Founded in 1930, The Whitney Museum of American Art has focused on showcasing contemporary and modern American art. Gertrude Whitney, the founder of The Whitney, noticed that many American artists with unusual ideas were having trouble exhibiting and selling their work. As a result she herself started buying their art, amassing an impressive collection of modern and contemporary American art. In 1914, Whitney established the Whitney Studio as a place to display her collection. By 1929, she had collected more than 500 pieces of artwork, which she tried to gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art but was rejected. Following this rejection, Whitney opened the Whitney Museum in 1931. 

Since its opening, The Whitney has been dedicated to exhibiting the works of American artists whose artworks have been dismissed by traditional academies. As such The Whitney has and continues to provide a unique and individualized perspective of American culture. In fact, The Whitney Museum was the first museum dedicated solely to the exhibition of living American artists — artists whose work were often not welcome in other traditional museum spaces. Some of these artists include Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons. 

In 1937, the Whitney instituted an invitational art exhibition called the “Whitney Annual,” which alternated showing paintings and sculpture. In 1973, the “Whitney Annual,” shifted to be the “Whitney Biennial,” which is a survey show of work in all styles of media every two years. Although the “Whitney Biennial” has faced some controversy over the years it continues to be the longest-running survey of American art and is regarded as one of the most prominent shows in the art world. 

This year the highly anticipated 81st installment of the “Whitney Biennial” opens on March 20 and is titled “Whitney Biennial 2024: Even Better Than the Real Thing.” The exhibit will show the works of 69 artists and two collectives who embody the “evolving notions of American art” through their work. These new artists bring new ideas and different perspectives to both the American and global art community.

 This year’s show is focused on the ideas of “the real,” acknowledging the inflection point that society is currently at. The curators discuss what we as a society consider to be real, especially with mounting concerns about artificial intelligence and materiality. The collection will inspire viewers to contend with ideas surrounding the fluidity of identity while reflecting on their own place in society, both in relation to other people and an increasingly technological world. 

This year’s “Whitney Biennial” also contends with ideas of historical and current land ownership. Ideas relating to historical and especially relevant following increasing discussion about the ownership of Indigenous pieces of artwork and ceremonial objects in museums. Since 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA has enforced the protection and return of Indigenous human remains, funerary objects and objects of cultural patrimony. At the end of 2023, NAGPRA was updated to include consent by federally recognized Indigenous tribes to display items of cultural patrimony. However, with this update came the decision to exclude the vast number of non-federally recognized Indigenous nations from museum negotiations. Whether or not these issues will be included in the Binennial’s exhibit will be indicative of American views of America’s history of exploiting Indigenous peoples. However, based on the Biennial’s history it is highly likely that these problems will be addressed in some of the artwork. 

The “Whitney Biennial” continues to inspire new artists to push new boundaries in art and contribute to America’s rich art history.

Overall, the “Whitney Biennial” has a robust history of showcasing unlikely voices and pushing the boundaries of how art and society interact. The 2024 “Whitney Biennial” opens in New York City on March 20 and is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.