The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York announced today that seventy-five artists have been selected to present work in the Seventy-Ninth Whitney Biennial, which will be curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley and will run from May 17 through September 22. Nicole Eisenman, Jeffrey Gibson, Barbara Hammer, and Simone Leigh are among the participating artists.
With less than three months before the much-anticipated event, the biennial has already been pushed into the spotlight by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and activist groups who are hoping to use the exhibition to pressure the institution to cut ties with its vice chairman Warren B. Kanders, the chief executive of Safariland—a defense manufacturer that supplies law enforcement with equipment ranging from body armor to tear gas.
In November 2018, an article published by Hyperallergic about Kanders and his company’s role in supplying the US border patrol with tear gas that was used against asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border sparked a public outcry. Since then, the Whitney’s staff has penned an internal letter expressing outrage at Kanders’s involvement with the museum and made several demands, including that the institution reconsider Kanders’s leadership position and the development of guidelines for selecting trustees.
After learning of the media reports, the Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz withdrew from the biennial on December 18. Jillian Steinhauer of the New York Times reports that Rakowitz, who was commissioned to create new work that involved re-creating artifacts destroyed in the Iraq War, called Kanders’s support of the museum “toxic philanthropy.” Explaining his decision to decline participation to the Times, he said that if he ignored the controversy he would be “betraying everything that I’ve ever cared about in the work that I make.”
In January, W.A.G.E., a New York–based activist group, issued an invitation to all artistschosen to participate in the biennial, asking them to withhold their works in solidarity with the museum’s staff and to demand compensation for their labor. Last week, the organization extended that invitation to all artists participating in future biennials as well. “We invite you to put your exceptionality to work,” the organization’s missive reads.
The 2017 edition of the biennial, the first to take place in the Whitney’s new building, was also a politically charged affair. The inclusion of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, 2017—an abstract painting that was based on a historic photograph of Emmett Till, an African American teen who was brutally murdered by a white mob in Mississippi in 1955—divided visitors to the exhibition and also prompted a fierce debate about the representation of black people in art.
For museum director Adam D. Weinberg, the biennial should be at the forefront of issues in contemporary art. “Taking the pulse of American creativity and culture, the Whitney Biennial has been finding the future of contemporary art for nearly a century, Weinberg said in a statement. “The biennial is an essential strand of the museum’s DNA, a chance to reaffirm one of the Whitney’s deepest commitments: to support the work of living artists and to engage in a cultural dialogue about what contemporary art is and why it matters.”
Curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, both staff members at the museum, conducted more than three hundred studio visits over the past year in order to choose the final roster of artists for the exhibition. Commenting on the upcoming edition, Panetta said: “Ru and I especially focused on emerging artists and first-time biennial participants: approximately seventy-five percent of the artists in the show are under forty, and only five have previously appeared in a Whitney Biennial. In part, this emphasis resulted from what we saw during our research across the US, as we were struck by the profound difficulties of our current moment and the ways in which so many artists we encountered are struggling and facing fewer opportunities to present their work publicly.”
Ranging from emerging to well-established individuals and collectives, the participating artists will exhibit painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, film and video, photography, performance, and sound works throughout the fifth- and sixth-floor exhibition galleries, as well as in numerous spaces both inside and outside the museum. According to the New York Times, the exhibitors will all be paid $1,500—the amount was suggested by W.A.G.E.—for their participation.