A view of the database (courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art)

When the first biennial exhibition of American art launched at the Whitney Museum in 1932, it was exceedingly rare for a cultural institution to showcase the work of a living American artist. That changed under the charismatic leadership of the museum’s first director, Juliana Force, who instituted a “no juries, no prize” policy for the inaugural exhibition. The fledgling institution earmarked funds for acquiring work and even allowed artists to sell their work without giving the museum any commission. We send out our invitation and each artist wears what he pleases to our party,” Force had explained to the New York Times.

Earlier today, the museum launched a new online resource granting the public access to historical information and catalogues from past Whitney Biennials, dating back to that first exhibition. Most editions include a full list of artists and artworks, with many older exhibition catalogues scanned for online perusal.

Digging through the archives, it’s clear just how much the biennial has changed over its almost-90-year existence. The exhibition’s earliest catalogues are delightfully sparse, lacking the supplemental information and deluge of analytical essays that pad most of today’s museum catalogues. But that in itself is indicative of how the biennial has changed over the decades from a platform for living artists to sell work into a broader brushstroke of America’s vitality in contemporary culture.

And sure enough, the biennial has played host to some paradigm-shifting moments throughout its history — whether by the will of curators or by artists opposing the cultural gatekeeping such exhibitions entail. While biennials through the 1950s and 1960s were at the forefront of the modernism and minimalism movements, later exhibitions delved into identity politics, like the infamous 1993 edition which New York Times critic Roberta Smith described as being “less about the art of our time than about the times themselves.” Curated by Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt, Lisa Phillips, and Elisabeth Sussman, the politics-heavy display included a strong showing by women, queer artists, and people of color.

Unfortunately, the archive presents little supporting information for the vast majority of biennials, lacking full digitization of catalogues or even a blurb about each biennial’s cultural impact or highlights. Online preservation of materials only begins in 2006 with a preserved micro-site. Starting with the 2010 edition, websites are fully functional and include records of past events, videos, and audio guides. Nevertheless, the website will be an important first stop for museumgoers looking to whet their appetites for this year’s oncoming exhibition in May.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...