On Tuesday, November 17, 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art Director Adam D. Weinberg was presented with the Insignia of the Order of Chevalier of Arts and Letters. The award was presented during an intimate ceremony held at Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
As Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, it is my great pleasure to be here with you as we decorate Adam D. Weinberg, Director of the Whitney Museum, with the Insignia of the Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. This award was established by the French government in 1957 to recognize the achievements of those who have furthered the arts in France and throughout the world.
So welcome, Adam, and welcome to your wife, Lorraine Weinberg. We’re very happy that some of your close family and friends were able to join us for this ceremony. We’re also glad to see three representatives of your Whitney Museum team as well as Bernard Blistène from the Centre Pompidou, who has recently collaborated with you on a major project which I’ll speak of later on!
I would now like to hold a moment of silence for the victims of the terrorist attacks on Paris last Friday, November 13.
So, we are the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, which promotes French and Francophone culture and art. And today, we are giving an award issued by the French Ministry of Culture to the Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. And we could certainly go on about the irony of that, but in the end, that wouldn’t tell the whole story. Instead, we can delve deeper, beyond just the name of an institution. And in this way, we can find a rich portrait of the man and the ethos behind the institution itself. We discover your strong artistic, professional and personal ties to France, which may be surprising to some! And we also discover your vast significance to the broader world of the arts.
Indeed, France and French art played an important role in the foundations for your love of art and museums. You often say that you were inspired to pursue a career in museum curation by a retrospective on French artist and painter Jean Dubuffet, which was displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York while you were an intern there. From then on, your curating took you to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where you ushered in some prominent exhibitions on photography, the medium that was your early forté. You even had a brief stint at the Whitney in New York, before you finally landed in Paris.
In 1991, you were appointed Artistic and Program Director of the American Center in Paris, which boasted a long tradition of showcasing avant-garde art, and was beloved by American and French audiences alike. You led some very dynamic programming at the Center, including an exhibition called “Trans-voices,” which addressed the changes in social, political and environmental realms that characterized the early 1990s. In a mass-media show, French and American artists created unique messages, displaying their most personal struggles and emotions on public platforms like billboards. You used art exhibitions to advance the transatlantic conversation, something we strive for every day at Cultural Services.
You would leave Paris, but you would continue to support French and European artists, and maintained close ties with French institutions such as Le Consortium in Dijon. You also returned to the Whitney 1993, and left six years later to serve as the Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Philips Academy. But it seemed that you could not stay away from the Whitney! In 2003, you were appointed as the museum’s Director. Thanks to your leadership, the Whitney has ushered in some incredible programming, spanning many periods and movements for American art, with exhibitions on Edward Hopper, Robert Mangold, Terry Winters and many more.
But just like we at the Cultural Services evoke many other nationalities when we discuss French art, your work at the Whitney highlights more than just American names. Rather, it reflects your desire to continue a cross-cultural dialogue. In 1995, you organized a renowned series entitled, “Views from Abroad: European Perspectives on American Art,” in conjunction with the Stedelijk Museum, the Museum für Moderne Kunst, and Tate Gallery. A little more recently, the Whitney hosted a screening and live concert dedicated to the work of French filmmaker Alice Guy Blanché, where French and American composers created pieces to accompany her films. You embrace international perspectives, because they show how American art interacts with the greater world.
Your direction advances our understanding that American or French works of art don’t operate in a vacuum. Instead, they’re part of a much larger context, one where ideas and aesthetics filter across national borders. We only have to think of how Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme movements ran parallel to each other in the United States and France, born of the same spirit of the time. And your exhibitions are fully aware of the diversity of influences that culminate in a work of art. That’s why your Real/Surreal exhibit also featured works of Yves Tanguy, and your Modernisms exhibit spoke to the impact of Mondrian. Your exhibitions show that artistic movements are often a collective reaction, acquiring unique traits in different millieux, but stemming from the same fundamental, borderless space of human creativity.
Your vision focuses not just on art itself, but also on the museum-going experience as a whole. You participated in the Cultural Services’ 2014 ArtSquared event which discussed the future of the museum world. You also took part in a 2013 workshop with the Directors of Le Consortium in Dijon, in which your conversation covered everything from strategies for collection-based initiatives to the social function of museums.
You are constantly striving to improve the Whitney, and this was clear when you oversaw the museum’s daring relocation from the Upper East Side to the Meatpacking District. The move was controversial, but you remained committed to your vision, and in doing so, you brought a major museum to an area of the city where there wasn’t one. Now, the Whitney is reaching an even greater audience, and although I’m sure you won’t say it yourself, it’s been a smash hit! You fought for this new space that will allow the extent of the Whitney’s vast collection to be seen for the first time. You’ve opened up all kinds of opportunities for the Whitney to tell new stories about the history of art in America and beyond..
The downtown Whitney was designed by Renzo Piano, who also designed the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Like the Pompidou, the new Whitney building opens itself to the public in ways that most museums usually do not, creating spaces that are social as well as contemplative. And, perhaps, it goes even farther, opening itself to the city, giving drivers on the West Side highway a view into its galleries and passersby a plaza in which to stop and linger.
Architecture is not the only connection between the Whitney and the Pompidou. In just three days, an exhibition will open at the Whitney that features selections from the renowned art collection of Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner. The exhibition will travel to the Centre Pompidou in Spring 2016, giving French audiences the chance to experience iconic American art at home. And this is not the first time the Whitney and the Pompidou have sent American art across the Atlantic, last year you brought your historic Jeff Koons retrospective to France. You and your colleagues at the Centre Pompidou are reducing the distance between French art-lovers and the history of American art.
A visionary leader of a major museum, and a champion of art as a cultural dialogue, you are a friend to France and to the art world at large. It is unusual for someone to be named right away to the ranks of Officier in the Order of Arts and Letters, and I think this speaks volumes about you and your career. I am truly honored to present you with this award.
Cher Adam D. Weinberg, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.