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The Whitney Women and the Museum they Made by Flora Miller Biddle

Arcade Publishing, 1999

I’d visited the Whitney Museum a couple of times at its old Madison Avenue location, and was pleased to find myself in NYC in the summer of 2015, shortly after the opening of the new Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District. I’d been meaning to walk the wonderful High Line for a while, and so, making the most of a jetlagged early morning, I climbed the steps at 34th Street and walked the entire length of this extraordinary railway-turned-park, arriving at the Whitney just before it opened.

After an enjoyable couple of hours following the new chronological layout of the collection from top to bottom, I landed in the book shop and came across this 1999 memoir of Flora Miller Biddle, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s granddaughter and president of the museum 1977-1995, and now Honorary Chairman at the age of 93. I’d had visions of finding a café and devouring it over a coffee or glass of wine, but in reality have only got to it now, six years later. And I’m glad that I did, for it fits with a number of themes.

First and foremost, The Whitney Women is a reminder that all of the world’s great museums have their genesis in an idea from a previous time, and have survived and expanded because that idea remains relevant. The Whitney was started in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who, importantly, was an heiress in her own right.

Her husband Harry Whitney, whose chief interest in life was playing sports, showed very little interest in art, the museum or indeed in Gertrude herself as time went by – and yet, by the conventions of marriage, the museum bears his name. This truly is an example of a high-achieving woman being “written out” of history – or at least, being hard to find without a lot of digging.

An artist and sculptor herself, Gertrude noted that the wealthy of early twentieth-century America were preoccupied with buying up the art of Europe, in an attempt to take on some of the characteristics of the European aristocracy. Contemporary American artists, who sought to comment on contemporary issues, were of no interest to collectors.

When announcing the new museum in 1930, Gertrude commented: “Ever since museums were invented, contemporary liberal artists have had difficulty in “crashing the gate.” Museums have had the habit of waiting until a painter or sculptor had acquired a certain official recognition before they would accept his work within their sacred portals. Exactly the contrary practice will be carried on at the Whitney.”

Even more radically, she wanted to concentrate on “the worth of the artist, as well as the work.” As such, she set up studio space which promising contemporary artists could use free of charge – and the museum was built from there. As her granddaughter, the author, puts it: “For the first time in America, artists could actually make a living by their art... And the Whitney Museum of American Art, through Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, was in large part responsible.”

This book turned out to be an apt follow-on to my recent reading of Alan Greenspan & Adrian Wooldridge’s Capitalism in America (see previous post), and to my recent opinion piece for Tortoise, in which I argue that the arts in the UK have become addicted to public money, and that it’s time to encourage a plurality of funding models.

America may be the world leader in entrepreneurialism and wealth creation, but this book reminds us that it’s also the world leader in philanthropy, with a tradition for private individuals, corporations and trusts funding the arts, which exists nowhere else on quite the same scale. As far as I can tell, the Whitney never took any public money – in common with most arts institutions in the US.

This stands in stark contrast to institutions of equivalent standing in Europe, which are predominantly state-funded, with the Royal Academy of Arts really the only UK institution which can be said to have followed self-funding model. The make-up of the Whitney’s board is notably different to its UK equivalents (whereas trustees of the National Gallery or the V&A are unpaid public appointments, trustees of the Whitney are wealthy donors), but the output is strikingly similar. Despite being mostly self-funded, that the Whitney, the Met or MOMA play on the world stage alongside the National Gallery, the V&A and the Tate is not in dispute.

Flora Miller Biddle sums up the relationship between art and money neatly towards the end of the book: “odd, almost the only thing left of all the power and wealth (of the Vanderbilt and Whitney dynasties) is the museum Gertrude created. What does that say? Powerful men today, no doubt, recognise what it says. If they want to be remembered, aim at the long term. Buy a museum.”

The Whitney Women is ultimately a personal memoir, although this element falls a little flat in the shadow of Flora’s illustrious grandmother, who of course is the real driving force in the story. The author had little interest in the museum in her early life, which can be seen as deliberate in wanting to carve out an identity for herself beyond her family. She was 50 when she took the reins, and thereafter it became all-consuming.

The irony is that it’s the museum which leads her to self-actualise, although she never quite felt comfortable with the business side: “(the Museum) represented a real, attainable paradise filled with all I felt I lacked: art, intellect, accomplishment … despite my excitement, however, the money business terrified me.”

She concludes that “in this book, I’ve chosen what facts to use to bolster my own truth.... it tells of a change in an institution and change in me.”

The shadow of Gertrude may pervade all, but Flora and her mother before her, Flora Whitney Miller, build and grow what is a under-appreciated as a female-led institution in a male-dominated world: “Thinking of these generations of women, I see us as emerging from each other, fitting together like those Russian Matrushka dolls. Using our collective past to go on to an independent future.”

It’s a reminder that all great institutions started have their origins in a story, and that they have only flourished because that baton has been passed on and nurtured.

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