A flexible theatre gives Whitney Museum new potential

April 29, 2015

By moving from its iconic home on Madison Avenue to the heart of the culturally flourishing Meatpacking District, the aim of the Whitney Museum of American Art was not just to expand its physical footprint and provide more space for the 22,000-plus paintings, sculptures, and photographs in its permanent collection, but also to remake itself as a premier destination for all manner of cultural, educational, and artistic activities—far beyond what a museum typically offers.

To meet that ambitious goal, the new $422 million home of the Whitney Museum—nestled between the Hudson River and the High Line (elevated train tracks turned into a public park)—includes more than 13,000-square-feet of designated event space including four outdoor terraces, a restaurant, café, public gathering space, educational center, library reading room, and on the 2nd floor, a flexible, multipurpose theatre which will give the museum the freedom to feature live music, theatrical performances, lectures, movie screenings, social events, and more.

A collaboration between design architect, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, executive architect, Cooper, Robertson & Partners, and Theatre Projects, the 2,300-square-foot theatre features a retractable seating system, six catwalks, a variable acoustic ceiling, and an all LED performance lighting system—one of the first all-LED museum-based theatres in America. Behind a short stage—standing little more than one foot tall—a stunning glass wall overlooks the Hudson River to the west. With high ceilings and luminous wood finishes, the space fits seamlessly with the sleek, geometric building it resides in and the culturally ascendant neighborhood it peers out onto.

Theatre Projects designed and specified the theatre geometry, performance lighting and rigging systems, as well as the theatre’s retractable seating risers, which can seat up to 99 people and track into the back wall, allowing the room to transform into a flat floor—ideal for hosting parties, meetings, and all manner of events. With room for an additional 72 loose seats, the theatre can seat a total of 171 people.

The all-LED performance lighting system includes 120 multi-color LEDs, capable of mixing hundreds of colors, providing a substantially longer life and greater energy-efficiency than traditional incandescent bulbs. Without the burdensome requirements of multiple dimmer racks (even a modestly sized theatre can expect to have three) and the miles of wires that incandescent lights necessitate, the Whitney avoided not only a substantial cost and environmental burden, but managed to gain a versatile, dynamic, and efficient lighting system.

"An equivalent incandescent lighting system would have required more than 250 circuits," Steven Rust, Theatre Projects’ project manager and theatre lighting designer, said, "And in New York, one 20-amp circuit runs about $1,000, whereas the current LED system needs only 70 circuits. That’s a reduction in infrastructure cost of about 75 percent."

In designing the theatre’s variable acoustic ceiling, Theatre Projects’ goal was to give the Whitney the ability to adjust the acoustic properties of the room for any event it might host, whether it’s acoustic or electrified music, film, performance art, and beyond. The series of ceiling panels—or "fins" as they’re called—resemble and operate like Venetian blinds, opening and closing with nothing more than the push of a button.

"The Whitney asked for a performance space which could work for drama, dance, film and, banquets and still change back to a fine arts gallery when required," Steven said. "The new theatre provides that and also gives the Whitney's performing arts series space to grow thanks to production infrastructure designed for the future."

Theatre Projects also designed and specified the LED performance lighting system in the Whitney’s multi-use film and video gallery, which features a 15-foot ceiling, no fixed seating, and bi-fold, accordion-style glass doors that open to an outdoor terrace that overlooks Washington Street and connects directly to the High Line.

Even as it takes on a slate of expanded roles including a center for arts education, community gathering place, and a performing arts venue, the Whitney Museum hasn’t lost sight of its core mission—collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting American art. The new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art features three times the gallery space of its previous home—more than 50,000 square feet in total, including a public ground-floor gallery, outdoor exhibit space, and an expansive special exhibition gallery.

A flexible theatre gives Whitney Museum new potential
Credit: Timothy Schenck