The art establishment needs to start treating Black work with respect

The Whitney Museum's recent art acquisition scandal shows us just how much work there is to be done.

by Sara Radin
07 September 2020, 8:52am

via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, The Whitney Museum of American Art landed itself in hot water after organising an exhibition tied to the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially planned to open on September 17, Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change sought to include photographs, posters, prints and digital files while raising awareness and “funds for anti-racist initiatives, including criminal justice reform, bail funds, Black trans advocacy groups, and other mutual aid work”.

The intent behind the exhibition certainly seemed noble, purporting to create space for work by artists who have historically been included as diversity tokens or outright excluded from institutions of The Whitney’s size and status. Any such pretence, however, was dashed when the means by which the featured works were acquired was revealed. They were purchased through a print sale hosted by the See In Black project, a fundraiser for Black mutual aid organisations that launched on Juneteenth (19 June). “With the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tony McDade, and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement, See In Black formed as a collective of Black photographers to dismantle white supremacy and systematic oppression,” a statement on the project’s official site reads. “Through the sale of highly-curated original images from Black photographers”, for $100 per print “we raise funds to support causes that align with our vision of Black prosperity. We stand in solidarity with our greater Black family to take immediate action for the improvement of Black lives. Our intention is to replenish those we've been nourished by.”

Not only were the artists who donated their works to the cause not consulted on the sale of their pieces to The Whitney, The Guardian reports — they weren’t paid for their acquisition either, underscoring the museum’s lack of propriety and respect for the pieces and their creators. Reportedly, it was not until last week, when Farris Wahbeh, the museum’s head of research, emailed the artists requesting their personal details, that the participants became aware of the acquisition and exhibition. To add further insult to injury, each artist was offered a lifetime pass to the museum in lieu of payment.

The museum’s gross mishandling of the situation naturally triggered a viral response among the art community, with artists, curators and commentators alike expressing outrage. How could a museum with a $308 million endowment view the discounted sale of works intended for personal collections — a sale benefiting critical causes for the Black community, no less — as a ripe PR opportunity?

Curator Antwaun Sargent called on participating artists to organise against it on Twitter, posing: “How do you ‘acquire’ a work without the approval of the acquisition committee? Generally, that’s a months-long process,” raising questions as to why the museum didn't go about the exhibition as they would any other? Instead of treating the artists — especially those who are BIPOC and queer — with care, decency and respect by seeking permission and paying them what their labour and value as artists is worth, The Whitney’s approach exemplifies an exploitative colonial mindset — one that’s still upheld by many major art institutions around the world, many of which have been quick to make flimsy public statements in support of the queer community and Black Lives Matter movement. In buying into the See In Black print sale but failing to embrace its mission of embodying and nourishing Black prosperity, The Whitney’s gesture demonstrates the extent of the work that remains to be done with regard to the art world’s grappling with its engrained systemic racism.

This notwithstanding, it demonstrates a deep lack of respect for the artists’ agency over their work and where and how it is shown. Fields Harrington, told ARTnews that his acquired work, a digital piece called Abolish Fucking Police was made specifically for a Printed Matter open call and not created with a museum in mind. For the project, Harrington asked viewers to donate to the Bail Project, the Okra Project, and a now-closed bail fund, but it was not apparent whether the museum had done so. “If they stood with Black communities, they would not be doing this,” he wrote.

“It’s perplexing to think that a multi-million dollar museum went around to buy works for $100, some unsigned, untitled, and not dated for their collections. It is predatory, condescending and irresponsible,” Texas Isaiah echoes, highlighting an alarming negative distinction regarding the treatment and handling of Black artists’ work.

Appropriately and professionally handled, the museum’s acquisition of the works in question at their full market value “would have solidly shown that The Whitney does care about Black lives”, photographer Lola Flash told The Guardian. “Once I realised that the entire show had been acquired in this ‘bargain basement’ process, I definitely felt taken advantage of.”

All this has taken place during a global pandemic, of which New York was at one point the epicentre. “In a time when 95% of artists are reporting a loss of income, you get the least expensive print?” author and curator Kimberly Drew tweeted. “This is bad allyship 101.”

While The Whitney’s goal was to “give a sense of the hope, optimism, labour, and solidarity unfolding during this historic time of change”, it has failed to consider the implications of its actions. Surface level gestures by institutions, brands, legislatures, and individuals are performative and all about optics when they’re not equity-centred and focused on the long term, sustainable solutions required for systemic change to be possible. In order to move forward and fully embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, art institutions must reconcile with their discriminatory and unethical pasts.

Hopes of that happening anytime in the immediate future were called into question with the museum’s public acknowledgement of its wrongdoing. Rather than work with the artists to acquire the works in an appropriate manner, it decided to cancel the exhibition altogether. Unfortunate a tale as it is, many members of the art community were hardly surprised by the pitiful handling of the matter, particularly given that The Whitney has faced a fair share of criticism over mishandlings: in 2019 a report by Hyperallergic revealed that Warren B. Kanders, the vice-chair of the museum’s board, has ownership over a company named Safariland, which manufactures tear gas canisters and other products that have been used against asylum seekers along the US-Mexico border.

The Whitney is, of course, just one of many institutions being called out for its racist and discriminatory antics, with Instagram accounts like @changethemuseum offering people a platform to share their experiences with racism in the museum world as a means to pressure cultural institutions to “move beyond lip service proclamations”.

While art museums are slowly diversifying, a 2019 study by researchers at Williams College found that artists across 18 major US institutions are 85% white and 87% male. The Whitney now has an opportunity to process this moment as a lesson not just for itself but for all art museums. It’s time for institutions to recognise their exploitative pasts and band together to bring about much-needed systemic change.

New York
systemic racism
print sale
The Whitney Museum of American Art