Whitney’s Breuer Building Should Become the New International Center of Photography

International Center of Photogrphy is seeking a new home, and the Whitney’s Breuer Building would serve perfectly. A new proposal by Jason Edward Kaufman calls for the Breuer building to serve as ICP's new home. He calls on New York City to help finance the relocation, if the instititions could agree on a plan.
The Whitney Museum's building by Marcel Breuer. (Photo (c) Ezra Stoller)

A new proposal by Jason Edward Kaufman calls for the Breuer building to serve as ICP’s new home. The city should promote and help finance the relocation.

The fate of the Whitney Museum’s longtime home on Madison Avenue should be of concern to everyone with an interest in the cultural life of New York City. Designed by Marcel Breuer, the structure is an architectural landmark that has housed an integral component of the cultural fabric of the city for nearly half a century. The Whitney plans to open a new flagship in the Meatpacking District in 2015, and claims that it will operate the uptown building as a second facility. No one believes this. The museum has had enough trouble operating one facility let alone two. So the question remains: What becomes of the Breuer building?

While the Whitney’s leaders dissemble about their long-term intentions, they have made known that they are in discussion with The Metropolitan Museum to lease the Breuer building for use as a temporary showcase either for the Met’s 20th-century art or some collaboration between the two museums. During the lease, the Met would renovate its Wallace Wing for modern and contemporary art, after which the Met would return home rather than seek to operate in perpetuity a satellite museum on Madison Avenue. So, again we are left with the question, what would be the ideal use of the Whitney’s building on Madison Avenue?

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Justin Davidson wrote a piece recently in New York magazine advancing the suggestion of Robert A.M. Stern that the Breuer building should become a museum of architecture. It’s a lovely idea, and Davidson is a lively and persuasive writer. Indeed, there is considerable public interest in the celebrity-studded field of architecture. And if the tiny Skyscraper Museum near the Battery and the NY chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ Center for Architecture in the Village draw only a few visitors, a full-size museum in the heavily trafficked Upper East Side would attract many more.

But there are practical and fundamental problems with the idea. For starters, a new museum of architecture would need a collection, and most of the important documents for the history of the field already are ensconced in museums and archives such as the Getty and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. If the fledgling museum were building a collection it would have to focus only on contemporary architecture, and most practitioners are not willing to part with their archives until they retire. Besides, their archives are mainly digital files and not the stuff of great exhibitions.

Let’s say the institution were a non-collecting kunsthalle for loan exhibitions. MoMA and the Guggenheim have mounted highly successful shows of celebrated architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, but lesser lights are a harder sell to the general public. That’s why museums dedicated to architecture tend to serve a specialist rather than general audience. Have you ever considered making a special trip to visit the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, or the National Building Museum in Washington?

Museum displays of architecture are notoriously difficult. Construction plans are not all that interesting to non-specialists, so shows tend to focus on models, photographs and increasingly videos and digital animations. Such displays could work in the Breuer building, but I imagine that a vital museum of architecture these days will incorporate actual architectural works in its program – like PS1’s Young Architects Program, or the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion series in London. An architecture museum in the Breuer building could commission projects for the sunken court along Madison Avenue, but that’s a constrained setting, and the City Parks Department would never condone an ongoing presence in Central Park.

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And even if it were ideal for an architecture museum, the Breuer building would be virtually unaffordable for a fledgling institution and the proposed museum would be a start-up. It would take more than $100 million to acquire the building, and hundreds of millions more to operate it. And while one reasonably could expect that a new museum of architecture would attract a ready supply of patrons among developers, contractors, building suppliers and architects themselves, all have inherent conflicts of interest. The institution would have trouble coming across as much more than a promotional vehicle for vested commercial interests. (It’s noteworthy that existing museums of architecture tend to be government-funded or supported by individuals independent of the commercial sphere of architecture.)

In other words, the Breuer building is not going to become a New York Museum of Architecture anytime soon.

A Museum of Photography for Museum Mile

I have a better idea: the Whitney building would make an ideal museum of photography. And coincidentally, the city’s existing museum in that field, the International Center of Photography, is looking for a new building. Its current lease on the lower floors of 1133 Avenue of the Americas at West 43rd Street runs out in 2013. Honorary trustee Douglas Durst, whose company owns that tower, has charged ICP minimal rent, but sources tell me that the option to renew will be at market rates. The institution has been searching Manhattan for a larger new facility or a place to build one. The plan is to combine the gallery and the ICP school under one roof — the school currently operates across the avenue in the basement of the Grace Building — and there is no better facility in New York than the Breuer building to serve this purpose.

ICP belongs on Museum Mile where visitors would expect to find a photography museum. Indeed, the move would be a return to its roots: the institution began in 1974 in a brownstone on East 94th Street at Fifth Avenue, and moved in 2000 to Avenue of the Americas. Now a more mature entity, it should return to the museum district where its programs would so sensibly augment the offerings of neighboring institutions. ICP has a track record of organizing and mounting significant and meritorious exhibitions. And it has a growing permanent collection of more than 100,000 items with no room for its ongoing display.

The Breuer building would roughly quadruple ICP’s current 17,000 square feet; the Whitney has 32,000 square feet of exhibition space and more than that area for office, storage and other functions. The scale of the galleries and ceiling heights, deemed inadequate to the Whitney’s contemporary-art needs, are ideally suited for the display of photographs, which tend to correspond in scale to paintings, drawings and prints. On the rare occasions when the main galleries have been committed to photography exhibitions they have proven a superb setting; remember how comfortably and handsomely they contained the Eggleston show a couple of years ago. And there is ample room in which to house the school.

Several sources tell me that ICP has discussed the Breuer building with the Whitney, but ICP officials decline to provide details. All they say is that they continue to explore site options. But they are not going to find a more ideal site than the Breuer building (the very greyness of its stone is resonant of the photographic medium). And the move is an ideal solution not only for ICP, but for the Whitney, the City and the public, as well. The main barrier would likely be cost.

It is not clear that the Whitney is willing to sell, but even a long-term lease would strain ICP, which would have to fund conversion costs in addition to rent. The project would require a capital campaign of a scale far beyond any previous financial challenge that its board has faced. But if the making the Breuer building into a new home for ICP is even a remote possibility, the City should invest heavily in promoting dialogue between the institutions, and in subsidizing the relocation. The move would fix another jewel in the City’s cultural crown and insure stability for a key site on Madison Avenue. The City should use its political power and its cultural facilities capital budget to make this happen.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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8 Responses

  1. maybe the icp and the drawing center could share the breuer building? it would create the most dynamic institution in the country for works on paper. and with 2 institutions involved, the fund-raising might not be so daunting.

  2. ICP needs room for exhibitions, offices, storage and its school. There may be space left over, but The Drawing Center won’t be moving anytime soon. They recently bought space upstairs and they’re renovating it, along with space downstairs.

  3. Brilliant idea, seems to make a lot of sense.
    the Whitney’s gallery spaces work very well with photographs, and to have a art space dedicated to Photograph on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile would be very complimentary and even necessary. It is time for Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand and Weston and all the great New York photographers to be seen in one venue in conjunction with contemporary photography from all around the world. very exciting potential!

  4. To replace one museum by another is what comes to mind in the first instant. On a second thought what else can this landmark become? This is a challenge not excluding an exhibition space.
    Is a public participation through a competition appropriate? By itself it would create an awareness of the transition before it would turn into another ‘missed opportunity’.

    1. Eytan, I am all for public participation. These things generally are decided on the basis of money, but when dealing with nonprofits that value their relationship to their neighbors, opening the process to public opinion is a good idea. That is one function of the media and columns like this one.
      P.S.: Interesting that we share the same last name, and that I have a brother Ethan.

  5. I think it’s a terrific idea; perfect marriage of building and institution, both in need. In your piece, however, you neglected to mention Storefront for Art and Architecture as NYC’s most vital venue for the exhibition of contemporary architecture (and much else); also in an iconic – tiny in comparison to the Whitney – architectural landmark.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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