In The Magazine

The Whitney’s Secret Weapon

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
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The brand-new Whitney, a magnificent Renzo Piano structure in the Meatpacking District, is still a busy
construction site in the final stages of completion before its grand opening this month when we visit. Brooke
Garber Neidich daintily navigates around it all, in a chic long leather skirt and low boots with heels, greeting
curators and security guards with the same ready smile. “We have the nicest guards,” she whispers after saying hello to one. “And the handsomest.”

She gushes over the cozy, newly painted room where the painting of the museum’s beloved founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, is on display. “Ah, Gertrude,” she sighs. She watches as curating teams hang the paintings of the permanent collection, some of them rediscovered and dusted off for their new, larger home, “Is that a Philip Guston?” she asks one. She beams as she shows off the new theater, the art restoration room, the educational facilities, and the spectacular gallery spaces that allow you to see all the way from the Hudson waterfront end of the building to the side that opens up onto the High Line and the far West Village. It is not hard to understand why Neidich is thrilled to see this magnificent baby on the verge of being born.

“It’s kind of like I had quadruplets,” Neidich had said earlier, speaking about her enormously busy and fulfilling
life for the last seven years. The metaphor is apt for a woman whom friends always describe as a genuine nurturer. In 2008, she took over her late father’s jewelry enterprise, with no previous business experience, in part to save the jobs of the firm’s 30 or employees. Her longtime pet project, The Child Mind Institute, one of the country’s premier institutions for helping children with learning disabilities and psychiatric problems, was undergoing a painful separation from NYU. And at the urging of her contemporary-art-loving good friend Beth Rudin DeWoody, Neidich joined the board of the Whitney, where she is now cochair. “You like art, you should help out at the Whitney,” DeWoody had said after noticing Neidich collected art. “Sure,” Neidich had replied. Add to the mix her activities on behalf of the Lincoln Center Theater and that makes four, one more baby for the mother of three actual grown children to tend to. “It was kind of like the perfect storm,” Neidich says. “Who was I to say no to any of them?”

These exciting spring days in the run-up to the grand opening, it is the Whitney child that demands much of Neidich’s time. The creation of the Upper East Side institution’s new downtown home had hit the same speed bump as a lot of other other projects did when the recession hit back in 2008, a slowdown that added a good two years to the process of creating this building. Whitney director Adam Weinberg had only found the spot a year earlier, nervously showing it to Gertrude Whitney’s granddaughter, Flora Biddle, and getting her blessing. “She calmly told him, ‘The Whitney is an idea, not a building. You should do it,’” Neidich recounts. But although no one would ask for the recession-induced delay, Neidich now thinks it brought some unforeseen benefits. “It caused us to slow down and just reexamine everything,” she says. “I think we got a better building as a result.”

Sure enough, the building is remarkable in its thoughtfulness, attention to detail and relationship to its surroundings, all signature Piano approaches. Though it technically faces the waterfront, the structure places equal if not more emphasis on the city that gives it its home. The gallery walls all move to maximize exhibition flexibility. The elevators are themselves works of art. Literally. The last commission from the artist Richard Artschwager before his death, they immerse visitors in a space where they might have the surprising experience of standing under a table, being on a rug in front of a mirror, or contained in a giant floating woven basket. At night the elevators remain open and can be seen by passersby. The Danny Meyer restaurant and bar at the Meatpacking end of the building where the High Line starts promises to be one of the sexiest nightspots in the city. And the soft, repurposed pine floors all float, feeling lovely underfoot and promising to spare future visitors any case of museum legs. “It’s really good for our guards, too,” Neidich, ever the nurturer, points out. “After all, they are on their feet all day.”

Neidich’s caring persona (she had originally wanted to be a social worker) goes right along with the heart of a dogged fundraiser extraordinaire. The Whitney campaign goal was a whopping $760 million, and as she will announce at the museum’s opening ceremonies, that goal was reached. “I honestly feel the new Whitney building would not have happened without her incredible enthusiasm and wonderful spirit,” says Fiona Donovan, the great-granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who is still active on the board. “Her enthusiasm for the project just never flagged.”

Asked what her secret is to being such a powerhouse at raising money, Neidich offers a disarmingly simple answer. “I ask,” she says, with just the tiniest hint of exasperation. “I have so many friends who say, ‘What can I do? I want to help, but I just can’t ask people for money.’ Well, you have to be willing to ask. And I do. And I’ll admit, I get angry when people turn me down.”

You have to wonder, how could anyone turn the ever-smiling, quietly relentless Neidich down. Probably, they don’t. “If Brooke asks you to do something,” Hillary Clinton has said, “quickly say yes, because you will get there eventually.”

Neidich’s good friend, Jane Rosenthal of Tribeca Films, says the secret to Brooke’s success is her personal authenticity and genuine passion for her projects. “The depth and breadth of her dedication to childhood
mental health is amazing,” says Rosenthal, who first met Neidich when they were both raising money for the Democratic Party during the Clinton years. “She is bringing that passion and nurturing ability to the Whitney,
and helping to push the boundaries of that institution.”

And yes, “Dan and I are absolutely supporting Hillary Clinton, as we did last time,” says Neidich.

To be sure, not only does Neidich raise amazing sums for her beloved projects, she also puts her money where her mouth is. All the profits from Sidney Garber Fine Jewelry are earmarked for charity, which makes it all the more exciting that this year was her first profitable year. Those profits made gifts possible to the Whitney, the Child Mind Institute, Lincoln Center Theater and a number of charities in Chicago, where the business was founded and where it flourished. In fact, the goal of making enough to give money away is one of the things that kept her going in the tough early days. “Learning how to run a business was like learning a foreign language,” she reflects. “I went from only thinking about the business a few weeks a year to thinking about it all the time.”

Under her stewardship, Sidney Garber got a huge boost when Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen wore its bracelets to a Barneys event a few years back, and they and Brooke have been friends ever since. Running the business is still not easy, but Neidich allows that she’s made great progress. “Each year, I learn more, about my aesthetics, about the customer experience, about inventory . . .” she says. “I went from only thinking about the business a few weeks a year to thinking about it all the time.” Last fall she opened a Sidney Garber store on Madison Avenue, and a year ago she hired Susan Nicholas, a seasoned jewelry executive from H. Stern, as president, who is busily modernizing the business. Would her father be proud? “My father would probably say, ‘She still doesn’t know the value of a buck,’” Neidich laughs. But secretly, she knows her jeweler father, who bequeathed her his impeccable eye and taste, would be proud.

Which brings us to the matter of Neidich and her eye and her jewelry. She loves it; she grew up around it and she wears a lot of it, her petite arm usually sporting a startling array of bangles. The way Neidich wears jewelry is similar to the way she wears clothes, according to her good friend, Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles. “Brooke is impossibly chic,” Coles says. “Her closets should go down as the eighth wonder of the world. You could show up at any time of the day and she’d be wearing the perfect pair of silk cigarette pants, and the perfect tunic and the perfect jewelry. She could be wearing seven necklaces and it would feel understated. The way she wears jewelry, you don’t notice it, but somehow you only notice it.”

Well put.

Coles and Neidich may have bonded over fashion, and they share a love of Lincoln Center Theater, but Coles is equally enamored with the way Neidich and her husband, Daniel, entertain, which they do, well, liberally. “She collects people and she throws everyone together in one bouillabaisse,” Coles says in her inimitable British style. “It’s always an interesting mix of people. You might find yourself sitting between Queen Noor of Jordan on one side, and someone whom Brooke’s daughter, Mallory, teaches middle school with on the other. It’s all very informal, which is unusual for New York. And you never feel like you are being invited to perform or to pay court. You just get swept up in the warm soup.”

Lauren Santo Domingo, good friends with Neidich’s elder son Jon, is equally enamored with the Neidich style of entertaining. “With Brooke, different generations mix seamlessly,” she says. “She treats everyone with the same respect and courtesy. And her parties are such fun, because she mixes all these people together.”

There is always room for one more at the Neidich home, whether it is in Manhattan or in Wainscott, where their summer brunches at a long table in a beautiful garden are legendary. “There’s an extended family feeling that is just wonderful to be around,” Jane Rosenthal says. “When Brooke says come over for lunch or dinner, it could be the two of us or it could be 22. There is always room.”

Son Jon appears to have inherited the entertaining and hospitality gene. Formerly the managing director of Le Bain and the Boom Boom Room, he is the owner of the restaurants and nightspots Acme, Happiest Hour and Tijuana Picnic. Last year, he married the lovely Alessandra Brawn in a wedding in Pisa, Italy, that his mother calls “the most amazing wedding ever.” Her other son, Stephen, is an artist living in L.A., married as well. Neidich does not conceal her hope that soon there will be some grandchildren to love.

In the not-too-distant future, some of that wonderful, multigenerational vibe will occur at the Neidichs’ new Greenwich Village home, not all that far away from the Whitney’s new home. Having raised their children on the Upper East Side, and loving the proximity to Central Park and Carl Schurz Park, along with being close to the children’s schools, Brooke and Dan have gradually made the leap to becoming full-time downtown denizens. The three apartments they bought to combine are another construction site, a work in progress that is coming along, and will no doubt be spectacular when done.

Though not yet. Brooke Neidich has been just a little busy raising her quadruplets.
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