The First Lady was in her future home/New York City today, to help open the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District. Michelle Obama thanked the artists for all the works "that grace the walls, the floors, the ceilings," and saved some love for the oft-overlooked elevator designers, declaring, "This is the most beautiful freight elevator I’ve ever ridden on."
She gave a hearty thumbs up to Renzo Piano's polarizing design: "I fell in love with the building. It is an amazing space. But I love it even more after Renzo Piano talked about it. Doesn’t he just make you love the building even more? The piazza? What a gift."
The First Lady also praised the new museum's inaugural exhibit, America Is Hard To See, noting, "Because that title isn’t just a statement of fact, it’s a challenge that the Whitney has embraced with open arms—the challenge of truly seeing America in all of its glory and complexity. With this exhibit, all of you at the Whitney -- the staff, everyone here, all the artists—have asked the question, 'How can we truly, fully witness the melting pot of cultures and sensibilities and struggles that make America unlike any other country on earth?'" She continued:
"This is a bold, very hard question. And this exhibit isn’t trying to provide any kind of definitive answer. Instead, it’s doing something even more important -- it’s inviting us to answer this question for ourselves, each of us reflecting and rethinking our assumptions as we walk through these galleries. And I think that will be an incredibly powerful experience for anyone who comes here to visit. But it will be particularly powerful for our young people.
"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.
"And that’s one of the reasons why Barack and I, when we first came to Washington, we vowed to open up the White House to as many young people as possible, especially those who ordinarily wouldn’t have a chance to visit. So just about every time we host any kind of cultural event, a concert or performance, we ask the performers to come a few hours early and host a special workshop just for our young people.
"The message we’re trying to send is simple. We’re telling our young people: The White House is your house. You belong here just as much as anyone else in this country. We’re telling them: Make yourselves at home in this house. Be inspired by the artists and performers you see. And start dreaming just a little bigger, start reaching just a little higher for yourself.
"And with this inaugural exhibition, the Whitney is really sending the same message to young people and to people of every background across this country. You’re telling them that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen. And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here. You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute.
"One of those young people said this about the Whitney -- and this is a quote we pulled -- said, 'Having gone through the program, I’ve felt like the museum is home to me. Even if I’ve never been to a particular museum before, I just know how to be in [that] space.'
"Another young person going through one of the programs said, 'I could rise above the negativity I saw around me every day within my community.' Because of the work that you do here, that’s the impact you’re having on kids every day.
"And in the end, that’s why I’m here today, and I know that’s why we’re all here today. I’m here because I believe so strongly in that mission, and because I think that every cultural institution in this country should be doing this kind of outreach and engagement with our young people every single day."
Mayor de Blasio, also present for the dedication, waxed poetic about the museum's start:
"I particularly love that this museum’s origins are in something so powerfully typical of our city. Think about Greenwich Village - 1907 - ideas being thought far from the mainstream, far over the horizon. And in New York City, one thing we are blessed by is if you think that way, if you see something that’s not in the mainstream and isn’t yet accepted, here you’ll find others who want to join that dream, who want to believe with you, who want to create something different.
"This dream began in 1907 with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and has grown, and grown, and grown just as freedom of thought, and cultural expression, and inclusion of all peoples have grown, and grown in this city. Extraordinary artists who are elevated here - now part of what we think of the core of American cultural history - once upon a time, outcasts.
"Once upon a time, unable to get a wider audience until they had this opportunity. And The Whitney today follows through on that belief structure in many other ways - makes culture available to so many in such a focused, pin-pointed manner; brings in young people; focuses on so many young people who still to this day experience discrimination and negativity. There’s a special focus on mentoring our LGBT youth. There’s free workshops for our seniors as well. There’s focus on adults with HIV and AIDS. So much happens through The Whitney to uplift. And yes, a focus on the students in our public schools from every walk of life, every background - this museum has made it a point to be an open door to them."
The Whitney opens tomorrow, but there will be free admission on Saturday, May 2 (tickets are usually $22 for adults), along with a big block party: "Throughout the day, booths designed by a diverse group of contemporary artists and community organizations will offer activities for a range of audiences, including karaoke, map making, and performance workshops. Large-scale acts on the main stage will include all-ages performances, including puppetry, dance, music, and poetry."