As more and more cultural philanthropists face scrutiny over the sources of their wealth, the economic scaffolding supporting American museums is being tested, and artists are facing difficult questions about complicity in the system.
The year began with the Guggenheim
museum group renouncing funds from the Sacklers after
and her group, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), brought attention to the family’s ties to the opioid epidemic. In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art
followed suit, also cutting itself off from Sackler money, and two months later, the Louvre
surprised the art world and removed the Sackler name from its walls. At the end of July, the movement against museum donors who’ve been termed “toxic philanthropists” seemed to reach a climax. Warren Kanders, CEO of weapons manufacturer Safariland, stepped down as vice chairman of the Whitney Museum
’s board following months of pressure from activist group Decolonize this Place, and shortly after eight artists demanded their works be removed from the Whitney Biennial
Kanders’s resignation prompted speculation about what—or who—is next. Should the art world have a truly comprehensive reckoning, it could drastically change how museums, galleries, and artists operate. As the linchpins of this ecosystem, the ones making the actual art, it’s worth asking how far artists will go if it means impeding their own progress by denying sales to buyers they deem morally compromised, refusing to work with dealers who are not transparent about who is buying their work, and turning down shows at museums with problematic benefactors. The answer, for some, is pretty far.
, an artist best known for her conceptual work rooted in institutional critique, investigated the political contributions of 2,411 members on 128 different U.S. museum boards in her book 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics
(2018). She advocates for diversifying museum boards by eliminating the financial requirements that currently render them “pay-to-play entities,” and expanding membership to include all museum stakeholders: artists, staff, and members of the broader community. Fraser also envisions tax reforms that would disincentivize wealthy individuals from contributing massive sums to a handful of famous institutions in favor of funding smaller museums.
Fraser, who is represented by Galerie Nagel Draxler, says that she only sells her works to institutions. When she still sold works to individual collectors, she reserved the right to say no to any sale. She maintains that this is not the norm. “Many [artists] say that their galleries don’t tell them where their work goes, as if they don’t have any power over it,” she says, adding that it is an artist’s responsibility to “demand that power and make sure that their work is not serving to art-wash people they abhor.”
Fraser’s perspective marks a departure from the role contemporary artists typically play in the market as relatively removed producers.
, one of the first four artists who demanded the removal of their work from the Whitney Biennial ahead of Kanders’s departure, says that artists he’s spoken with have stances on problematic collectors “that move across the spectrum,” with some defining their role quite narrowly.
“‘We need that money, our job is to make art,’” Galanin recalls some saying, while others, he notes, take “direct action” and remove their works from spaces they deem morally unsound. He cites acts of protest related to Museum of Modern Art
trustee Larry Fink’s financial involvement in companies that own private prisons, reasoning that “at some point, this is not about politics, but morals and ethics.”
The dealer Jane Lombard has instilled “direct action” in the operating ethos of her business. Founded 25 years ago, her namesake gallery has a penchant for showcasing artists whose work speaks to political and social concerns. Lombard says she offers full discretion to the artists she represents to say no to a sale, should an ethical concern arise. When selling works, Lombard thinks about the ideological context of the work’s environment, too. “It’s our preference to strategically ‘place’ the work of our artists either in an institution or private collection with a true appreciation for the work,” Lombard says. And “true appreciation,” when it comes to a politically salient work, goes beyond mere aesthetics.
Among the artists Lombard represents is
, who preemptively withdrew from the 2019 Whitney Biennial over Kanders’s ties to Safariland. A
whose work often comments on the trauma of war, Rakowitz sets a number of parameters on where his work is sold and displayed. As a supporter of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition
, Rakowitz—along with artists like
—has pledged that he will not exhibit at the forthcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi until concerns about the conditions of the site’s migrant workers are addressed. Rakowitz has pulled work from shows when he’s been asked to censor himself; does not allow his work to be shown in exhibitions funded by the Israeli state; and will not exhibit in Israel because it would require him to show to a segregated audience. The latter stance has drawn criticism, even resulting in patrons returning his work.
Like Fraser, Rakowitz reserves the right to refuse sales of his work. The galleries he works with, which also include Berlin’s Barbara Wien and Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman
, have been understanding of his ethical stances and keep him informed of the collections his work is joining. For Rakowitz and Fraser, the ethical showing and selling of their work is the art’s meaning. But even for artists who consider their work to be divorced from politics, Rakowitz believes artists have a right to know where their work ends up, noting that it is standard in any “collaborative and consensual” business agreement.
In the move toward a more ethical art world, many are skeptical of centering individuals too much on either end of the equation—artists and board members. Focusing on artists’ actions could put undue burden on emerging artists, for whom turning down a sale or a show could be a major career setback. It also fails to acknowledge the importance of collaboration in the initiative against Kanders. In a statement
following Kanders’s resignation, Decolonize This Place—the organization at the forefront of the protests—cautioned against “exceptionalizing the role of artists at the expense of collective organizing anchored outside the art system.” Rakowitz believes real change will come from establishing ethical funding for the arts. “I don’t think it can be one person’s vision,” he says. “I’m thankful for the moment we’re in right now because I think we are acting collectively.”
On the other hand, continuing to zero in only on museum board members could curtail the scope of the movement. For Fraser, the language used to describe the issue is limiting. “I don’t see this as an issue of ‘toxic donors,’” she says, “but rather a systemic issue of philanthropic institutions and an art market that are almost entirely dependent on highly concentrated wealth and on enormous and devastating economic disparities.”