The trouble with the Whitneys

Artwork that slams Rudy Giuliani's reaction to "Sensation" leads to a little dynastic squabble that may cause the family to withdraw its name -- and not-so-little fortune -- from the museum.

Published March 15, 2000 2:52PM (EST)

In a way, the 1923 photograph in Sunday's New York Post told much of the
story: heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, great-granddaughter of
19th century robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, standing at the top of
a ladder, outstretched arm touching the shoulder of her sculpture of a tall,
dashing man in breeches. He squints at the distant horizon, while Gertrude's
eyes are lowered; she appears desperate, as if she is losing her grasp on
her Art.

Seventy years after Gertrude founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in
Greenwich Village, some of her descendants are openly talking about removing
the family name -- and, more importantly, a sizable portion of its money --
from the institution. The rift is over a work of art by Hans Haacke, called
"Sanitation," which was commissioned by Whitney director Maxwell Anderson
for the museum's upcoming 2000 Biennial Exhibition. The installation
apparently links Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Nazism, highlighting his
denunciations of the recent "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of

"Sanitation" reportedly consists of quotations -- including three from the
mayor about his opposition to "Sensation" -- printed in the Fraktur Gothic
typeface favored by Hitler's Third Reich. Beneath the quotations, according
to the New York Times, Haacke will place a row of eight to 12 garbage cans, each
fitted with a speaker playing the sounds of marching troops. The 2000
Biennial Exhibition opens March 23.

According to the Post, Haacke's art has the Whitney "bluebloods seeing red":
Feuding family members include Marylou Whitney, so angry she wants to
disinherit and strip the family name from the institution; Gertrude
Vanderbilt Whitney Conner, who called Haacke's work "a horrible thing that
desecrates the memory of all Holocaust victims"; and Flora Miller Biddle,
who disagrees with her relatives, writing in a letter, "'Sanitation' ... is a
wholly legitimate and powerful work." Biddle's daughter, Fiona Donovan, also
signed the letter.

"It is regrettable that so many have chosen to lash out at an artist who has
consistently been a voice of social conscience," writes Biddle, who like
Conner is a granddaughter of Gertrude Whitney. "This country should allow
the free and unfettered expression of ideas through art."

If you think the rarefied Whitney clan was horrified to see itself depicted
on two consecutive front pages of Rupert Murdoch's loud-mouthed Post -- "THE
QUITNEYS," followed by "WHITNEY FAMILY FEUD" -- well, not exactly. The saga
began largely in the New York tab's pages, thanks to an "exclusive"
interview obtained by Gershe Kuntzman with a "tearful" Marylou,
daughter-in-law of Gertrude. "They're trying to do what the Brooklyn Museum
[of Art] did, which is raise ticket sales with disgusting art," Whitney told
the Post. "So why don't they change their name to 'The Sensation Museum' and
get my family's name out of it?" The 73-year-old heiress to the $100 million
family fortune is also threatening to take the museum out of her substantial

This time New York's mayor has decided to sit out the funding fracas,
telling a news conference, "The real concern of the city has to be when
public money is being used. If this is privately funded, and I believe that
it is, then the governmental objection to it passes away. The government has
no right to intervene." But the pugnacious Giuliani couldn't resist taking a
swipe at the art: "There is an issue here about demeaning the whole
historical and contemporary importance of the Holocaust," he said.

Gertrude Whitney studied sculpture in New York and Paris, opened a
Village studio in 1907 and in her career created public sculptures in
Washington, New York, Saint-Nazaire, France, and Palos, Spain. A
great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the American shipping
and railroad magnate who acquired a personal fortune of more than $100
million, Gertrude's father (also Cornelius) was a financier and art patron.
At age 21 she married Harry Payne Whitney, heir to an oil and tobacco
empire. Fortunes merged and multiplied.

A year after New Yorks' Metropolitan Museum of Art spurned her offer to
contribute her entire collection of American modernist artists, Gertrude
founded a museum of her own. The Whitney, as it is known, opened in
November 1931. The museum moved uptown 12 years after Gertrude's death in
1942, first to West 54th Street and finally to West 75th Street and Madison
Avenue, where it still resides.

The Whitney dynasty also had strong connections to the arts, as well as
politics, publishing and entertainment. John Hay ("Jock") Whitney was a
multimillionaire publisher, financier, philanthropist, horse breeder and
internationally ranked polo player. He invested in Broadway plays and used
his financial muscle to help David O. Selznick obtain the screen rights to
"Gone With the Wind" before its publication. He served as U.S. ambassador to
Great Britain from 1956 to 1961. He acquired the New York Herald Tribune in
1958 and tried to revive the newspaper until it ran out of steam in 1966.

Jock was also interested in art; he was a trustee of the New York Museum of Modern
Art from its inception in 1931 until his death in 1982.
Like many of his relatives, he also had one of the finest art collections in
the United States. The Whitney family has held some of the world's most
valuable art, including works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Picasso, Monet and

It's hard to imagine what the Old Guard Whitneys would have made of the work
of Haacke, who has taken on tough pols like Ronald Reagan and Margaret
Thatcher. Haacke is also known for creating a giant pack of cigarettes
called "Helmsboro," with the words "Philip Morris funds Jesse Helms" printed
on each one.

Anticipating the stink over "Sanitation," Whitney director Anderson
released a statement Friday defending Haacke's work, citing a 30-year career
that "has consisted of unceasing assaults on authoritarianism in any form,
and of exposing the hidden vestiges of Nazism in Germany and Austria." But
even Anderson admitted, "I personally recoil at the likening of these
contemporary public figures to Nazis and regret the pain that this is
causing many." The Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham
Foxman, has also taken issue with the museum for its plans to display the

In response to her niece and grand-niece's letter, Marylou Whitney said, "The museum
is free to associate itself with trash, but I have a right not to associate
myself with it." The $1 million she had planned to give the Whitney this
year will now be re-directed to the institution's cousin, the Whitney
Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyo. "My checkbook is out right now."

By Frank Houston

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Frank Houston

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