The Whitney Museum in New York has canceled an upcoming exhibition of artworks created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement after facing strong criticism for acquiring most of the works through social justice benefits at discount prices and without permission from the artists, many of whom are Black.
The exhibition Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In a Time of Change was scheduled to open on September 17. Curated by Farris Wahbeh, Director of Research Resources at the Whitney, the show included artwork acquired for the museum’s special collections through fundraisers for COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter-related causes and would have showcased the work of almost 80 artists, spanning prints, photographs, posters, and freely-shared printable digital files for protest banners.
“The works tackle the health pandemic, structural racism, and demands for social and racial justice with material diversity and formal ingenuity,” the exhibition’s webpage says. “These projects draw on the long and vigorous tradition of activist artmaking and demonstrate the vibrant, spontaneous, yet tactical work that artists are doing right now.”
The museum states on its website that it had acquired the works “as the projects were launched and distributed.” Some of the participating artists have claimed that they were not aware of the inclusion of their work in the exhibition until receiving an email from Wahbeh in recent days, less than a month before the exhibition’s formerly scheduled opening.
Wahbeh’s email to artists, screenshots of which have been shared on social media, notified participants about the acquisition of their work and promises them an Artist Lifetime Pass to the museum “in recognition and appreciation” of their inclusion in the program.
“I‘m speechless,” wrote Gioncarlo Valentine, one of the artists in the exhibition, in a tweet. “People DREAM of having their work shown in the Whitney, and y’all out here trying to grab the shit on sale? Like the tear gas shit wasn’t tarnish enough? @whitneymuseum Fucking unbearable.”
Valentine’s work “Untitled” was purchased by the Whitney from the fundraising sale See in Black, which sold prints by Black photographers for $100 each to benefit organizations that support under-resourced Black communities.
“They have purchased artists’ works at horrendously discounted prices meant to make folk’s work accessible outside of the art buying context and to raise money for several organizations,” Valentine added in a subsequent tweet. “They have entered said work into their collections and are planning a show. No permission.”
In a statement today, See in Black denounced the Whitney’s use of the works from its print sale, saying the exhibition “constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated.”
“Whitney could have reached out to us, asked to acquire, and PAY full price for our work,” tweeted Texas Isaiah, another artist whose work was included in the canceled exhibition. “I had a feeling this morning that today was going to be one of those days. I’m so upset.”
In an email to Hyperallergic today, the Whitney Museum confirmed that the exhibition was scrapped and provided a letter from Wahbeh to the artists.
“We at the museum have been listening and hearing from artists about their concerns,” Wahbeh wrote in his letter. “The conversations and discussions that have come out of the exhibition are deeply felt. We apologize for the anger and frustration the exhibition has caused and have made the decision not to proceed with the show.”
“My sincere hope in collecting [the exhibits] was to build on a historical record of how artists directly engage the important issues of their time,” Wahbeh continued. “Going forward, we will study and consider further how we can better collect and exhibit artworks and related material that are made and distributed through these channels. I understand how projects in the past several months have a special resonance and I sincerely want to extend my apologies for any pain that the exhibition has caused.”
Steven Montinar, a digital artist who was selected for the show, says he has complicated feelings about his inclusion. Because his work is used as the exhibition’s promotional image, the museum contacted him earlier than other participants, on July 18. Montinar had initially submitted his drawing “Koupe Tet, Boule Kay” (2020), depicting a partly-burned dollar bill with the Haitian Revolutionary phrase “‘Cut Heads, Burn Houses,” to Printed Matter’s open call for anti-racist posters, organizing material, and other ephemera.
His work was selected by Printed Matter and made available as a free, downloadable PDF on its website; a week later, Montinar says, he received an email from the Whitney saying the work would be included in an exhibition.
“I’m a senior in college right now, so hearing that the Whitney wanted to exhibit me was huge,” he told Hyperallergic. “A lot of what I’m doing right now is for exposure, because I’m still building a portfolio.” But reading other chosen artists’ criticism of the show on social media today has made him reflect on his own inclusion.
“With the type of work I make, I can’t just not stand in solidarity with the artists and the people who look like me, that’s who I make my works for. I’m conflicted because I want to be able to be part of this exhibition — but at what cost?” he added. “It’s important for me to stand with people. A lot of movements, especially the BLM movement, come from people not being heard. I’m trying to figure out what happens next,” he said, before the Whitney announced the show’s cancelation.
Fields Harrington is another artist who was selected for the show, whose poster “Abolish Fucking Cops” (2020) was also downloaded by the Whitney from Printed Matter’s open call for free anti-racist material. Harrington told Hyperallergic that the context in which he submitted the work is different from the Whitney exhibition’s framing.
“I made this work with very specific conditions and terms, in response to the continuous state violence that we see, even as of this week, against Black and Brown people, trans people, women, coming directly from the cops,” he told Hyperallergic. Harrington continued:
If someone wanted to print it out, make it into a poster, and bring it into the street, I’m fine with that. But there’s a difference between a free digital download that is meant for circulation and redistribution for the collective mass and myself, as an artist, making a work that represents my body of work, as part of my practice.
Harrington recognizes that there may be a distinction between an archival material and acquisition, but takes issue with the museum not requesting permission or collaborating with him on its potential presentation.
“I have a problem with the Whitney not only not paying me, but telling me how they were going to display it for this particular exhibition,” he said. “I wouldn’t want it to be placed in a vitrine. If anything it would be taken as a takeaway printed on newsprint so that all the visitors can take home a poster that says ‘abolish fucking cops.’”