Essays

Three Lessons from Artists’ Protests of the Whitney Museum in the 1960s–70s

Activist efforts targeting the Whitney Museum of American Art across the 1960s and ’70s provide a starting point to consider the ways in which activists today can effect meaningful changes.

Michele Wallace (center) and Faith Ringgold (right), Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) protest at the Whitney Museum, New York, January 31, 1971 (photograph © Jan Van Raay)

Artist-led opposition to the Trump administration began on day one with the J20 artist strike, a statement of immediate and public resistance to a politics of hate and division. Calling out for “an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody,” activists on Inauguration Day imagined major museums and gallery spaces shutting down as sites of resistance. Since he took office, President Trump has reinforced a combative relationship with the art world with his proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts. It is clear that artists and art workers will need to band together to assert the importance of art in the face of government antipathy. 

However, the politicized art world should also take this juncture to look inward — to consider its own relationship to issues of power, privilege, and representation. Protests and critiques of race and gender in response to Trump’s America could (or should) also prompt an interrogation of simmering inequalities within the museum system, attention that may not be welcomed by the institutions themselves.

Although the recent rehang of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in response to the immigration ban is an encouraging indication of institution-led action, it is likely that it will fall to activists to demand political responses in American museums and art spaces. As John Bowles pointed out in his Hyperallergic article on the connection between the J20 and 1970 art strikes in New York, there are direct parallels between this city’s art world of 45 years ago and the current activist climate. The artist-activism of the ’60s took place in the broader context of social unrest, but also specifically targeted art museums. For activists, the poor treatment of artists by museums exemplified the inequalities being challenged by broader protest culture. Art museums represented the economic, social, and political structures under fire by activist movements.

Looking to the broader artist-activist events of this earlier era provides a number of potential strategies to adopt, and to avoid. The following examples, targeting the Whitney Museum of American Art across the 1960s and ’70s for its symbolic role as a “home” for American artists, provide a starting point to consider the ways in which activists today can effect meaningful changes.

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A view of protesters inside the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art on the evening of Friday, February 17, 2017, and at the start of the action. (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

1. Be Persistent and Clear

Setting clear objectives and staying on-message can focus the noise of anger into measurable goals. In 1970, the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee (Ad Hoc) protested the Whitney every Sunday for four months, with a clear and consistent demand: that 50% of artists in the upcoming biennial that year be women. This request emerged from Ad Hoc member Michele Wallace’s activist group WSABAL (Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation), which demanded in its manifesto that 50% of artists in any American art exhibition should be women, and that exhibitions “reflect the ethnic distribution of the metropolitan area in which the show is being given.” This further pressure to include women of color was likewise a central focus to the efforts of Wallace and Faith Ringgold in their work for Ad Hoc.

In November of 1970, activists forced a very public dialogue when they issued a fake press release on the Whitney’s behalf, announcing the adoption of Ad Hoc’s 50% mandate, requiring a swift counter-release by the museum affirming the statement was false. To further force institutional engagement, activists infiltrated the building, placing eggs and sanitary products labeled “50 per-cent” through the stairwell and hallways. After picketing the gallery — impeding public access to the narrow path bridging the street to the museum — activists coordinated a range of disruptive events to coincide with the official opening of the 1970 Biennial. Armed with fake invitations, activists occupied the gallery spaces with a sit-in accompanied by whistle blowing and chanting. Ad Hoc’s strategy, described as “picketing, public interviewing and harassment” by member Lucy Lippard, focused on one exhibition, at one institution, with one key demand, in order to interrogate a much deeper problem: the gender imbalance in New York City’s museums, galleries, and artist community.

Ad Hoc grew out of the broader labor activist group the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), via the sub-group Women Artists in Revolution (WAR). The clarity of Ad Hoc’s mission was in sharp contrast to the AWC’s broad and somewhat fuzzy set of ambitions, which ranged from decentralizing museums across the New York City boroughs, to remuneration for the exhibition and resale of artists’ work, to more political and diverse exhibition programming. Despite high-profile activism at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the late ’60s and a series of formal institutional meetings, the list of demands produced by the AWC were never adopted by any New York museum, and no institutional changes of the time can be traced back to their activism. The lack of clear direction also caused the group to fracture and eventually disband, as lack of consensus over issues like gender equity caused splinter groups, such as WAR.

By comparison, Ad Hoc’s efforts had a clearly quantifiable outcome. The 1969 Whitney Painting Biennial had less than 5% women artists — only eight artists of a total of 143. The 1970 Sculpture Biennial fell short of the 50% gender balance demanded by Ad Hoc but did show a considerable shift, to 22%. The Whitney itself acknowledged the influence of the activists when museum administrator Stephen E. Weil noted, “We have been bending over backwards to not to ignore requests from women.” It wasn’t a complete victory, but an example of the efficacy of holding a museum accountable with a defined question where the institutional response could be clearly seen and measured.

Protesters, including members of Occupy Museums, in the lobby of MoMA (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

2. Show Rather than Tell: Counter-exhibitions and Demonstrations

Protests and pickets are a powerful statement of opposition, but when advocating for radical changes it can help to show rather than tell. In 1968, when the Whitney’s The 1930’s: Painting and Sculpture in America exhibition neglected to include any black artists in its period survey show, activist group the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) went further than merely objecting. To show the sheer magnitude of the erasure, the group staged a counter-exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, under the title Invisible Americans: Black Art of the ’30s. Included in this alternative exhibition were canonical artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, who were exhibited at the Whitney in the 1930s and part of the museum’s collection, making their absence in The 1930s all the more glaring. Invisible Americans also featured lesser-known artists at the time, such as Archibald Motley, in an array of works spanning from social realism to abstraction. Drawing on the title of Ralph Ellison’s powerful 1953 novel The Invisible Man for the exhibition title, the BECC made the message clear and precise. The show was not merely a protest gesture or a list of artists; it made visible and undeniable that which had been concealed within New York’s museums and art world. In keeping with the group’s slogan objecting to The 1930’s — “Ignored in the ’30s, ignored in the ’60s” — the exhibition of historical artworks made a political statement about representation in American museums. Instead of merely pointing to the absences in the Whitney’s canon, the counter-exhibition allowed for a visibility of blackness and black art history, literally showing the whiteness of the Whitney by comparison.

The Illuminator projects mayday messages on the facade of the soon-to-be-opened Whitney Museum in April 2015 (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

3. Aim for the Center, Not the Margins

Arguably, the greatest challenge for activists confronting museums remains effecting lasting and structural change to a controlled and codified space. With protests and a counter-exhibition, the BECC drew the Whitney into dialogue and outlined a clear and consistent mandate, which included black representation among artists and curators. However, despite some cordial early discussions, the relationship between the BECC and Whitney quickly turned acrimonious. The BECC suspended its talks with the museum once it became clear that the Whitney’s Contemporary Black Artists in America exhibition of 1970, a proposed appeasement of activists demands, would fail to include black voices in curatorial and advisory roles. The institutional decision to choose white Whitney curator Robert ‘Mac’ Doty to helm the show, along with the lack of consultation between Doty and black artists, academics, and curators, caused an activist furor to play out in the media: as the BECC voiced their opposition, 15 of the 75 artists withdrew from the show, and a counter-exhibition was staged at the Acts of Art Gallery in Harlem.

However, one key original demand of the BECC was successfully implemented: a call for “at least five one-man shows for black artists in the small gallery off the Whitney’s lobby.” Although successful in the immediate term, the result of this demand is notable as a cautionary tale for activists that artists can continue to be marginalized even as museums attempt to reform. Between 1970 and 1975 artists such as Al Loving, Mel Edwards, Alma Thomas, and Betye Saar had solo exhibitions in the Whitney ground-floor gallery, a notable shift from earlier museum programming. However, this gallery was broken off from the main gallery spaces of the upper floors and thus was literally marginalized, having limited impact on the main museum narrative. According to critic Lawrence Alloway, by 1975 this gallery was known as the “Nigger Room,” “a coinage of black artists who are accustomed to being shown in this small area at the Whitney.” BECC member Benny Andrews reaffirmed the diminished nature of this space, where “the concept of a one-person show certainly gets qualified,” declaring that the reduced status of the gallery devalued the accomplishment of these solo museum shows and retained the white privilege of the main Whitney space.

In this case, the activists’ demands, while achievable, did not get to the core of the problem. This case study also embodies an impasse in museum reform. While museums may make concessions at the fringes, in temporary exhibitions or collaborations, the challenge still remains to make real and lasting changes to the institutional power structures.

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Today, we need a reflexive examination of the politics of representation in art institutions. Museums are social spaces, in their structures and displays is writ the values and ideals of the world outside. In the current climate, American art museums cannot remain passive; to do so is to tacitly endorse a politics of fear, division, and repression. However, to prompt the kind of major reforms necessary, it will take effective and focused activism with clear objectives and strategies. Looking back at the artist-activism of the ’60s and ’70s is inspiring, providing models and strategies to emulate today, but also daunting, considering their objections are still pertinent to the raced and gendered spaces of American art museums.

There is a striking sense of déjà vu in today’s art world, especially in New York. The activist attacks on the Whitney 50 years ago followed the opening of the new Breuer building on Madison Avenue in 1966, a timely convergence of renewed attention and a politicized art world. The move to the new Whitney on the High Line in 2015 has similarly coincided with activists interrogating the politics of the museum’s representation of “American art” today.

This year’s biennial drew protests surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, “Open Casket” (2016), questioning the authority of white artists to appropriate images of black suffering. These protests stand in direct parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement in arguing for recognition of the institutional and systemic nature of racial violence in the US. However, the focus on Schutz herself has perhaps overshadowed the fact that the Whitney Biennial still takes place in an institution largely unchanged since the ’60s in administrative diversity (with positions of power still white-dominated), in curatorial approach, and in relationship to the world outside its doors. While institutionally sponsored events, such as the recent discussion on “Open Casket” held at the Whitney with the Racial Imaginary Institute on April 9, may appear to show an appetite for dialogue, we have been here and had this conversation before. And although the 2017 Biennial may have more balance in gender and race, this still feels precarious, like a potential anomaly rather than the norm. In statistics that would have horrified Ad Hoc, women made up only 32% of the artists in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, only 10% more than in 1970. Even worse, only nine of the 103 artists were black, with the further caveat that one of those was the fictional character Donelle Woolford, a creation of white male artist Joe Scanlan. The 2017 counter-exhibition, the Whitney Houston Biennial, with its all-female lineup is treading familiar ground to make its point, and its very necessity is disquieting.

Activists such as Ad Hoc and the BECC drew attention to the iniquities of the museum system, and in doing so created a lexicon of revolt for contemporary activism. However, the frustrated ambitions of the BECC and their marginalization by the Whitney Museum serve as a timely cautionary tale for today’s activists to continue their fight for an institutional model that reflects the ideals of the American artists it claims to represent. As they did in the ’60s and ’70s, today’s museums may try to limit the impact of activism with individual exhibitions or temporary fixes. While such gestures have the potential to open up dialogue, activists need to articulate and enforce a more substantive vision for art museums. To do so will take strategy, perseverance, and the knowledge and experience of those who came before.

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