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Michelle Obama’s challenge to museums

1 May 2015

‘That’s why I’m here today!’, boomed First Lady Michelle Obama firmly at the ribbon-cutting ceremony during this week-long celebration of New York’s newest landmark, Renzo Piano’s building for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Mrs Obama is known for her commitment to advancing young people’s opportunities. But this is the first time she has spoken so powerfully at such a high profile public event about the vital role of the visual arts in education, and the responsibility of America’s 17,500 or so museums to get out there, and actively break down barriers to woo young people.

Michelle Obama at the Whitney opening ceremony.

‘…there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and say, “that’s not for me”.’ Michelle Obama addresses guests at the Whitney’s ribbon-cutting ceremony Photograph by Filip Wolak

‘You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and say, “that’s not for me”.’ She reckoned there were kids living within a mile of the Whitney ‘who would never dream they would be welcome in this museum’, bolstering her reasoning with memories of her own childhood on the south side of Chicago: ‘I’ve witnessed this’. When she and the President came to the White House, she said, ‘I vowed to open it up to as many young people as possible, to say to them: “The White House is your house. Make yourself at home. Be inspired and start dreaming just a little bigger, start reaching just a little higher.” The message we are trying to send is simple. The Whitney is really sending the same message.’ She referred to the inaugural exhibition, ‘America Is Hard to See’, which is ‘telling people the America story is their story, that they have something to contribute.’ And she praised the Whitney’s new wide-ranging education programme, ‘One New York’.

Then she came to her central point – no less than a direct instruction to the museum world ‘out there’ watching live online. ‘That’s why I’m here today’, she said. ‘I believe so strongly that every cultural institution in the country should be doing this outreach every single day. If you run a museum, make sure you are reaching out to kids in struggling communities. Can you use technology to reach kids who would never, ever be exposed to art otherwise?’

Photograph by Filip Wolak

Preview the new Whitney in our May issue

She honed her ‘simple’ message: ‘One visit, one performance, one touch and who knows how you can spark a child’s imagination.’ She then addressed young people themselves: ‘Maybe you can be the next Caroline Herrera or Archibald Motley or Edward Hopper or maybe, yeah, the next Barack Obama!’. She concluded with a challenge: ‘That’s the power of institutions like the Whitney, when they open their doors so wide.’

Who knows who persuaded the First Lady to fly up from Washington today; or who wrote that speech. One felt the hand of the Whitney’s skillful but self-effacing director Adam Weinberg who eschews much of high art society, explores art fairs during their quiet weeks with sandwiches stuffed into his pocket, and yet has achieved this new museum with both supporters and detractors (‘believe me there were’ he says openly). Certainly, the White House enjoys its Whitney loans, including two fine Hoppers hung in the Oval Office.

View from the Hudson River of the new Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art.

View from the Hudson River of the new Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Karin Jobst, 2014

Whatever happened, it was a coup. Mrs Obama has given a public wakeup call to American museums, many of which continue to exude an aura of elitism, fail to understand that state-funded schools need transport to and from the museum and not just a free ticket, and continue to charge hefty entrance fees for families who might like to make weekend visits. The Whitney is free to visitors under 18 years old; a good start. The full ticket price, however, is a whopping $22 for adults and $18 for students – unless you look closely at the small print to discover visitors pay what they wish on Fridays between 7pm and 10pm. Doors wide open? Come on, Whitney! You can do better than that.

Update: Empire State Building puts the Whitney in lights

This week of high profile private partying swung into its finale on Friday night when for the first time the Empire State Building’s nightly illuminations were inspired by contemporary art. As New Yorkers strolled the streets at the end of their working week, the Whitney sealed its new place as a fundamental part of the whole city’s life.

Photo: Empire State Realty Trust, Inc.

Lighting designer Marc Brickman, who has worked with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd, created a show inspired by a dozen of the Whitney’s best-known paintings. Some were household-familiar – Jasper Johns’ Three Flags (1958), Edward Hopper’s Railroad Sunset (1929), Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1970). Others seemed obvious choices for suffusing a building with colour, such as Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Blue, Yellow, Green on Red) (1954) and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Music Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918). All 12 pictures are in the Whitney’s inaugural show of 600 works by 400 artists selected from its permanent collection, America Is Hard to See, that fills six floors of its new building.

The light show ran from 8pm until 2am, each artist given a 30-minute slot. It was sometimes a bit of a stretch to match the lighting to the art work, though keen punters could find images of them and the schedule on line, and also follow the show there in real time. Those lucky enough to be at the Whitney enjoyed the show up close from its four terraces. For people on the streets, there were great views from near and far as the colours played on the much-loved 1931 Art Deco building that is consistently voted Americans’ favourite building and one of the world’s most recognizable silhouettes. Locals and tourists alike stopped, looked up, enjoyed them, and clicked to their Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook friends. The Whitney’s ephemeral light show was buzzed round the world, the best publicity it could have.

‘America is Hard to See’ is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from 1 May–27 September.

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