A month after the Dia Art Foundation scrapped its plans to open a museum at the entrance to the High Line, the abandoned elevated railway line that the city is transforming into a public park, the Whitney Museum of American Art has signed on to take its place and build a satellite institution of its own downtown.
The Whitney recently reached a conditional agreement on Wednesday night with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to buy the city-owned site, at Gansevoort and Washington streets, officials at the museum said yesterday. Plans call for the new museum to be at least twice the size of the Whitney’s home on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, they said, and to be finished within the next five years.
The deal, which has still to go through a public review process before it is final, puts an end to the Whitney’s plan to for a nine-story addition by the architect Renzo Piano that would connect to the museum’s original 1966 Marcel Breuer building via a series of glass bridges. It will be the third time in 11 years that the museum has commissioned a celebrity architect to design a major expansion to its landmark building, only to pull out.
“This is a more prudent step to take,” Leonard A. Lauder, chairman of the Whitney’s board, said by telephone yesterday. “Yet it is an adventurous step. We think the new site will have a big enough impact so that it will become a destination.”
The museum’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, said the new museum would not only offer more gallery space but would also be less expensive. “We know it will be cheaper per square foot than uptown, but we don’t know what it will cost,” he said. (The uptown expansion was expected to cost more than $200 million.) Mr. Piano has agreed to design the new museum. Although no architectural plans have been drawn up, the future museum is loosely estimated to afford at least 200,000 square feet.
Kate D. Levin, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, called the agreement “a wonderful moment” but cautioned, “It is a preliminary moment.” If all goes as planned, she said, “it will let a museum grow and flourish” as well as provide an anchor to the city’s High Line project.
In addition to attracting a broader audience, having a site downtown will allow the museum space to build larger galleries without the constraints of building in a historic district. Sweeping galleries are generally needed to show much of the latest art being produced today.
Compared with around 65,000 square feet of gallery space in the uptown Piano addition, the High Line site will have about 100,000 to 150,000 square feet of gallery space, Mr. Weinberg said. The current Breuer building has some 30,000 square feet.
Mr. Lauder said: “The key word here is footprint. We will be able to stage shows horizontally rather than vertically.” Previous uptown expansions jettisoned by the Whitney include a $37 million addition by Michael Graves canceled in 1985 and a $200 million design by Rem Koolhaas scrapped in 2003.
Mr. Piano’s project met with heated opposition from preservationists who objected to the elimination of brownstone facades on Madison Avenue, part of the Upper East Side Historic District. After the Whitney agreed to maintain that facade, the project was approved in July by the city’s Board of Standards.
In addition to a second site the Whitney is also planning to upgrade the Breuer building significantly, with improvements like new, double-glazed windows and a better climate control system, Mr. Lauder said.
“The Breuer building is now 40 years old, and a lot of technology has happened since it was built,” Mr. Lauder said. “It is our iconic building, and we are planning to put a lot of money into it.” While he said it was too early to say just how much “a lot” is, he estimated the cost of refurbishing the building at $20 million to $40 million.
While taking note of the creation of dual-site museums like the Tate in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Mr. Weinberg said the Whitney was hoping to invent a model of its own. “We are envisioning both sites will show contemporary and historic art,” he said.
The Whitney will continue to devote itself to American art, he said, but “it will be American art in the broadest sense seen within an international context.” In addition to providing room to spread out, he added, the downtown space will allow the museum to keep adding to its collection.
Mr. Weinberg said the museum intended to strengthen its performing arts, education and film programs, which will all be based downtown.
While Dia had planned to lease the downtown site from the city, the Whitney’s deal calls for buying 820 Washington Street and 555 West Street, abandoned shell structures adjacent to each another. The city will charge the Whitney roughly half the appraised value of the two buildings, said Jan Rothschild, a spokeswoman for the Whitney.
“We like the character and the grittiness of the neighborhood,” Mr. Weinberg said of the meatpacking district. “We want to keep the museum as low as possible.” Plans call for about 15,000 square feet of meat market space as well as offices for the High Line in the complex.
Rather than dwell on the death blow to the Piano addition, Whitney officials sought to portray the move as a homecoming of sorts. The institution, which began in Greenwich Village in 1918 as the Whitney Studio Club, became the Whitney Museum in 1931.
“We’re returning to our roots,” Mr. Weinberg said. “So much of the first half of our collection was made around 14th Street and below, and so many artists whose works we have live within a 20-block radius. We see this as reconnecting with the artists’ community.”