Tate cuts ties with oil giant BP, setting a new precedent (2016)
With museums coming under scrutiny for their financial ties to various organizations, a number of art institutions in the United Kingdom were called out by protesters for sponsorship deals with the oil company BP, which the activists allege is promoting destruction of the environment. In 2016, Tate in London took a step that has since been considered groundbreaking—it cut ties entirely with BP after six years of actions staged at Tate Britain and Tate Modern by the collective Liberate Tate. Since the institution ended its 26-year sponsorship with the oil giant, other groups, like BP or Not BP, began staging protests and performances at the British Museum, which recently reaffirmed its relationship with the oil company. One could argue that Tate’s radical rebuke of BP set in motion similar moves by other arts organizations. This year alone, the Royal Shakespeare Company said it would no longer work with BP, and the National Galleries of Scotland announced last month that it would stop staging the exhibition for the BP Portrait Award “in its present form.” Since 2016, Tate has declared a “climate emergency,” vowing to reduce its carbon footprint and update its galleries’ electrical systems.
Activists and artists protest a Dana Schutz painting in the Whitney Biennial (2017)
The 2017 Whitney Biennial will probably always be defined by the controversy that surrounded Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which is based on a photograph of the dead body of Emmett Till; the fourteen-year-old African-American boy was killed in 1955 by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman who later admitted that the accusation was false. Till’s face was severely disfigured, but rather than hide it, his mother, Mamie Till, wanted the world to see the world what the men had done to her son. Critics said that Schutz, the white artist, was wrong to use and potentially commodify black pain and suffering in her work. In an open letter, Hannah Black called for the work to be removed from the exhibition and destroyed, and artist Parker Bright stood in front of the painting wearing a shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle.” Schutz responded by saying that she approached the picture of Till by being empathetic toward his mother—Schutz herself has a child, and she explained in reports from the time that she never intended to sell the painting. Open Casket remained on view throughout the show’s run, but the calls for its removal and destruction continue to influence how artists and curators think about who is allowed to represent whom.
The #MeToo movement hits the art world (2017)
A growing #MeToo movement that began in the film industry quickly made its way to the art world in 2017. That year, curator Amanda Schmitt filed a lawsuit against Artforum publisher Knight Landesman and the publication itself, accusing him of years of sexual harassment while she was an employee of the magazine and afterward. (Other women also came forward at the time to detail harassment allegations against Landesman, who has denied any inappropriate behavior.) Following the complaint, Landesman resigned from his post. Though it was ultimately dismissed a year later, Schmitt’s case against Landesman and Artforum spurred a reckoning with abuses of power in the art world, and soon, other male figures in the art world were publicly accused of various forms of harassment or misconduct. Schmitt is currently appealing her case.
Sam Durant’s Scaffold generates conversation about representation (2017)
Sam Durant’s Scaffold, a large outdoor sculpture addressing, in part, a horrific history involving the execution of 38 members of the Dakota tribe in the Midwest, was meant to be a marquee addition to an ambitious new sculpture park operated jointly by the Walker Art Center and the City of Minneapolis. But after charges of insensitivity from Indigenous communities, who said they had not been consulted about the piece, it became the source of intense disagreement. Efforts on the part of the artist and the institution to engage in the debate and atone for what had been perceived as an insufficient show of care seemed only to push the poles of opinion further apart. In the end, the sculpture was dismantled in collaboration with Dakota elders, who elected to bury the work, and the Walker’s director, Olga Viso, later stepped down. Scaffold took on a shadow history as an artwork at the center of increasing debate over who can engage with certain subject matter—and on what terms.
Salvator Mundi becomes the most expensive work ever sold at auction (2017)
Museums around the world hold fewer than 20 authenticated works by Leonardo da Vinci, and prior to 2012, none were believed to be in private hands. Understandably, when Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500), the painting that would ultimately become the most expensive work ever sold at auction, was first declared genuine, many were suspicious. (Experts are divided on the attribution.) Debate about the painting’s true author didn’t keep the general public from watching with rapt interest as Christie’s revealed plans to sell it in New York in 2017. More than 27,000 people saw the work at pre-auction viewings around the globe, and the world looked on as an anonymous bidder bought the work for $450.3 million. Questions about who bought the painting were on everyone’s mind—and the mystery only deepened after the painting vanished shortly after hitting the block. In December 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced in a tweet that it would display the work—but it never went on view, neither when the museum opened in 2017 nor when the Louvre in Paris held a Leonardo retrospective in 2019. The buyer was eventually revealed as Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a lesser-known Saudi royal. The work’s whereabouts remain unconfirmed, though rumors about its being on a luxury yacht owned by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have made headlines.
Protests against Sackler funding at museums force change around the world (2018)
The Sackler name was once associated with grand museum spaces—a gallery housing a big Egyptian temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or a wing of “Oriental art” at the Louvre in Paris. Now, however, many museums have cut ties to the family, which was once one of the biggest sources of funding to museums in the United States and Europe. That’s, in part, thanks to photographer Nan Goldin and her activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which has staged protests at museums—from the Guggenheim Museum in New York to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London—to demand that they remove the Sackler name from their walls. Their activism came after Purdue Pharmaceuticals, a company owned by the Sacklers, was hit with numerous lawsuits alleging that the family misled regulators about the addictive properties of its painkiller OxyContin. As a result of the P.A.I.N. actions, which have included die-ins, the Met, the Guggenheim, and Tate in London have stopped accepting donations from the Sacklers. The Louvre redacted the family’s name from one of its wings, and the National Portrait Gallery in London refused a £1 million grant from the family.
A report sets a new precedent for the repatriation of African objects (2018)
An uprising swell of debate over matters relating to restitution reached a new height after French president Emmanuel Macron issued a high-profile call for action in a speech at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Later, he commissioned a report with major impact for historians and museum leaders, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.” Written by Senegalese author and economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, the report calls for the return of cultural objects taken from Africa during colonial times—and occasioned Macron to pledge that looted treasures held by France will go back to Benin. Questions over how and when to enact such pledges complicated some of the report’s clarion call, but it stands as a declaration with ramifications still to come.
A radical deaccessioning at the Baltimore Museum of Art launches a new trend (2018)
Since becoming director of the Baltimore Museum of Art three years ago, Christopher Bedford has made a number of radical moves aimed at addressing inequities at the institution. The most radical was perhaps his 2018 decision to sell seven works by white male artists already well-represented in its collection—Franz Kline, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg among them—in order to purchase works by women and artists of color. The move generated headlines—and some criticism—around the world, and ended up netting more than $7 million. Soon enough, the San Francisco Museum of Art was following suit, offloading a Mark Rothko for $50.1 million at auction for the same purpose, and generating its own heated debate. As the decade comes to a close, a new era of activist collection management seems to be dawning.
An online spreadsheet launches a debate about money in the art world (2019)
How much does a curator earn at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles? What institutions offer paid internships? Does the Metropolitan Museum of Art pay its assistant curators better than the Museum of Modern Art does? These were all questions that could potentially be answered using the “Art/Museum Salary Transparency 2019” document, a Google spreadsheet that made the rounds online. Created by one member of the collective Art + Museums Transparency in a matter of minutes, the spreadsheet was partly a response to writer Kimberly Drew’s disclosure of her salary at various museums. After it was launched this past May, the spreadsheet promoted a conversation about transparency and U.S. institutions.
Museum unions gain momentum (2019)
Museum unions aren’t new—PASTA, the union at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has been around since the 1970s. But as activists called on museums to start being more transparent about their finances, a profusion of workers at institutions across the United States started banding together to launch unions. Among the first to do so in 2019 were workers at the New Museum, who agreed to a contract with new structures for raises and benefits. Staff members at other institutions, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, soon followed suit, with MOCA agreeing to recognize the group. Such efforts have not always been successful—after workers announced plans to unionize, the Marciano Art Foundation laid off dozens, and closed with “no current plans to reopen,” then shuttered for good—but they have become integral players in the changing dynamics at museums today.
Whitney Museum vice chair Warren B. Kanders resigns after activists call for his removal (2019)
It all started with a tear-gas canister that was thrown at asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. When a Hyperallergic report in 2018 revealed that the canister was produced by Safariland, a defense-manufacturing company led by Warren B. Kanders, who was then vice chair of the Whitney’s board, protests ensued. Nearly 100 Whitney staffers penned a letter to the museum leadership in which they called for the consideration of Kanders’s removal, and the activist group Decolonize This Place led a protest in which so much sage was burned in the museum’s lobby that the Fire Department was called. (Kanders said he was “not the problem” in an extended statement.) Weekly protests occurred at the museum in the run-up to its closely watched biennial, and eight artists demanded the removal of their work from the show. This past July, after eight months of actions and open letters, Kanders left his post, initiating a renewed conversation about ethics and philanthropy.