War gallery, presenting works of the (Whitney-dubbed) "troubled time" of the 1960s and 1970s, graphic designer and part-time FIT student Nobuko Kobayashi took notes. She was trying to understand why Nam June Paik, known for his sculptures using TV sets, was included in a gallery that was otherwise dedicated to (as she phrased it) "activist art." (The Whitney press materials justify Nam June Paik's inclusion among explicitly political wartime art by saying that his work shows "images that are more eerie than entertaining," one of the weaker explanations in this exhibition).

"It's a complicated floor because there's lots going on in this period," Kobayashi frowned.

Glenn Ligon. 'Warm Broad Glow' (2005) at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Photo by the author

For the most part, the Whitney does a commendable job of presenting a broad cross-section of their permanent collection in America Is Hard to See, and I was happy to see them give a decent amount of breathable wall space to female artists such as Lee Bontecou (Untitled, 1961), Agnes Martin (This Rain, 1960), and Jay DeFeo (The Rose, 1958–66), as well as a notable side-by-side comparison of Willem de Kooning (Door to the River, 1960) and Joan Mitchell (Hemlock, 1956), one of the few female artists of the 1960s New York School.

Other good moves by the Whitney: Visitors can contemplate a breathtaking view of the Manhattan cityscape while seated in gray leather couches as Glenn Ligon's 22-foot-long neon sign spells out "negro sunshine" above their heads (Warm Broad Glow, 2005), then go into the Guarded View gallery to check out David Hammons's Untitled (1992), a sprawling sculpture of human hair and leather. (Props, also, to the Whitney for its wheelchair-accessible galleries and inclusion of all-gender restrooms.)

The evening concluded with Toronto-based A Tribe Called Red, a three-man DJ crew that draws upon their First Nation heritage to spin a danceable mash-up of pow-wow vocals and traditional drumming with contemporary dance music. The musicians asked for the crowd to shout back once if they were Cherokee, and then again simply if they were "in love." Behind them, a video was projected onto a large screen installed onstage. Men in feathered warbonnets charged on horseback as the Whitney silently faced them.

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