I’ll start with a confession: last month, in New York City, I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art and didn’t pay close attention to any of the art. It’s sacrilegious, I know—especially for a member of the Princeton Art Museum SAB. In my defense, while I was in New York City, I also visited the Neue Galerie and went to the Met twice. Those times, I did pay attention to my glorious surroundings. I even read the placards. So why am I here now, writing about my experience at the Whitney rather than my—perhaps more, ahem, intellectual—experiences at other museums? Because there was something about my visit to the Whitney that was so much more striking. It showed me the value of museums as spaces for personal experiences.
It was my last day in New York City. The Whitney closed at 5 o’clock and, due to bad planning and late subways, my boyfriend and I only got there at 4:30. We had managed to conquer public transportation; we’re both art lovers; we didn’t trek all the way there for nothing. We still bought tickets. And I decided I still wanted to see everything.
Exterior of the Whitney Museum (Photo by Ed Lederman; http://whitney.org/About/NewBuilding)
We started at the top: the 8th floor was home of the outdoor terrace whose breathtaking view of the Meatpacking District I had seen countless photos of. Then we ran through that floor and all the floors below it (by “ran” I mean a breathless sort of fast walk—had we actually run, the security guards would have hated us even more than they probably already did). We were on a mission, surely—to take in as much of the Whitney as possible. It was a half-hour full of glimpses of beautiful art that my mind remembers in swirls of color and brushstrokes. It was doors that led to stark white staircases with drop-dead gorgeous views of the city I loved. It was a race against time; it was a scene from a John Green novel (though that sounds so painfully cliché to say). I wish I could personally apologize to the artwork—I know it all deserves to be stood in front of, pondered at. But the experience itself was art. It was the most powerful dosage of aesthetic I could take at once (and I can take a lot of aesthetic).
The Whitney Museum’s 8th-floor outdoor terrace with a glimpse of the view beyond (https://whitney.org/image_columns/0069/9587/6_cafe_03_800.jpg)
The artsy picture I had to get on the outdoor terrace.
My experience reminded me that museums are not just vessels for art. They are living, breathing spaces themselves—spaces where magic can happen. Just take some of the yearly events at the Princeton Art Museum, for example: the Nassau Street Sampler, the SAB Gala, Failed Love. I’ve heard a few of my peers worry about how they think people don’t pay enough attention to the museum’s artwork at these events. My response: maybe they don’t. But for everyone at those events, whether or not they spend enough time looking at the art, magic is happening. And that magic is an experience within itself. (And it will probably encourage them to revisit the museum later so they can give the art the attention it deserves. Like how I want to revisit the Whitney one day. And actually look at the art closely. Sorry about that again, Whitney.)