Safariland tear gas found at the border alongside an image of Whitney director Adam Weinberg (all images courtesy of Decolonize This Place)

New York-based activist organization W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) is imploring artists invited to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial to withhold their work in solidarity with staffers at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In an email sent in the afternoon of January 23, W.A.G.E. explains:

In a few months, more than 70 artists will be contracted by the Whitney Museum of American Art to supply the content for its 2019 Biennial exhibition. In the capacity of temporary workers, these artists will be permitted, and even encouraged, to publicly dissent, openly question, and politically engage with visitors through their participation.

The letter continues, 

We invite you to use your exceptional status as a worker who can claim both the freedom to dissent and the right to be paid to withhold your labor in solidarity with Whitney staff who cannot. We invite you to put your exceptionality to work.

A graphic featuring the use of Safariland weapons at Standing Rock

In November 2018, Whitney employees penned a letter to the museum’s administration opposing defense manufacturing tycoon Warren B. Kanders’s position as vice chairman of the Whitney’s board of trustees. The staffers provided the museum a list of demands, including “the development and distribution of a clear policy around trustee participation.” Kanders is the owner of Safariland, a weapons manufacturer that has been criticized for supplying chemical weapons to law enforcement during political crises including the November 2018 clash at the US-Mexico border, Standing Rock, and the Baltimore uprisings.

W.A.G.E. advocates for the Whitney staffers, urging:

Unlike artists, from whom dissent is expected, dissent by museum workers is carefully managed and in the case of visitor-facing staff might easily lead to dismissal. It is in solidarity with these workers, and on behalf of their demands, that W.A.G.E. invites artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial to do two things: demand to be paid for the content they provide and withhold that content until the demands of Whitney staff are met.

Founded in 2008, W.A.G.E.’s stated mission is to improve economic stability for artists by regulating the financial relationships between artists and institutions. W.A.G.E. requests that any artists interested in withholding content from the 2019 Whitney Biennial use their platform WAGENCY to contact the organization directly. All correspondences will be confidential. W.A.G.E. says artists participating in the biennial will receive free access to the service for the duration of the exhibition.

W.A.G.E. writes, “With the arrival of each biennial there is a rare opportunity for a large group of artists to collectivize their leverage because for a short time they will all share the same employer.” They continue:

Efforts by the Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969 to connect the economies of major cultural institutions to state violence and race and class-based oppression prefigure a string of recent crises implicating the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as well as the Tate Modern and the Zabludowicz Foundation in the UK.

In December 2018, Decolonize This Place led an action at the Whitney, filling its atrium with sage, demanding that Kanders “must go.” On Saturday, January 26, as a followup to this action, Decolonize This Place, along with W.A.G.E. and the Chinatown Art Brigade, will co-host a public town hall to address Warren B. Kanders’s presence at the Whitney, which they describe as a “crisis.”

Jasmine Weber is an artist, writer, and former news editor at Hyperallergic. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

6 replies on “W.A.G.E. Asks Artists to Demand Payment and Withhold Content from 2019 Whitney Biennial”

  1. Western art has always depended on patrons. Sometimes they’re assholes? (The patrons, that is).

    1. Well, TTPC, there’s the logic that has been, and still is the problem, a “patronage system”. Kind of like a colonializing mentality/system perhaps? Artists are treated/paid like whores, who are then also supposed to kiss the asses of asshole patrons, and the artists who keep kissing those assholes and playing into that system, are also keeping all artists in the realm of being whores. And so until this insane cycle of keeping art in the control of oligarch assholes is ended, by artists themselves ending it, and saying FUCK YOU once and for all, the unregulated game will continue, and the vapid greed and fame game will continue, and it will all continue to miss the point entirely of what purpose art and poetry serves as enrichment for our souls, not enrichment for our wallets and egos. Decolonize The Art World. Art is not for investment, ie to say enrich weapons manufacturers who can afford Warhols and also happen to be on the Board of the Whitney. That’s not what art is about. That’s what capitalism is about – big difference, kids. Priorities are way far gone wrong, unfortunately.

  2. I agree with much of what W.A.G.E. is saying, but I hate the fact they refer to artwork as “content.” As a culture we are moving rapidly to a place where words count. Is there a reason we can not refer to what is in a art museum as “Art”. I know this is a quote from W.A.G.E. not a Hyperallergic label, but it irks me just the same.

    1. I think that’s their generic term because their payment policies cover lectures, and other activities. That’s my guess. Content probably encompasses all that too.

      1. you are probably right – but I think it hurts their position a little bit (a very little bit) I just think it could use a better definition.

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