‘the Whitney Women’: a Slice of the Story

February 18, 2013

For those who know little to nothing about the Whitney Museum or how it was founded (and by whom), ‘The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made: A Family Memoir” penned by Flora Miller Biddle will no doubt come across as a revelation. The author of this audio book is the granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who probably didn’t know when she opened her Manhattan art studio in 1914 that within two decades it would become not only one of the first galleries of contemporary art, but one of the most prestigious and lasting American art institutions. At the time, few people considered the contributions of American artists, well, worth considering. All the “best” American homes featured art from Europe. But Gertrude Whitney, a polarizing figure, by all accounts, sought to change that by wielding her wealth and influence to become a true patron of the arts she admired and bring them to the public.

The main problem with this audio book can be summed up by a line uttered early in the narrative, when Biddle admits that her memoir, like most, only reveals a part of the story. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, she goes on to state that she barely knew her grandmother, the driving force behind the story, which should tell you right away that the narrative will reveal little that well-informed listeners don’t already know. The result is that the actual founding of the Whitney Museum gets little more than a glossy timeline, so those seeking insight into how and why Gertrude started her impressive undertaking will likely be disappointed.

As stated above, there is plenty to enjoy for people unfamiliar with the Whitney family history, but those that have studied other publications may find little to interest them. And there are surprisingly few of the inner circle secrets that one might expect from a famous family memoir, although it becomes clear that modern day disagreements amongst family members concerning how the museum is managed actually date back to long-lived feuds. The second reason it is unfortunate that Biddle feels the point of a memoir is to reveal only snippets of the story is that she seems incapable of keeping herself out of it, despite that fact that she has played only a relatively small role in the history of the Whitney Museum when compared with the achievements of her mother, Flora Whitney Miller, and her grandmother.

That said, Biddle at least delivers a historical narrative that is easy to digest and fun to listen to, without the droll tone that can sometimes accompany such offerings. She discusses both the daring her grandmother exhibited by virtually forcing her artistic tastes on high society (a position that may have changed the course of American art history) and the fortitude displayed by her mother in fighting to keep the museum afloat (draining her personal funds to keep the doors open) and continue to provide the support for artists that is at the heart of the whole undertaking.

This audio book is not exactly the pretty family portrait you might expect; you don’t need a blurb review to tell you that piecing together a family history can be a messy business. But Biddle seems to portray herself as something of a put-upon martyr, trying to live up to the accomplishments of her famous relatives while rebelling against their bourgeois society ties and struggling to get by with a dwindling fortune. She has, however, managed to weather some storms where the museum is concerned so perhaps she’s earned the right to complain a little. Either way, there are a few disappointments in this audio book for those who have an inkling of the Whitney family history. But if you’re looking for a decent overview that takes you from the founding of the Whitney Museum up to present day, ‘The Whitney Women’ is a decent place to start.

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