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First lady Michelle Obama dedicates Whitney Museum's new home

First Lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Bill de

First Lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Bill de Blasio step to the podium in the dedication ceremony of the Whitney Museum of American Art's new building in the Meatpacking District on April 30, 2015. The Whitney Museum will open to the public on May 1. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

First lady Michelle Obama Thursday dedicated the Whitney Museum of American Art's new home in lower Manhattan with praise for its commitment to exposing the arts to young people from underserved communities.

She reflected on her childhood on Chicago's hardscrabble South Side, where she grew up thinking such glossy institutions were beyond her reach.

"There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers, and they think to themselves, 'Well, that's not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood,' " said Obama, an arts education advocate. "I guarantee you that right now there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum."

But the Whitney -- which opens its doors Friday to the public at a 220,000-square-foot facility in the Meatpacking District after moving from the Upper East Side -- has put a priority on attracting a younger, more diverse audience with its inaugural exhibition and through its education programs, Obama said.

"You're telling them that their story is part of the American story and that they deserve to be seen," she said.

The exhibition, "America is Hard to See," comprises more than 600 works examining innovation and struggles for artists in America over the past 150 years.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the architect behind the museum's angular and asymmetrical steel design, Renzo Piano, also were on hand for the dedication. Italian-born Piano described his vision for the structure at 99 Gansevoort St. as a "piazza" where all may gather and feel welcome.

De Blasio pointed to the role of the arts community in his "One New York" plan to transform the city economically and environmentally.

"We're still trying to create a more perfect union here, and the cultural community is, and can be, in the forefront of that," he said. "We know when the doors of our cultural institutions are open wider and wider to every kind of New Yorker."

Museum director Adam D. Weinberg reaffirmed the Whitney's mission just before the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

"Art does change lives, and please know that we take that responsibility so seriously and so to heart," he said.

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