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Pre-Biennial Angst

The Whitney Museum's big show is looking for a few good curators.

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What if you called an art museum and no one answered -- and it wasn't a Monday? Two months ago, photographer Tina Barney called the Whitney Museum to see about submitting a new work for its next Biennial. "I'm sure that was déclassé," Barney says now, "but I thought I would try." Not only didn't she hear back -- strange treatment for an artist who's booked to speak there this month -- but she also couldn't find out who was running the show. "I got no answer whatsoever," she says. "I think they just don't know."

That should soon change. With just twelve months left before the March 2000 Biennial -- bumped back a year to follow this season's "The American Century" retrospective -- the Whitney is almost ready to start picking artists. To wait this long would have been unheard of under director David Ross, who before his departure last spring said that many artists need three years' notice to commit to a Biennial. But to be fair, new Whitney director Maxwell Anderson has had little time to concentrate on the show, having lost three top contemporary-art curators since he was hired last fall. With time running short, Anderson has told New York that he'll be managing the Biennial himself while getting some help to curate it. "There will be several curators from across the country who will work as a team to organize the 2000 Biennial," he said through a spokesperson. Anderson will head the team, which should be announced this week.

This strategy should bring to a close the controversial single-curator, single-vision Biennials of the Ross-era nineties. But a blue-ribbon panel from outside the Whitney could also take some pressure off Anderson, whom artworld observers have pegged as less of a contemporary-art specialist than his predecessor. It also compensates for his staff shortfall: After Anderson imposed a new departmental (or what he called "portfolio") structure on the museum, he received resignations from Thelma Golden, who had been working on the 2000 Biennial for six months, and Elisabeth Sussman, who handled the '93 Biennial. Then, in December, '97 Biennial curator Lisa Phillips, whom Anderson had put in charge of contemporary art, announced she was leaving to head SoHo's New Museum of Contemporary Art. Anderson is still looking for a replacement.

Sussman isn't surprised by Anderson's plans. "Every new administration that comes in rethinks the Biennial," she says. "Certainly David Ross did." Golden, for her part, says only, "I wish them the best of luck." Privately, though, insiders wonder if a group effort will soften the sort of politicized unpredictability that made Ross's Biennials such a wild card for the Whitney's board. "I have too much faith in the Whitney's trustees to think they just would let things slip through the cracks," says one gallery owner. "But now they've got someone who's so controllable he doesn't know what to do."

Is the only thing worse than a bad Biennial a boring one? Depending on who makes the team, the millennial Biennial could be slammed for being too diffuse. Of course, slamming the show is a time-honored tradition. "I don't blame him," one seasoned curator says of Anderson's panel idea. "It's not fun. You just stand out there knowing you're going to get creamed."


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