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At a Museum’s #J20 Event, Hitting the Limits of Inclusivity

On a day of protest, one museum opened its doors for a special event. But was it enough?

Activists continue their actions outside of the Whitney Museum after the Speak Out on Inauguration Day Event (photo by Harry Burke, all photos courtesy of Noah Fischer)

On Friday, January 20, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a “Speak Out on Inauguration Day” event in solidarity with the #J20 Art Strike — the latter which has been defined by its organizers as a tactic utilized to combat the normalization of the politically reprehensible crusade of Trumpism. Prior to attending the event, Speak Out seemed from all appearances and for several reasons to promise the delivery of a full-throated, powerful, collective polemic against the white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and fascism that the Trump administration represents. Its participating artists, writers, and curators included Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, Simone Leigh, Martha Rosler, Dread Scott, Chinatown Art Brigade, and Laura Raicovich, with contributions from Coco Fusco and the Guerilla Girls. Speak Out was organized by Occupy Museums, who had Noah Fischer, one of its core members, present for the event. (The other members of Occupy Museums are Tal Beery, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Arthur Polendo, and Kenneth Pietrobono.) Several days before the event was mounted, the director of the Whitney, Adam Weinberg, had made an ardent and feeling declaration of his desire to have the museum take an activist role in defining what constitutes America.

Alicia Boyd, Movement to Protect the People, at the Speak Out event (photo by Noah Fischer)

Yet, when I arrived in the last hour of its three-hour duration, I found long lines outside the museum, since for that day the museum had instituted a pay-what-you-wish policy, yet insisted that everyone get in line to get a ticket nevertheless. The wait was not terribly long, perhaps 20 minutes, but I did notice that museum attendants passed out applications for membership to those waiting in the queue, and those who opted to take up that offer, plus already existing members, were given expedited entrance. I was more disappointed to find upon finally getting to the third-floor theater where the event was held, that about 150 people were denied entrance and forced to mill about in the hall adjacent to the theater, because, it was said to me, the theater had reached capacity. The staff was kind enough to broadcast the participating speaker’s words into the hallway, but their disembodied voices hardly made up for the letdown of not being able to see them in action. I reached out to Noah Fischer as a representative of the chief organizer and posed the following question (edited for brevity) to him: “why did the museum hold the event in the theatre, instead of downstairs in the lobby? It seems that too many people were stuck outside the theatre in the adjacent hall, plus people had to queue to get pay-what-you-wish tickets for entrance which made the event not truly public, which seems to go against the grain of the aims of the #J20 events.”

Chinatown Art Brigade including Betty Yu, Tomie Arai, and Liz Moy (photo by Noah Fischer)

Fischer asked me to print the following statement in response which I have relayed with only edits for grammar:

The #J20 Antifascist Speakout consisted of strong voices of our fellow artists and activists naming the values they struggle for. This community has been fighting gentrification, institutionalized racism, Spectra pipeline, police violence against black bodies, and creating powerful art as part of the ongoing struggle. On #J20 this community committed to continuing the struggle in the new explicitly fascist American period.

We are extremely bummed that some people who came for solidarity on a horrible day couldn’t get in. Exclusivity or lack of access is the opposite of what that day was about. The art workers at the Whitney [were] presumably enforcing fire code regulations in keeping people out.

Originally Occupy Museums wanted to have it in the lobby and hang the anti-fascist sign there — as public as possible, de-normalizing the experience of the day at Whitney. The museum said no, due to crowd control issues in the lobby. We accepted the theater because it’s a big space and the Speakout was well publicized so people would find it. We didn’t imagine that it would not be big enough for all who wanted to be there. We were facilitating the event in the front and were not even aware of the situation in the back. Had we been aware we would have called for people to crowd into the room as there was ample space in the very front.

However, even while resolving never to hold an event at a museum that people can’t access if they want to, we strongly believe that the Speakout contributed to a powerful initial response of the art community to Fascism. The event was about assembling the arts community together — a community ranging from museum directors to curators and art workers to anti-gentrification and climate activists — in order to mark the moment and look toward organizing larger alliances now needed. To this alliance we also include the art groups from abroad whose statements were distributed. The #J20 call states: “However you choose to respond to this call, Art Strike is an occasion for public accountability, an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody.” Some of the organizers of the call also spoke.

We need to organize more powerfully than before in coming years. We are dealing with a whole new level of official racism, bigotry, and an unfettered 1%. The anti-fascist Speakout was only a beginning in organizing and one that we hope to learn from as we move forward.

Tracie Morris performing with Vijay Iyer on piano (photo by Noah Fischer)

This testimony strikes me as genuine in its regret and adamantine in its conviction that the event made an important symbolic and political statement. Fischer also emphasized to me, concerned by my apprehension at how the project was executed, that the Whitney was “the only blue-chip museum” in Manhattan to respond to their call for this protest, and he is leery of falling into the trap of internecine fighting among the left when we need to be united in resistance.

I agree that the Whitney was generous and that the museum should be recognized and commended for their efforts. I’m also concerned about ineffective infighting. However, having spent a significant amount of time studying public art museums and their origins, I am cognizant of the fact that these museums have never fully achieved their Enlightenment promises of universal education, or of being representative of the general public. And while the Whitney may be enthusiastically engaged in taking on a leadership role in the symbolic battle over defining what is legitimately American, I am not convinced it recognizes how it reifies links between access and socio-economic class. Speak Out, which seemed organized to give voice to those who have been marginalized and stand to be more mistreated under the current administration, seems to operate at cross purposes when it associated the exclusivity of Whitney membership with privileged entry to this event.

Dread Scott speaking

I also reached out to Megan Heuer, the director of Public Programs and Public Engagement at the museum, and posed the same question to her. Her response, edited only for grammar, is given below:

The third-floor theater was the ideal space for the event given the performative nature of some of the contributions. It is the principal space that the museum uses for public programs; it is designed for such events with seating and a sound system. We did have an amazing response to the program, and when the crowd overflowed, we broadcast the event into the third-floor gallery where people were lined up to get into the theater, to include as many people as possible.

Occupy Museum’s event was in solidarity with the call for a J20 art strike. In addition [to] this event, the museum’s response included special tours of the Human Interest exhibition focused on race, ethnicity, immigration, and America identity; Open Discussions with artists and Whitney staff on these topics; and the museum offered pay-what-you-wish admission, all to affirm the Whitney’s commitment to open dialogue, civic engagement, and the diversity of the art and culture of the United States.

Jim Costanzo, Aaron Burr Society (with sign interpreter) (photo by Noah Fischer)
After the event a banner is unfurled from the High Line park (photo by Harry Burke)

This response seemed circumspect to me while avoiding explaining why most everyone had to queue up to get a paid ticket, while those with memberships were allowed through with little delay. I also sought to find out why what Fisher described as ample space in the front of the theater wasn’t utilized to seat people. Heuer informed me that she and the rest of the staff worked hard to move people into available spaces, and that the education department does not control admission to the museum. I do not think that these situations were caused by a lack of competence or care by the education department staff. Rather, I’m made to wonder how cognizant of and concerned with issues of exclusivity the institution’s leadership is. It may be that printed tickets are a means to determine attendance numbers, which might in turn inform the allocation of resources for future events. However, there is a basic failure here to see their typical trading of money for privileged access as precisely the action not to take during such an event.

While meeting and speaking to various people in the hall who had also been shut out of the event, I ran into Jerry Saltz. He showed me his white, plastic card, with the word “Press” stamped on it, issued I assumed by the Whitney museum, and said “you have to get yourself one of these.” I said I had my own press credentials, but they didn’t seem to matter. He replied, “then you are going to have to learn to jump over walls.” I suppose I do. Many of us will have to learn that trick.

On Friday, January 20, the“Speak Out on Inauguration Day” event was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, the Meatpacking District, Manhattan).

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