May 20, 2016

Experience the Whitney Studio Firsthand

New Tour Highlights Work and Legacy of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

New York Studio School, Whitney Studio

photo by: New York Studio School

When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney opened her Whitney Museum of American Art on New York’s West 8th. St. in 1931, she declared it was to help contemporary American artists succeed in “crashing the gate” to achieve acclaim for their work.

It could fairly be said that Mrs. Whitney spent her own life “crashing the gate,” gaining fame as sculptor, patron of the arts and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Beginning June 3, visitors to the site that housed Mrs. Whitney’s studio and museum can learn about her remarkable work and legacy through a new guided tour of this National Historic Landmark, now occupied by the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.

More than a year in development, the tour was created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation which designated the Whitney Studio a National Treasure in 2015. Tour stops include rooms that were used as artists’ studios and exhibition spaces for the Whitney Museum.

National Trust staff members and media received a sneak peek of the tour on May 11 and it garnered coverage everywhere from our own social media channels (the pictures throughout this story came from @savingplaces on Instagram) to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and blogs like Untapped Cities and Curbed.

A highlight of the tour is a stop in the Whitney Studio where Mrs. Whitney achieved her dream of becoming a successful sculptor. Originally part of a carriage house hayloft, the space was converted into her private studio. Tour-goers will enjoy hearing stories about Mrs. Whitney’s creations—which included a sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair, the famed equestrian statue of Buffalo Bill, and a winning design for a memorial to the victims of the Titanic sinking—in the newly renovated space.

Research for the new tour made clear Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s strong determination to forge her own path despite the expectations that she should take her place in New York’s early 20th-century high society. The tour traces Mrs. Whitney’s life, starting as a daughter of the exceedingly wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice Claypoole Gwynee Vanderbilt and following her eventual decision to ignore social convention to pursue a career as a sculptor and patron of contemporary American art.

Throughout the tour, Mrs. Whitney’s own words bring the stories to life. Her blunt honesty is sometimes startling as in her explanation of the desire to be a sculptor: “I couldn’t free myself from certain feelings. I wanted to work. I was not very satisfied or happy with my life.”

Mrs. Whitney’s words also make clear her realization of the condescension about her work: “The public at large refused to believe I was doing anything serious. The people I met were all very nice about it. Very. In the manner that a fond parent pats a wayward child on the head. In a manner that implied that everything was lovely and sweet, but that I should get over it in time.”

Tour-goers will learn that this reaction only made Mrs. Whitney more determined to succeed in her own work and in her support of other artists, showing small exhibitions of their work, hosting art competitions and amassing a collection of more than 600 works of contemporary American art. As her patronage expanded, so did the space, growing to include four town houses and carriage houses.

The fireplace blends right into the ceiling in the Whitney Studio at @ny_studioschool

A photo posted by Saving Places (@savingplaces) on

In 1931, the building complex was opened as the Whitney Museum of American Art—the first museum exclusively devoted to American art of the 20th century. Drawing some 4,000 visitors on opening day, the museum quickly became an institution in New York City. (This legacy continues with the new Whitney Museum of American Art which opened in May 2015 on Gansevoort Street.)

Visitors will learn about MacDougal Alley, the artists’ enclave where Mrs. Whitney chose to locate her studio in 1907; her friendships with fellow artists including Daniel Chester French, James Earle Fraser, and Robert Chanler (designer of the Whitney Studio space—including the fireplace and ceiling); and the support she gave to American artists through purchases, commissions, and exhibits, in the process reshaping the landscape of American art in the early 20th century.

The tour will also include current information on activities at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. The school carries on the legacy of Mrs. Whitney for a new generation of artists and reaches out to the public with a continual schedule of art exhibits and lectures by artists, historians, and art critics.

Tours are offered at no charge. Although spots are filling fast, visit the New York Studio School website to see available dates and to sign up for their newsletter for new dates as they are scheduled.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

Learn More