Art Market

Galleries Are Urging Collectors to Support Social Justice and Police Reform

Alina Cohen
Jun 9, 2020 8:50PM

Early last week, unusual emails flooded collectors’ inboxes. Galleries across the United States were speaking out against the systemic racism and police brutality that became impossible to ignore in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis Police Department custody and the ensuing protests across the country and around the world. Some galleries promised to match donations to specific organizations or organized benefit sales, while others simply sent out statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and lists of organizations recipients could support.

The swiftness of this response was at first surprising: Galleries’ clients are collectors whose political beliefs aren’t necessarily radical, liberal, or even inclined toward social justice endeavors. On the other hand, galleries are also loyal to their artists, whose positions, broadly speaking, tend to be firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. A number of galleries shared their motivations for making explicit statements about their own allegiances, and discussed the feedback they’ve received. While a few faced minor backlash, their responses indicate a larger shift in the way the industry, and many Americans, are thinking about the current crisis—opting to speak out rather than remain quiet for fear of causing offense.


In a few instances, artists themselves spurred their galleries to action. New York gallery Magenta Plains announced that it would be selling prints by Ebecho Muslimova with all proceeds disbursed among the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Bail Project, and the Emergency Release Fund, while Various Small Fires, which operates spaces in Los Angeles and Seoul, is hosting a sale of posters by Calida Rawles and Diedrick Brackens to benefit four organizations (bail funds, Black Lives Matter, Black Visions Collective, and Equal Justice Initiative). “The print edition fundraiser was Ebecho’s idea and everyone at the gallery was immediately behind it,” said Magenta Plains co-founder and director Olivia Smith. Muslimova selected the beneficiaries and the gallery “entirely focused on the urgency to support community bail and legal defense funds,” getting the sale running as swiftly as possible.

Rawles and Brackens similarly approached Various Small Fires with their own idea for a sale. “I think any conscious business has a responsibility to leverage their privilege and share their public platform to help spread awareness and redistribute resources,” said Various Small Fires senior director Sara Hantman. She noted that the gallery has “access to a deep-pocketed and philanthropic audience—and funding is a crucial component to truly supporting the organizations we believe in.” The gallery is still combing through donations, though it has raised nearly $50,000 so far. Magenta Plains has raised $29,100, with more prints to be sold.

Clifford Prince King, Just the Two of Us, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and LAUNCH F18, New York.

New York–based gallery Launch F18 is similarly hosting a print sale with work by Clifford Prince King. All proceeds go to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which focuses on ensuring human rights for black transgender people. The gallery wants its philanthropic endeavors to endure: It is planning future benefits with artists including B.D. Graft, Erika Mahr, and Nathan Dilworth, with beneficiaries including Black Arts Future Fund, Equal Justice Initiative, and Center for Policing Equity. Last week, said co-owner Sam Trioli, the gallery tried to process what was going on, speaking with artists and friends. “We always try to look beyond just the gallery walls, and see how we might be able to have a positive impact in our community through art, while also listening to what our artists are thinking and feeling, and in what ways they need support from us,” he said. So far, the benefit has raised $5,000. Trioli added, “We felt that in a time such as this one, our actions really mean much more than our words. A statement from the gallery simply would not suffice.”

Some larger galleries made significant commitments of their own. Gladstone Gallery and Metro Pictures both offered to match 100 donations of $100 to organizations including Black Lives Matter, Reclaim the Block, and the Equal Justice Initiative. Galerie Lelong & Co. initially pledged $5,000, increasing it to $6,000 after support began pouring in. The gallery received $16,000 in donation receipts in three days. Vice president Mary Sabbatino—who was clear that she speaks just for herself and the gallery, “one imperfect voice in the gallery community but not a representative of it”—emphasized Galerie Lelong’s desire to act quickly.

“Given the brutal murders that spurred widespread action and how many of the gallery artists manifest—implicitly or explicitly—their involvement in social issues,” Sabbatino said, she and her team wanted to respond with respect and support. Sending out an email offering donation matching was swift and simple. “We wanted to act quickly and decisively rather than develop a new initiative that would have taken much more time to realize,” she added. That said, her team is also considering how to institute longer-term changes. In a challenging economic crisis, the gallery is rethinking how to best “serve artists in our care.” Sabbatino added, “The additional crisis—which has the hope of more permanent structural change—means we have to do more work on our end to make equality a reality.”

Yet not everyone who read galleries’ emails urging support of social justice causes was enthusiastic. Sabbatino noted that most responses were positive, though some suggested alternate actions the gallery might have taken, or other organizations they could have supported. Anthony Salvador, director of Paris- and Los Angeles–based gallery Praz-Delavallade, was candid about the minor dissent the gallery received when it sent out a note expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with a list of resources beneath it. One reader claimed the gallery was part of the problem because it is “a business in a capitalist empire.” “Why that person subscribes to an art gallery’s newsletter surprises me, given that response,” said Salvador. He also noted that, thanks to data tracking, he can see who subscribes and unsubscribes from his list after a send. Only a couple collectors took the latter action, he said, as well as “one male abstract painter based in L.A.”

Salvador stands by the gallery’s decision to be vocal. He remembers the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, where he grew up. Seeing video of George Floyd’s murder and watching people protest police brutality, he felt history was repeating itself. “The sad thing is that this happens time and time again and most of it goes under the radar, and every year police departments across the U.S. get more and more funding,” he said. He was born to immigrant parents and moved out of the U.S. to escape what he described as its “structural violence”—but was confronted with similar injustice in Europe. He realized the issues were borderless, “a larger problem of intolerance through race and class.” In other words, he felt a personal connection to the crisis. While he thought some subscribers might be annoyed at receiving resources in their inboxes, he decided “a minor annoyance wouldn’t deter the potential upside of sharing.”

A partial list of resources and ways to support social justice organizations shared by art spaces and others:

Alina Cohen