Whitney Museum sells Breuer Building to Sotheby's for about $100 million

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Whitney Museum sells Breuer Building to Sotheby's for about $100 million
The Whitney Museum’s 1966 Brutalist-style building by Marcel Breuer, which the museum has sold to Sotheby’s auction house, in New York, Dec. 23, 2014. The auction house will move its Manhattan headquarters to the architectural icon on Madison Avenue in 2025. (Richard Perry/The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- Confirming rumors that had the art world abuzz this spring, Sotheby’s said Thursday that it has purchased the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1966 brutalist building by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue and will move its headquarters there from York Avenue in 2025.

The purchase price of the Breuer building was not disclosed, but two people involved in the deal, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to publicly discuss it, put the figure at about $100 million.

“It’s bittersweet,” Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, said about parting with the building permanently. “I know every square inch of it and think it’s one of the great art monuments out there. It’s a masterpiece of modern architecture.”

Charles F. Stewart, Sotheby’s CEO, called the Breuer building “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we couldn’t pass up,” adding that “the location couldn’t be more ideal for our client base” to view art, attend sales and meet with specialists.

“The chance to buy an iconic museum in any major city — this doesn’t happen,” Stewart continued. Although the auction house will hire an architect to reimagine the Breuer’s interior and create a salesroom within the five-story structure — it is in a landmark district but does not itself have landmark designation — Stewart said Sotheby’s was “committed to preserving the integrity of what’s loved about the building,” including the lobby.

Weinberg, who plans to step down next fall after 20 years, said the Breuer no longer made sense for the Whitney to retain, given that the museum has doubled its exhibition space in its new Renzo Piano-designed headquarters, which also has a more accessible and welcoming presence.

“It was built for a time of large easel paintings,” Weinberg said of the Breuer. “For us, it became clear it did not really make sense to have a divided Whitney; how do you divide it?” he added. “Also, we don’t want to be landlords.”

For Sotheby’s, the Breuer represents an opportunity to improve on its York Avenue location, moving closer to the heart of the Upper East Side art world, an area that includes large galleries like Gagosian, Mnuchin and Acquavella, and where smaller galleries are proliferating. The Madison Avenue location will also allow for more foot traffic to Sotheby’s exhibitions — namely, its pre-auction previews, which give members of the public the opportunity to view prized works of art before they disappear into private hands.

The move represents a return to Sotheby’s roots, given that the auction house once occupied the Parke-Bernet Galleries across Madison Avenue, where Gagosian is now.

The deal — which Sotheby’s and the Whitney refused to confirm in response to queries from The New York Times in April — finally resolves the fate of the Breuer building, which has hung in the balance since the Whitney moved down to the meatpacking district in 2015. Would the Whitney ultimately take back the building and operate uptown as well as downtown? Would the Breuer building end up as some wealthy person’s private residence or a fancy retail store?

Many questioned whether the Whitney would make a successful new start in that scrappier part of Manhattan, having become so closely linked with the Breuer. What was the Whitney without Breuer? What was Breuer without the Whitney?

Leonard A. Lauder, the Whitney’s powerful chair emeritus, initially opposed the museum’s move downtown as risky and insisted that the Whitney commit to not selling the Breuer for 20 years. But Lauder ultimately became a convert to the new location, and it was named for him: the Leonard A. Lauder Building.

“When the discussion started, it was before the completion of the High Line, before Hudson Yards started and before a lot of the major building boom,” Lauder told the Times in 2016. “I was afraid, in truth, that the Whitney would be a lonely institution down in a neighborhood that was waiting to happen. Well, it’s happening.”

Indeed, the Whitney in its new location has become an integral part of that neighborhood’s rejuvenation — helping spur continued residential and commercial development in the area around the High Line and Hudson Yards.

After the Whitney’s departure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art leased the building for six years, presenting contemporary art in the Met Breuer. Among its noteworthy shows were “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” featuring artworks in various states of completion, as well as the Kerry James Marshall retrospective, “Mastry.”

The Met spent about $15 million on its upgrade of the Breuer — including a considerable amount on the restaurant — and it cost the museum about $17 million a year to run the building.

In 2021, the Met handed off the space to the Frick Collection, which has used the building while its 1914 Gilded Age mansion on Fifth Avenue undergoes renovation.

Under Sotheby’s, the Breuer building at East 75th Street will include gallery and exhibition space as well as an auction salesroom. Still to be determined is whether the auction house will keep the below-ground restaurant.

Sotheby’s will take over the Breuer building in September 2024, when the Frick leaves. It plans to move in the following year.

The modernist building was designed by Breuer, a Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-trained architect. Although many disliked the building’s brooding, stolid architecture, the Breuer came to be considered the ideal space in which to show 20th and 21st century art and sculpture. “It married form and function, beautifully,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in the Times in 2015. “The exhibition floors weren’t just practical and flexible. They were also particular, refined and muscular, with their gridded concrete ceilings. Outside and in, the mix of gray granite, concrete and slate conveyed extreme finesse.”

Founded in 1930, the Whitney opened in 1931 on West Eighth Street near Fifth Avenue. In 1954, the museum moved to an expanded site at 22 W. 54th St. before moving to the Breuer in 1966. Before deciding to pick up stakes and move downtown, the Whitney considered several redesigns at its Breuer location, including expansions by Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano.

In 2024, Sotheby’s is to open its new flagship galleries in Hong Kong and Paris. Later this year, Sotheby’s will open Gantry Point in Long Island City, New York, a 240,000 square foot facility for art handling and storage.

Sotheby’s will retain ownership of the headquarters it has occupied since 1980 at 1334 York Ave. — expanding it in 2019 — and where the company will continue to operate until it moves to the Breuer building.

“I was very appreciative that they believed we will be great stewards of this building,” Stewart said of the Whitney. “Open to the public, presenting art — the use of the building will be consistent with the reason it was built. There is a continuum.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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