Who knew New York University even had a dedicated art museum?
Probably not the tens of thousands of visitors who have made their way to exhibitions at the Grey Art Gallery, tucked away for nearly half a century in the university’s arts and science center on Washington Square. But the Grey has been the guardian of the university’s trove of art treasures, though that wasn’t obvious by its name.
That is about to change. Grey Art Gallery is moving several blocks east to a larger, more prominent space at 18 Cooper Square. It will reopen next year on March 2 as the Grey Art Museum to better reflect its history and mission, with the inaugural show “Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France, 1946-1962.”
“We’ll be much more visible,” said Lynn Gumpert, its director since 1997. With an illustrious collecting and exhibition track record — in 1983, it was the first U.S. institution to host a major show of Frida Kahlo — the Grey nonetheless has often been confused for a commercial gallery. “We’re known nationally and internationally among the art crowd, but still lots of people in New York don’t know that N.Y.U. has a museum,” Gumpert said.
Moving to the busy crossroads of NoHo, the East Village and the Bowery on Cooper Square, the Grey will have greater street presence in an expansive ground-floor space of a 1901 brick-and-iron landmark building owned by N.Y.U. The new space increases the size of Grey’s exhibition galleries by 40 percent and gives the museum a study center for the first time. It has been designed by Ennead Architects’ partner Richard Olcott — who previously led the renovation of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven.
The project was jump-started by a bequest and a promised gift of 200 artworks from the collectors and social activists James Cottrell, a doctor, and Joseph Lovett, a documentary filmmaker. Longtime residents of Lower Manhattan who’ve supported the local scene and the LGBTQ+ community for decades, the couple came to Gumpert looking for a future home for their collection.
“One of our great areas of concentration is downtown art,” Gumpert said of the Grey’s collection, with more than 6,000 works that have generated shows such as “Art After Stonewall, 1969- 1989” in 2019, and “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965” in 2017. “We’ve really tried to position the Grey as a bridge to the community.” She plans to highlight works from Cottrell and Lovett’s gift when the museum opens.
Established in 1975 with a major gift by Abby Weed Grey of some 1,000 works of modern Iranian, Indian and Turkish art, the Grey then became steward of the N.Y.U. art collection, begun in 1958, that included pieces by major figures like Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Rauschenberg.
A small fish is the big pond of New York City museums, the Grey has been successful in doing shows “that are scholarly but also accessible,” said Gumpert, who also serves as curator and typically originates one show and takes two traveling exhibitions from other museums annually. The Grey is free, with an annual operating budget of about $1.5 million, a small endowment and fund-raising around specific exhibitions. “We don’t need money from the gate,” Gumpert said, allowing more freedom for experimentation.
The Whitney Museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, said the Grey’s deep commitment to downtown set the institution apart from others in the city. “They’re able to do some of the more focused shows that we don’t have a chance to do,” he said, pointing to exhibitions on key downtown artists like Peter Hujar and Tseng Kwong Chi, who both died of AIDS.
The Grey’s upcoming show “Americans in Paris,” curated by Gumpert and the independent scholar Debra Bricker Balken, delves into the phenomenon of artists flowing from the United States into the French capital after World War II — many on the G.I. Bill — with more than 130 works by 70 artists, including Herbert Gentry, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman and Kenneth Noland.
In its new quarters, Gumpert hopes to increase from about 15,000 visitors annually pre-Covid to “around 60,000,” she said. The new study center, which will be open to students, faculty and researchers by appointment, is a step toward that ambition.
“It’s making the collections more accessible,” Gumpert said. “To me, that’s the raison d’être of the university art museum.”