The Whitney Biennial, arguably the most important art exhibition in the US, is nearly upon once more, with this year’s edition opening to the public on March 20 and previews beginning next week. Expect plenty of talk about the show to start in the coming weeks, and plenty of debate to follow after that.

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But what, exactly, is the Whitney Biennial, and why does the exhibition still matter more than 80 editions on? Below is a handy guide to everything you need to know about the show.

What is the Whitney Biennial?

Alongside the Venice Biennale and Documenta, the Whitney Biennial is considered one of the world’s most important recurring art exhibitions. Unlike those art festivals, however, the Whitney Biennial has a stated focus, in that each edition is intended to provide a wide-ranging picture of the American art scene during its specific moment. Each edition is mounted by the Whitney Museum in New York, where artworks appear throughout the institution.

There are a number of recurring exhibitions in the US: Made in LA (a biennial running since 2012), Prospect New Orleans (founded in 2008), SITE Santa Fe International (since 1995, and recently relaunched as a biennial), New Museum Triennial (since 2009), and Greater New York (since 2000, and now held once every five years). Founded in 1896, the Carnegie International is the oldest exhibition of its kind within the country and is now held every four years. But none hold the same level of clout as the Whitney Biennial.

These days, the Whitney Biennial is typically composed of three parts: an exhibition held within the galleries, a film program, and a performance program. Certain editions, such as the 2012 one, have combined all the sections, however, so that the films and performances are also set within the galleries.

How did this every-other-year exhibition get its start?

Initially, the Whitney Biennial was indeed not a biennial, but an annual exhibition. Started in 1932, the Whitney Annual served the same purpose it does today, bringing together the nation’s top artists in one space. During the ’60s, the Annual was split into two alternating exhibitions: one focused on painting, the other, on sculpture and other mediums. Then, in 1973, the two Annuals were brought together to form one Biennial.

When the museum transitioned the exhibition to its current format in 1972, amid a period where the Whitney was protested by women artists and Black artists who sought a greater presence within the galleries, director John I. Baur was asked if the institution did so for financial reasons. “No,” he said, “but there’s another advantage we look forward to. With a biennial, you only get clobbered every other year.”

While less fondly remembered than past Biennials, historic Annuals still helped a number of artists achieve fame. The 1951 painting one, for example, featured Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, and Robert Motherwell; all were just starting to hit it big at that point.

Who curates the Whitney Biennial?

In recent years, the show has been organized by two curators, often with at least one curator being on staff at the Whitney. The 2014 edition is a notable exception, with three outside curators (Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner) each being given a floor of the Whitney’s old home in the Breuer building. Editions in the 1970s and ’80s employed teams of five curators, while the 2000 edition had as many as seven.

The list of prior curators features a number of stars: Marcia Tucker (1975 and 1977), a Whitney curator who founded the New Museum after being fired following a critical dust-up surrounding a Richard Tuttle show; Klaus Kertess (1995), who founded the influential Bykert Gallery; Francesco Bonami (2010), who had by then had a Venice Biennale under his belt.

Sometimes, the selected curators have even brought on others to work alongside them. For the 2024 edition, Biennial curators Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli had a group of artists, musicians, and filmmakers organize the film and performance sections.

Who gets to be in the Whitney Biennial?

The artist list, which usually numbers dozens of participants, is chosen by the exhibition’s curators, as is typical for biennials. (This means that you can’t submit your work for consideration.) The curators spend a year or more making studio visits, and then pick ones that fit a vague theme for their edition.

While not explicitly a show of work by emerging artists, the Whitney Biennial trends younger, although recent editions have included a sizable number of mid- and late-career artists, as well as a sprinkling of dead artists. Most, though not all, of the participants are based in the United States.

How can a non-American artist be included in an exhibition that is supposed to be about the state of American art?

Since its reopening in 2014, the Whitney Museum has increasingly broadened its definition of American art to include artists of other nations who bear some relationship to the United States. In its mission statement, the museum says it “embraces complexity and encourages an inclusive idea of America.” That means that an artist may have been based in the US at some point, but they don’t necessarily have to have been born there, or to even be currently living there, to have their work shown at the museum.

For that reason, more and more frequently, the Whitney Biennial includes non-Americans. The 2019 edition, for example, included Forensic Architecture, a London-based collective. The year before, Forensic Architecture was nominated for the Turner Prize, an award that recognizes artists based in the UK. The 2022 edition featured three Mexican artists who were from the border towns of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez.

Why does the Whitney Biennial still matter?

For one thing, the exhibition typically does say something about where American art stands right now. Styles emerge from the ether, and artistic concerns become obvious. The show remains a bellwether for artists, curators, critics, art historians, dealers, and the general public alike.

For another, the Whitney Biennial acts as a launching pad for artists who have yet to find wider success. This doesn’t mean that established artists don’t occasionally appear in Whitney Biennials after finding fame—the sculptor Charles Ray has been in six Whitney Biennials at this time of writing, the most recent of them in 2022, the same year he had a Centre Pompidou retrospective. But generally, the focus is on the young and up-and-coming, and that means that they have a shot at new gallery representation and a stage for getting on the radar of jet-setting curators. It also offers opportunities for mid- and late-career artists in need of belated recognition.

Art museums have skewed toward white men. Does the Whitney Biennial?

Historically, yes, but not currently. The Whitney Biennial has in the past come under fire for not offering a diverse enough picture of American art. During the ’90s, the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist artists’ collective, surveyed three editions of the Whitney Biennial, and found that in all of them, the artist list tilted white and male, as was the norm at the time for most recurring art exhibitions.

Much has changed since then. The 2010 edition was the first in which more than half the artist list was women. For the 2024 edition, fewer than a quarter of the participants used he/him pronouns. Many of the artists in the 2024 edition are not white.

Still, the Whitney Biennial has recently been critiqued for its lack of geographical diversity. In 2016, ahead of the 2017 Biennial, the New York Times ran an entire article about how few Miami-based artists had been included previously, noting that for four editions straight, not a single artist from the Florida city had been featured. (That streak ended in 2019.) Even today, the artist list remains New York–centric, although recent editions have included a greater quotient of those from locales that were previously overlooked, such as Puerto Rico.

I’ve heard a lot about the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Why is that so famous?

More than any other past edition of the Whitney Biennial, the 1993 one lives on in the public consciousness because it was so notoriously divisive among critics. The reasons for its divisiveness lay in what critic Roberta Smith termed a “fashionable buzzword” that appeared across wall text throughout the show: “identity.”

A number of non-white, non-male artists took up themes related to race, gender, sexuality, and class explicitly in their work—and were perceived as having created bad art because of it by a set of predominantly white critics. In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman bluntly wrote, “I hate the show.” In the past decade, the exhibition has been reappraised as a watershed event ahead of its time. But even during its day, the show proved influential, with the Gwangju Biennale being founded in South Korea as a direct result of it.

In the cultural memory, the artwork most closely aligned with the show is Daniel Joseph Martinez’s Museum Tags, a group of buttons that had to be worn by visitors to the exhibition. Each button contained pieces of the phrase “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” Yet the show is also remembered for including a video that was not intended as art: footage of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers two years earlier. (The four officers who were charged were later acquitted, sparking the LA Riots of 1992.)

Have there been other Whitney Biennial controversies?

Yes, many, and if a Whitney Biennial doesn’t provoke scandal in some capacity, it is an anomaly. A look at the show during the 2010s provides a glimpse into just how contentious the exhibition can be.

In 2014 Joe Scanlan, a white artist, participated as a fictitious Black woman artist, leading the Yams collective to pull out in protest. In 2017 Dana Schutz, a white woman, painted the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, a Black teenager lynched by a group of white men in 1955, allegedly because he had made advances toward a white woman; some demanded that the painting be removed and burned, accusing Schutz of profiting from anti-Black violence, but neither of those things ended up happening.

In 2019 the Whitney Biennial earned the moniker “The Tear Gas Biennial” amid ongoing protests over a board member, Warren Kanders, who owned a defense manufacturing company that produced tear-gas canisters used along the US-Mexico border. A group of artists dropped out the show via a letter published by Artforum, then others followed. In the end, Kanders left the Whitney board, and the artists stayed in the show.

Where can I learn more about the Whitney Biennial?

The Whitney has an extensive database devoted to the show that includes catalogs from past years and more. It’s a fount of information, and a great way to chart how the American art scene has changed over time. Go ahead, take a look at the 1932 artist list, and see how few people on it are well known today. Even the Whitney Biennial curators are fallible.