For the past two weeks the new Whitney Museum of American Art has been on top of the [art] world, and rightly so; the new space is gorgeous in the amazing building by starchitect Renzo Piano, and their prescient idea to move down to the start of the High Line before it was wildly popular is like a check chess move on MoMA. They even got Michelle Obama to grace the ribbon cutting ceremony. Obama looked fantastic in a beautiful white floral dress and elegantly spoke to the small, proper crowd the Whitney had gathered for the event.
Politics and the arts are often a bad mix: think Rudolph Giuliani and his attempt to block the Chris Ofili painting at the Brooklyn Museum. Even when politicians have the best intentions they do not get it right. I remember when President Clinton toured a museum and was asked to comment on his favorite work. He said it was a print of Abraham Lincoln because it looked realistic. The politician truest to the arts was Václav Havel (pictured under Obama) who served as president of Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic for ten years. A playwright himself, Havel was immersed in the arts. He went to concerts of all kinds of music, and attended openings of various cultural spaces, no matter how small. He even took off his shirt and danced bare chested with the Aborigines when they invited him to join their ceremony during an official trip to Australia.
I listened to the whole, almost hour-long Whitney dedication (available on YouTube, and the Whitney's site) with speeches from many speakers. I was not expecting any deep comment on art from Obama, but I was surprised that her speech was a little insulting. It all looked great on the surface and received giddy applause but it was off mark. Conservative media jumped all over it, calling it divisive. For the most part they are right.
Obama's speech is also available as a transcript from the White House's website. Here is the section that fueled the backlash:
You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people. Michelle Obama
I was surprised by this because New York cultural institutions do a fantastic job getting everyone in to see their collections and experience performances, and museums either have suggested donations or a free day. It sounded more like a personal/parenting issue than a fault of museums. The other thing is that Obama has a law degree so she should know that cultural institutions in the United States are typically set up as 501c3 not-for-profit educational institutions. This means that the underlying purpose of a museum with this status is for educational outreach. At the Whitney, anyone under 18 has free admittance all the time, and that includes access to educational programs and tours.
I also thought that maybe Obama was simply not comfortable talking about art. In my mind an artist has a greater influence and cultural power than a president but she ranks them, and trumps the artist. Toward the end of her speech she says,
One visit, one performance, one touch, and who knows how you could spark a child’s imagination. As the Mayor said, maybe you could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better. Maybe you could discover the next Carmen Herrera or Archibald Motley or Edward Hopper...
(then she laughs to herself and continues) or, yes, maybe even the next Barack Obama.
This has such a weird tone to it, like much of her speech, which has a few back-handed compliments. Play that last comment back with...Pablo Picasso or yes, maybe even the next G.W. Bush...or...Georgia O'Keeffe or yes, maybe even the next Jimmy Carter to see the disconnect of her remark from another angle.
Pictured below Havel, in order of her listing, are the artists she references. It has been said that Hopper is the "Whitney's Picasso." In fact, when I just searched the Whitney's collection on their site, I found they own 3,154 works by Hopper. They only have one work in their collection by Carmen Herrera (detailed here, Blanco y Verde), and when I searched for Archibald Motley I got "Sorry, No Results." Despite this, the Whitney is planning a show from October 2, 2015- January 17, 2016 - Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist.