Amid an outcry from artists involved, the Whitney Museum in New York has canceled a show that was to feature works being sold to support mutual aid funds associated with the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Titled “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change,” the show was due to open on September 17 and was set to feature digital files, photographs, posters, and prints that were created this year.
The public controversy surrounding the exhibition was sparked after art critic Antwaun Sargent tweeted about it yesterday evening and called on artists to organize against it. Shortly afterward, artists with works that were to appear in the show called out the Whitney, claiming that they were not properly consulted before their works were acquired by the museum and that they were not compensated for these acquisitions.
“We at the museum have been listening and hearing from artists about their concerns,” Farris Wahbeh, the now-canceled show’s organizer and the Whitney’s director of research resources, wrote in a letter to artists in the show that was sent to ARTnews. “The conversations and discussions that have come out of the exhibition are deeply felt. We apologize for the anger and frustration the exhibition has caused and have made the decision not to proceed with the show.”
Various artists had taken to social media on Monday and Tuesday to post emails from Wahbeh telling the artists that their work was acquired and that it would be exhibited at the museum. Among the artists who posted emails from Wahbeh were Miranda Barnes, Kennedi Carter, Ike Edeani, Quil Lemons, and Gioncarlo Valentine. “Your work is incredibly important and speaks to our time, and I’m so honored that the Whitney was able to acquire the work,” Wahbeh wrote in each of the emails. An artist lifetime pass, which guarantees free access to the museum, was promised to each recipient, but no information about compensation was offered in the original emails.
Some of these artists were involved in See in Black, an initiative launched on Juneteenth that upheld work by Black photographers to “support five key pillars of Black advancement: civil rights, education/arts, intersectionality, community building, and criminal justice reform,” according to its website. In a statement posted on social media, See in Black said, “The Whitney’s use of the works acquired through the See in Black print sale at significantly discounted prices constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated. Furthermore, See in Black is not affiliated with the Whitney’s exhibition.”
According to the exhibition page on the museum’s website, “Collective Actions” was to include art that was made available to support “anti-racist initiatives, including criminal justice reform, bail funds, Black trans advocacy groups, and other mutual aid work.” That listing says that some works will also appear as PDFs online and that the pieces were acquired by the Whitney while the initiatives were taking place. A full artist list for the show was not released by the Whitney.
Some artworks to be included were never intended for exhibition in a museum—which further inflamed tensions between artists and the Whitney. One artist included in the show, Fields Harrington, told ARTnews that the work the Whitney acquired, a digital piece called Abolish Fucking Police that was made for a Printed Matter open call, was not made with a museum in mind. On Printed Matter’s website, Harrington asked viewers to donate to the Bail Project, the Okra Project, and a since-closed bail fund. It was not clear, he said, whether the Whitney had donated to any of these funds.
“I was responding to continuing state violence that I was witnessing on social media, in the news, everywhere,” Harrington, who was a recent participant in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, said in an interview. “I put it up for the public—I thought people would put it on their phone, I thought people would print it out and bring it to protests. I didn’t have an intention other than that it was for people in the streets.” Saying that the show was ill-timed, he added, “If they stood with Black communities, they would not be doing this.”
Texas Isaiah was among the artists to label the Whitney’s intended exhibition of the works “exploitation.” “In my experience, when a museum wishes to acquire works by artists, they have to seek approval from an acquisition committee and then directly reached out to the artist themselves or their galleries to purchase the piece,” Texas Isaiah, who participated in the See in Black initiative, said in an email. “It’s perplexing to think that a multi-million dollar museum went around to buy works for $100, some unsigned, untitled, and not dated for their collections. It is predatory, condescending, and irresponsible.”
The artist also questioned what it meant that the works were acquired for the Whitney’s research collection (composed of artists’ books, publications, posters, and ephemera) as opposed to its permanent collection (which houses paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more). “Ephemera, by definition, are items that are enjoyed and used for a short time,” he said. “Are these images of our lovers, parents, grandparents, friends, and peers trivial? I’m not implying that ephemera are meaningless, but the way they’ve acquired Black artists’ work makes us feel this way.”
Wahbeh addressed these allegations in his letter to artists. “My sincere hope in collecting them was to build on a historical record of how artists directly engage the important issues of their time,” Wahbeh wrote. “Going forward, we will study and consider further how we can better collect and exhibit artworks and related material that are made and distributed through these channels. I understand how projects in the past several months have a special resonance and I sincerely want to extend my apologies for any pain that the exhibition has caused.”