Controversy Continues around Dana Schutz Painting—and the 9 Other Biggest News Stories This Week

Artsy Editorial
Mar 24, 2017 9:44PM

Catch up on the latest art news with our rundown of the 10 stories you need to know this week.

01 A painting by Dana Schutz on view at the Whitney Biennial has caused a firestorm of controversy over the white artist’s use and depiction of Emmett Till as a subject.

(via Artsy, Black Contemporary Art, artnet News, and The Guardian)

Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) is an abstracted painting of Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white store clerk. Till’s murderers were promptly acquitted. The day the Whitney Biennial opened to the public, artist Parker Bright stood in front of Schutz’s painting wearing a shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle,” blocking the work from view for several hours. The British artist Hannah Black subsequently published a public letter calling for the piece to be removed and destroyed, writing that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.” The biennial’s curators, Chris Lew and Mia Locks, rejected calls to remove the work because they “believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.” Schutz has also stood by the piece, although this week a widely-circulated fake letter (purportedly penned by the artist herself) requested its removal from the biennial. In The Guardian, Schutz responded, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.” But as Antwaun Sargent wrote for Artsy, “the controversy surrounding this work is, at its core, about the failure of the art world to truly represent black humanity, despite its recent insistence on ‘diversity.’”

02  Art Basel and UBS released a new report on the art market Wednesday at Art Basel in Hong Kong, finding that overall sales for the global art market fell 11% in 2016, to $56.6 billion.


The U.S. remained the largest market for art, with a market share of 40% (down three percentage points from the prior year). The U.K. was second with a 21% share, with China breathing down its neck at 20%. Still, the U.S. suffered a 16% decline in sales in 2016 to $22.9 billion, due largely to lower auction results. The report, titled The Art Market | 2017, was prepared by longtime arts economist and founder of Arts Economics Clare McAndrew, whose research, previously for the TEFAF Report, has been a guidepost for the art market. McAndrew highlighted several risks to the art market that could be exacerbated by the increasing dominance of the ultra-wealthy and thinning ranks of more modest collectors who help support the emerging end of the market. “Since 2009, we’ve really seen the top end pull away and get more disconnected from the everyday businesses of the market,” she wrote. In this year’s report, she links that trend to growing wealth inequality.

03  The fifth edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong opened with 242 galleries from 34 countries participating.


The art world has placed an ever-increasing focus on Asia over the past half-decade, with a flood of new collectors from China and Southeast Asia entering the market. At Art Basel in Hong Kong’s opening day, a sense pervaded that the pivot of the industry’s attention to the region was complete—and that this fair now stands on equal footing with its sisters in Basel and Miami Beach. “This is a milestone year for the fair,” said Art Basel Global Director Marc Spiegler, reflecting on the five years since his fair purchased Hong Kong art fair ART HK, which was five years old at the time. Many galleries have moved to or expanded in the city in the time since, and the fair itself has increased in visitorship from just 20,000 attendees in 2008 to 70,000 in 2016. This year a similarly sized crowd is expected. “I don’t think any of us imagined the show would gain so much attention so quickly,” said Spiegler. At least according to early results, that attention is ever more quickly turning into sales.  

04  Trisha Brown, the boundary-pushing postmodern choreographer and dancer who revolutionized her medium, has died at age 80.

(via the New York Times)

Brown passed away in San Antonio, Texas on March 18th; she had been undergoing treatment for vascular dementia since 2011. Her pioneering body of work includes several seminal works of choreography and solo and group performances that eschewed theatricality and formalism in favor of experimental movement. Further innovations included the removal of music from her compositions, letting the sounds of her dancers’ moving bodies score performances instead. Several of these works were presented in famously unconventional settings: Walking on the Wall (1971) featured seven dancers suspended from the Whitney’s ceiling and striding vertically across the gallery walls as if defying gravity; Roof Piece (1971) saw dancers scattered across 12 Soho roofs. Brown was a fixture of the 1970s and ’80s New York avant-garde community and is known for collaborating with artists outside dance—including Donald Judd, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Rauschenberg—on sets and other aesthetics. She was named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 1988 and a MacArthur fellow in 1991. In 2012, Brown announced that she would no longer create work; since then, aspects of her influential oeuvre have been presented at the Donald Judd Foundation, BAM, the Getty, LACMA, and more. Countless choreographers and creatives who came after her, such as David Gordon, Mark Morris, and Stephen Petronio, have cited Brown and her work as an essential influence.

05  A new study has found that women museum directors are both underrepresented and underpaid in comparison to their male counterparts in the United States.


The new study, released Wednesday by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) revealed the disparity remains particularly acute at wealthy institutions, despite incremental progress in narrowing the gap. The AAMD found that 48% of the 210 museum directors who responded to the 2016 study were women, up 5% since data was last gathered in 2013. Across all institutions, women directors earned an average of 73 cents for every dollar paid to men in the same position. Wealthier museums—defined as those with operating budgets over $15 million—revealed more dramatic gender inequity. Roughly 30% of such institutions are directed by women; by comparison, women helm 54% of museums with budgets under $15 million. And the gender gap at wealthy institutions actually widens as their coffers deepen. Of the 13 highest-budget institutions in the United States, 12 have male museum directors. As such, the study bolsters calls for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to appoint a woman as director, following the resignation of Thomas Campbell.

06  Art supply sales spiked in January as protesters crafted signs for the women’s marches held across the United States.

(via the New York Times)

Consumer research group NPD reported that, in the week leading up to the Women’s March on Jan. 21st, sales of poster boards jumped by 33% and foam boards by 42% over the same week last year. In all, more than 6.5 million poster boards were sold during the month of January. Other poster-making materials were also in greater demand between Jan. 15th and Jan 21st, including glue (up 27%), specialty markers (up 24%), and permanent markers (up 12%). The boost in sales led to a shortage of art supplies in certain areas—a Washington woman who organized a sign-making event recalled “calling around for posters, and everyone was sold out for a five-mile radius.” One D.C.-based organizer even picked up bedsheets and pillowcases thrown away by hotels as an alternative to poster board.

07  A British man has been charged for attacking a more than two-hundred-year-old painting by Thomas Gainsborough in London’s National Gallery.

(via The Guardian)

Last Saturday, March 18th, 63-year-old Keith Gregory entered The National Gallery and slashed The Morning Walk (1785) by legendary Romantic-era portrait and landscape-painter Thomas Gainsborough with a screwdriver. The following day, London police announced that Gregory, who has no fixed home, was charged with causing criminal damage. After last week’s attack, museum staff evacuated the wing where the large-scale painting hung (and which was also featured in the James Bond film Skyfall) for two hours. The masterpiece was swiftly removed from the wall and was, as of Sunday, in the process of being examined by the museum’s on-staff conservators, who have confirmed that damage “is limited to two long scratches which have penetrated the paint layers but not the supporting canvas,” said a spokeswoman for the museum. As of this Friday, the motive for the attack remains unknown.

08  Following the resignation of Met director Thomas Campbell earlier this month, interim chief executive Daniel Weiss has detailed a plan to close the museum’s $15 million budget deficit.

(via the Wall Street Journal)

In what is being construed as a bid by Weiss for a permanent appointment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s top job, the former college president laid out a plan to close the rapidly ballooning deficit over two or three years. The strategy slows spending without sacrificing growth by tripling the revenue from gift shops and moving forward consecutively with costly building projects rather than tackling them simultaneously. A $600-million expansion of the museum to house its contemporary art collection has also been mothballed. The Met first announced a deficit last year and enacted several measures to eliminate it, including a string of nearly 100 layoffs. The overall logic of Weiss’s plan isn’t a substantive deviation from Campbell’s previous proposals, although the interim chief executive has said there will be no additional layoffs.

09  An international fund to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones has launched with an initial sum of $75 million—including $1 million donated by a U.S. art collector.

(via The Art Newspaper)

The fund officially launched on Monday and has already raised three-quarters of a planned $100 million total. France and the United Arab Emirates spearheaded the initiative, which was modeled off a similar project aimed at combating AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The two countries were also responsible for a large portion of the contributions thus far—$30 million from France and $15 million from the UAE. This money will go towards safeguarding heritage in conflict zones and combating looting, in parallel to efforts by UNESCO, which will be represented on the fund’s board. Private donors from the United States have also been key to its development; the Mellon Foundation and World Monuments Fund both contributed, as did Thomas Kaplan, a billionaire and art collector connected to the Gulf region, who gave $1 million.

10  An artist who created an incendiary anti-Trump billboard in Arizona has reported receiving death threats over the work.

(via The Hill)

Last Friday, a billboard depicting a scowling President Trump surrounded by atomic explosions and dollar signs resembling Nazi swastikas went up on Grand Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona. Karen Fiorito, the California-based artist and activist behind the public artwork, expected it would stir up controversy. She didn’t anticipate, however, the menacing calls and death threats that have harassed she and her husband since the billboard was erected. “I've been called a communist, a Satan worshiper. I've been told I'm a very, very sick person,” she said. The back of Fiorito’s billboard, which shows five hands spelling the word “unity,” is less provocative. According to Fiorito the piece is “a form of resistance, a form of protest” but also a “call for people who feel like they’re in the minority to come together,” she said. Phoenix gallery owner and arts patron Beatrice Moore, who commissioned the artwork from Fiorito and owns the billboard, stated that the billboard would stay put as long as Trump is president.

—Artsy Editors

Cover image: Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2016. Collection of the artist; Pretzel Gallery, New York and Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin. Photograph by Bill Orcutt. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Artsy Editorial