The 2019 Whitney Biennial, curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, is markedly noninflammatory. Described by other outlets as “boring” and “safe,” the exhibition doesn't focus on anger, resistance, or agitprop, opting instead for more positive approaches and themes like community, strength, and survival. While art's audiences might currently yearn to see their political frustrations and anxieties echoed in art-as-entertainment, or art-as-reassurance, the Biennial instead illustrates what artists have always been good at doing: continuing to work through, and despite, troubling times; using art as a catalyst for community building; finding ways to support themselves and their communities when the goverment or the market won't. If our expectations for art include asking that it somehow incite change in perception or even political change, than this Biennial suggests that The Whitney can not be the site where this change happens. The site is, instead, wherever these artists come from—wherever they live and work and engage with their communities, many of which, are outside of New York.
In the two years leading up to the opening, Panetta and Hockley made a point to visit artist communities across the U.S., curtailing the Museum’s long history of prioritizing artists within its vicinity. (The exhibition catalogue points out that the Whitney's Annuals of the 1930s listed only the street addresses—omitting the city and state—for artists who lived in New York, implying that the City was the default.) In 2016, we learned about the dangers of underestimating rural communities and middle America. Voters, analysts, and Hillary Clinton alike neglected to account for the power held (and disenfranchisement felt) by voters in so-called “fly-over” states—a costly mistake that the Biennial curators made sure not to repeat.
Unlike artists working in cities like New York, where for decades, commercial galleries have created exhibition opportunities and potential funding for artists (not that that comes easily), those living and working in areas with less commercial support have had to use their creativity not only inside the studio, but also outside of the studio to find ways of supporting one another, of providing opportunities for themselves and their fellow artists. “As we’ve witnessed the rise of mega galleries and often-private museum-building projects across the United States in recent years,” writes Panetta in the Biennial's exhibition catalog, “it felt heartening to see a range of nonprofit, art-affiliated organizations thriving—with new ones set to open soon in many places—as they perform important work and cater to underserved communities.” Careful to avoid classifying these organizations and artist communities as “alternative,” Panetta elsewhere writes, “No longer ‘alternative,’ an implicitly disparaging characterization that suggests they exist external to more essential critical dialogue, they are instead vital epicenters for art and the conversations around it in the United States.”
Such “vital epicenters” include NXTHVN (pronounced "Next Haven") in New Haven, Connecticut; Creative Growth in Oakland, California; and NIAD (a center that teaches art to adults with disabilities, like the 56-year-old Biennial exhibitor Marlon Mullen) in Richmond, California. They include Project Row Houses in Houston, comprised of 39 structures within five blocks in one of the city's oldest African-American neighborhoods, and Power House Productions (which we previously wrote about here) in Detroit, a city where Biennial artist Matthew Angelo Harrison worked as a clay sculptor at Ford Motor Company before focusing on his art full-time; using automotive manufacturing processes like resin casting and 3D-scanning, Harrison scans and prints sculptures based on sculptures from Africa.
In Puerto Rico, artists like Sofia Gallisá Muriente, who exhibits a 2014 two-channel video in the Biennial, co-founded Beta-Local in San Juan. Started in 2009, the organization has more recently been awarding up to $350,000 annually in grants to local artists, and since Hurricane Maria, has set up a fund to help artists and their families repair studios, replace art supplies, and recover from the devastating hurricane, according to the exhibition catalogue. “We observed firsthand what artists, and the arts, can do, particularly where government and other institutions or formalized avenues have failed," writes Hockley in the exhibition catalog. Also in Puerto Rico, in San Anton, is Patio Taller, a house that belonged to the grandfather of two sisters (Lydela and Michel Nóno) who now run the space as an international artist residency, communal gallery, garden, kitchen workshop, and daycare. The sisters, who collaborate under the name Las Nietas de Nonó, exhibit at The Whitney Ilustraciones de la Mecánica, a performance/installation they first showed at the 10th Berlin Biennial.
Another artist in the Biennial, Pat Phillips, a painter who's on-view work Underground Railroad/Chain Gagng (2016) is informed by his experience growing up and writing graffiti in suburban Louisiana, was encountered by the curators during their trip to New Orleans, yet another city still recovering from a devastating hurricane. At the time, Phillips was working with the Joan Mitchell Foundation, a residency for artists from the region, that “occupies a space that neither traditional museums nor the marketplace is filling, supporting a neighborhood and a city that already possess great legacies and active artist communities that can deeply benefit from empowered cultural infrastructure.”
Though we may think of Los Angeles as an increasingly “important” city in the global art world (Frieze opened a fair there this past year), gentrification and segregation continue to play significant roles in how art is perceived and disseminated in discrete communities. Penetta writes about the Underground Museum in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Central Los Angeles, a predominantly black and Latinx neighborhood that lacks the kinds of art and community resources afforded to the wealthier neighborhoods that border it. "The museum functions equally as exhibition and community space, presenting shows often focused around Black artists while also offering programming such as yoga classes and film screenings," writes Panetta. "Such events implicitly reinforce the institution's hoped-for accessibility by bringing individuals through its doors for a broad range of reasons."
And of course, though New York may feel like the center of the art world, it presents its own host of challenges for artists living in the city—a city which, by the way, has a long and strong history of community- and artist-run spaces. A newer addition to that history, The Laundromat Project (read our interview with them here) hosts exhibitions in laundromats in an effort to provide exhibition opportunities for local artists while steering clear of renting storefront space—which inevitably aids in gentrification.
Ultimately, the unwritten question that seems to come up again and again in the curatorial conceit of this exhibition is, Who is art for? Had the Biennial been angrier, more inflammatory, we might suppose that art is for an audience who finds validation, catharsis, even entertainment, in seeing their frustrations vented via art. But in the 2019 Biennial, the curators seem to provide a different answer to this basic question: Art is for artists and their communities—artists who use art not just to reflect, magnify, or distill the disturbing times, but to also heal the fissures that those disturbances create. The exhibition celebrates those that have found support, and have supported others, through community building when the art market, the New York-centric art world, and the government, couldn't. Hockley writes, “Times are dark and dire, but people are kind and life prevails.”