Whitney Museum cancels show following artists' accusations of exploitation

Many black artists objected to an exhibition after they discovered their work had been acquired by the museum through discounted sales to benefit anti-racism causes

The Whitney Museum in New York. Wikimedia

The Whitney Museum in New York. Wikimedia

New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has canceled a recently announced show amid backlash from black artists who discovered that their work had been acquired by the museum without their knowledge from fundraising sales to which artworks were donated or sold at a discount to benefit racial justice causes.

Titled Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a time of change, the exhibition was scheduled to open on 17 September and focused on responses to Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement through prints, posters, photographs and other ephemera. The artists were informed of their inclusion in the show via an email from Whitney staff stating their work had been acquired and requesting their biographical information and an image of the work, with a promise of a lifetime artist pass to the museum as compensation. A mass public outcry on social media of the perceived injustice of the exchange followed a tweet from art critic Antwaun Sargent pointing to the fact that many of these works were acquired for just $100.

“I don’t think that it’s an acquisition, I think it’s theft," says Fields Harrington, who received an email over the weekend stating that his work Abolish Fucking Cops would be included in the show.

The crux of the controversy is the lack of both transparency and consent exhibited by the Whitney. Organised by archivist Farris Wahbeh, the director of research resources at the museum, the exhibition had been announced before the artists were informed about it, let alone asked whether they were willing to participate.

Many of these artists' works came with conditions as to their dissemination that went ignored, as was the case with Harrington, who produced the work that was subsequently acquired by the Whitney in response to Printed Matter’s open call for anti-racist materials following widespread protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd in May. The image was available to be download and widely disseminated for free, with the artist's stipulation that anyone who used it contribute to either a local bail fund or mutual aid organisations benefiting black trans women like the Okra Project, or G.L.I.T.S. Harrington himself did not receive funds for the work.

Others objected to the premise of the show itself, suggesting it was a co-option of the Movement for Black Lives intended to promote the Whitney as a progressive institution. To many artists, the fact that a museum with an endowment of over $400 million bought their works at a discount when it could afford to pay standard market prices and raise a significant amount of money for the antiracist causes that the show was intended to historicise seemed insincere.

Moreover, many artists also saw it as indicative of a broader pattern of exploiting black creatives by underpaying them for their work. The show was set to include work from 79 artists and collectives, the vast majority of who are black. The museum did not formally make an artist list available, but an unofficial list has since been circulated online and includes artists such as Marlene Dumas, Jacolby Satterwhite and Dana Scruggs.

"Let's talk about the lack of knowledge available for artists to properly protect themselves in any climate? But, let's shift our focus to how morally decadent this @whitneymuseum request is," tweeted the photographer Texas Isaiah.

Isaiah had recently sold works through an initiative by the collective See in Black, which launched an online sale last month to raise money for organisations such as the National Black Justice Coalition and the Bail Project. Prints were offered at around $100 each and limited to three per customer, and a number of the prints by various artists were due to be included in Collective Actions. A statement released on the collective's Instagram condemns the Whitney’s action specifically in the “current paradigm of white supremacy”.

“The Whitney’s use of the works acquired through the See in Black print sale at significantly discounted prices—the proceeds of which were donated 100% to charity—constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated," the statement reads.

The Whitney did not respond to requests for comment, but in an email sent to artists on Tuesday announcing the exhibition's cancellation shared on social media by the artist Gioncarlo Valentine, Wahbeh apologised for "any pain that the exhibition has caused".

He adds: “My sincere hope in collecting [these works] was to build on a historical record of how artists directly engage the important issues of their time. 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."

The Whitney, however, is not the first US institution to plan a show around art made in response to the current civil rights movement. A counterexample is the recent Art for Philadelphia fundraiser for local bail funds: work was reportedly acquired by both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, not only with the consent of participating artists but also at “institutional prices”.

The sense of institutional slight many artists identified in the Whitney case was further exacerbated by the fact that their works would not have been added to the museum's main collection. Rather, they would have been part of the library’s archival "Special Collections", reserved for artist books, editions, printed matter and other ephemera. It comes at a time when museums are increasingly under fire for their lack of diversity, in their collections as well as their staffs. Whereas acquisition committees can take months and even years to deliberate over the addition of an artwork to the collection, additions to the Whitney's archive are purchased with little oversight, raising the question of whose work—and about what subjects and communities—is valued enough to be considered art that merits inclusion in the collection.

"I think there’s something of a language game between the semantics of archive and acquisition," Harrington says, adding that he believes what the Whitney did was "exploitative" and continues to perpetuate the [racist] legacy of museums.

The cancellation of Collective Actions comes after last summer's protests led by the activist collective Decolonize This Place against the Whitney's former board member Warren Kanders, whose company manufactured tear gas, munitions and riot gear used by law enforcement to suppress protesters and immigrants. Additionally, the museum has drawn accusations of anti-black behaviour before, evidenced in controversies such as the inclusion of a painting of Emmet Till by the white artist Dana Schutz in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and the YAMS collective’s withdrawal from the 2014 biennial.