The Whitney Museum canceled an upcoming exhibition following criticisms from featured artists.
The main entrance to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Photo by Ajay Suresh, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Whitney Museum of American Art canceled an upcoming show featuring works purchased from charity sales and projects meant to benefit COVID-19 pandemic relief efforts and the Black Lives Matter movement. The exhibition, titled “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change,” was set to open on September 17th and showcase the work of about 80 artists. It became the center of controversy on Tuesday after artists whose work was to be featured in the show took to social media to decry what they saw as predatory behavior on the part of the museum.
Many of the works that were to be featured in “Collective Actions” were acquired through sales such as See in Black and Poetry for Persistence, which, while intended to benefit social justice causes, also featured discounted pieces that could be bought by those with limited means— See in Black sold works for $100, while Poetry for Persistence sold posters for $40. As compensation for their inclusion in the show, the Whitney offered artists free lifetime entry to the museum.
See in Black said in a statement released on Instagram:
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.
While the museum canceled the exhibition shortly after criticisms began to circulate, many artists are still unhappy with the move. Dana Scruggs, whose work was acquired through the See in Black sale, told the New York Times that “instead of canceling, they should actually pay us for the full price of our work and hold the exhibition instead of cowering in the face of everyone calling them out.”
The uproar over “Collective Actions” is just the latest controversy for the Whitney, which has consistently been a site of protests and target of criticisms in recent years. The inclusion of a Dana Schutz painting of the body of Emmett Till in its 2017 biennial sparked protests and heated debates about issues of appropriation and representation. Beginning in 2018, the Whitney was again the focus of protests as activists and artists pressured the institution to remove Warren Kanders—the owner of police and military equipment manufacturer Safariland—from its board of trustees. He stepped down last year after eight artists threatened to drop out of the 2019 biennial.