How Do Artists Get Into the Whitney Biennial?

I made a spreadsheet to find out what the participants in the Whitney Biennial have in common.

The Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019), installation view: Daniel Lind-Ramos, “Maria-Maria” (2019), photograph by Ron Amstutz (all images courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

The 2019 Whitney Biennial has opened to the public. The curators are Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley. These are the first two sentences of their “Curatorial Statement,” which can be found on the museum’s website:

Often described as a snapshot of art in the United States, the Biennial brings together work by individuals and collectives in a broad array of mediums. Over the past year and a half—an undeniably intense and polarized time in this country—we made hundreds of studio visits.

I don’t think I am alone when I admit that I have always wondered who got into the Whitney Biennial, and why. What is the process by which some are chosen, some are visited but are left out, and others are just plain ignored? You cannot apply to get in (though, as everyone knows, you can lobby, which may or may not be helpful). So how do the curators find out about you and your work? What qualifications do you need to have to be considered right for selection?

As someone who has not known or socialized with any of the curators of at least the last five Whitney Biennials, if not more, I have not been privy to what goes on behind the curtains. This is what got me interested in making a spreadsheet. I wanted to find out what the participants in the Whitney Biennial had in common. What enables someone to become a member of this exclusive club?

As a 68-year-old Asian American male who is the eldest child of parents who were able to emigrate to America from China in 1949  (the Chinese Exclusion Act did not apply to my half-Chinese/half-English father, a child born from the social crime of miscegenation in New York in 1921 before growing up in China), my curiosity about the selection criteria about the Biennial was further piqued when I read a statement that Hockley made about an artist she gave a solo show to in the museum, Toyin Ojih Odutola, who was born in Nigeria and emigrated to America when she was five::

She encapsulates all of these categories: immigrant, citizen, native-born, foreign-born, native speaker, ESL learner, African-American, but not African-American in the way that we generally mean it here […]. Her work really pushes us to think about what we mean when we say American, and what we mean when we say American art.

What we mean when we say “American” is a question I have long felt was central to my life.

In order to ascertain what the participants shared, I broke the spreadsheet down into these initial categories, which became more focused as I went along: gender, racial and ethnic identity, place and date of birth, undergraduate and graduate education and degree.

Afterward, I decided to add the following categories for reasons that will become clear, as I detail them. Where do the artists live and work? How many of them have gallery representation? Where are the galleries located? What shows have they been in?

The Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019), installation view, from left to right: Iman Issa, “Heritage Studies #27” (2017); Milano Chow, “Night Exterior III” (2019); Milano Chow, “Night Exterior II” (2019); Iman Issa, “Heritage Studies #34” (2019); Milano Chow, “Night Exterior I” (2019); Iman Issa, “Heritage Studies #20” (2016); Pat Phillips, “Untitled (Don’t Tread On Me)” (2019), photograph by Ron Amstutz

As I began to find answers, I realized that I had to establish further groupings. How many of the participants went to or taught at Skowhegan? How many had a residency or association with the Studio Museum of Harlem? Because one of the two curators of the Biennial, Rujeko Hockley, who worked as a curatorial assistant at the Studio Museum, happens to be on the board of Recess, an art residency located in Brooklyn, I added the category Recess.

This is what Recess states on its website:

Recess partners with artists to build a more just and inclusive creative community. By envisioning our public as participants, we challenge common distinctions between process and product, maker and consumer. Recess is a generative meeting place for reimagining the social possibilities of art.

I think of each of these categories as a club. As with any club, you are either a member or not. Some belong to more than one club, but no one can belong to all of them.

Seventy-five artists and collectives (or what I call entities) were selected to be in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Two are dead, leaving 73 living entities. Five of the 73 are collectives, leaving 68 individual entities.

What do these 68 people have in common?

In terms of geographic locale, 38 of the artists spend at least part of their time living and working in New York City. Two live and work in Philadelphia, and one lives and works in Baltimore. Two other artists live within commuting distance of New York, in Somerset, New Jersey, and Germantown, New York. This means that 43 out of the 68 individual artists in the Biennial live in or near New York, or along the Northeast Corridor (what William Gibson would call the “Sprawl”).

Two are based in Miami (there were none in the previous four biennials) and four live further south, in Puerto Rico. That brings the number living along the Eastern seaboard to 49.

In terms of the West Coast, eight live and work in Los Angeles, two live in the Bay Area (Oakland and Rodeo), and one lives further up the coast, in Portland, Oregon.

If we do not count the artists living in Puerto Rico, we learn that 53 of the 68 artists live on either the West or East Coast of the continental United States, and 46 of the 53 live in either New York or Los Angeles.

There are seven artists who do not live in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, or Puerto Rico: they are from Birmingham, Alabama; New Orleans and Pineville, Louisiana; Chicago and Wilmette, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Sitka, Alaska. The rest live and work outside the US, in London, Berlin, Stockholm, Montreal, and Toronto.

I think it is fair to say that there are no artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial who live and work in Middle America or what some call the flyover states.

The Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019), installation view, from left to right: Dicko Chan, “Untitled” (2018); Emerson Ricard, “Untitled” (2018); Simone Leigh, “Stick” (2019); Janiva Ellis, “Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet” (2019); Simone Leigh, “#8 Village Series” (2019); photograph by Ron Amstutz

If you cross-reference artists’ locations and their affiliations with the organization Recess, you discover that five of the artists living outside of New York were – at one point or another — members of Recess, with one currently living in Stockholm and another living in Berlin. Overall, 12 of artists in the Biennial have a connection to Recess, from membership to being included in a group show; one artist in the Biennial gave a talk there.

Further research reveals that 14 of the artists have had an association with the Studio Museum of Harlem (residency or being part of a group show), while three have spoken there.

If we consider other residency programs, 16 of the Biennial selections have been to Skowhegan, and three of the living artists have taught or are scheduled to teach there in the future, and one was included in a Skowhegan-related exhibition.

These numbers show that an extraordinarily high percentage of the artists in the Biennial passed through one of these three pipelines (there are two artists who check off all three boxes, and five who check off two).

Another series of conduits could be grouped under education. Of those who earned an MFA, eight got one from Yale, six from UCLA, four from Columbia, and three from Bard. Other schools include NYU, Hunter, and Stanford. Again, it seems that most of the artists elected to go to schools on the East or West Coast, with a few going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. If we go back to an earlier moment in their lives, we see that six artists received their undergraduate degrees from Cooper Union and three from Bard, while the rest attended Rhode Island School of Design; California College of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco Art Institute; Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver; and York University, Toronto. One artist earned a BFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa but later got an MFA from UCLA. Certain schools seem to provide a better springboard to getting you visible in New York or Los Angeles. In this biennial, if you checked extra boxes, such as the Studio Museum and Recess, you helped your cause.

Racially and ethnically speaking, 29 of the 68 are identified as Black, with three of this group born in Africa, two identified as Black Puerto Rican, and one born of mixed parentage (white mother, black father). Thirteen have self-identified as white. Eight are Native American, First Nations, or children of mixed parentage. Six are Asian, Asian American, or of mixed parentage. Three are from the Middle East, or their ancestry originated there. When it comes to Brown and Latinx, it is less clear how many of the artists defined themselves under those categories.

Twenty-nine of the 68 are men. Thirty-five are women. Four identify themselves as gender non-conforming.

The oldest living artist in the Whitney Biennial was born in 1935. Twenty are younger than 33, with the youngest two born in 1991.

Despite the inclusiveness represented by these numbers, there is a clubbiness emanating from the 2019 Biennial that seems to hold true for every Biennial, with its coastal bias and disinclination to look beyond familiar schools, galleries, and institutional affiliations. As with earlier Biennials, various “Exclusion Acts” are still in place.

The Whitney Biennial continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through September 22. The biennial was curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley.

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