Installation view of Jean Dubuffet: Le cirque 540 West 25th Street, New York, September 18 – October 24, 2020 (photography courtesy of Pace Gallery)

A few weeks ago, I tweeted out a response to an email I had received from Pace gallery about their upcoming shows for the fall season in New York, and it read: “Not a trace of wokeness here: Fall Exhibitions at Pace Gallery – Jean Dubuffet, Robert Mangold, Yoshitomo Nara, and Julian Schnabel.”

The tone of that email initially sent to me by Pace was that steadfastly upbeat, essentially, “Look at all the blue-chip artists in our blue-chip stable; won’t you come by and, you know, get a little taste of greatness?” Subsequently, Pace revised its schedule to include Nina Katchadourian — not that I think their addition of a woman artist has anything to do with me or with the view among those sensitive to these concerns that this lineup makes the gallery look oblivious. I’m sure that Katchadourian’s addition was a business decision.

Likely Pace planned these shows more than a year ago, so it may very well be unfair to expect them to upend their program to address the demands of our political moment. But then the moment is relentless. The United States is literally and metaphorically on fire: spontaneous, out of control blazes in the west; organized, protracted protests and demonstrations across the country calling for social justice or, on the other hand, clamor to be allowed to flout public health guidelines and not wear a mask. The chief of the executive branch is actively calling for militias to patrol polling places and indicating that he may not accept the results of the upcoming election if they are not favorable to him. And, a global pandemic has caused the deaths of over 200,000 people here and brought the nation’s economy to its knees. These are rather difficult circumstances to ignore, yet Pace’s program is somewhat echoed by their fellow up-market art boutiques.

David Zwirner’s fall schedule for New York consists of Suzan Frecon, Harold Ancart, Josh Smith (also showing concurrently at their London location) and the perennial Donald Judd. While there is one woman included (which has the whiff, but not the substance of gender parity) she and the other artists are all Anglo-American or White European with nary a trace of weighty political content in the work.

On the other hand, Gagosian gallery is showing Louise Bonnet and Theaster Gates, and according to a recent email, also Titus Kaphar. (Initially there were no dates or location aside from “New York,” now the site lists the West 21st Street outpost and gives dates from October through December, perhaps replacing a Donald Judd’s exhibition that was previously slated to be shown there.) This lineup seems rather more in tune with the times given that they have a (European) woman and ostensibly two Black men in the lineup (with Kaphar as the scribbled-in designated hitter).

Hauser and Wirth are featuring Luchita Hurtado, Jack Whitten, and George Condo, which is, on paper, certainly better than how Pace and Zwirner are dealing with the underrepresentation of artists that have been historically othered. But the picture becomes more complicated when I find that Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Meleko Mokgosi will be shown by Gagosian in London, and Hauser and Wirth are showing Ed Clark and Lorna Simpson in other cities.

Installation view, Josh Smith: Spectre David Zwirner, New York, 2020 (courtesy David Zwirner)

I found myself trying to construct an argument that might encompass all these facts and make sense of how premier actors in the art gallery scene might be reading this moment. It’s the tendency for dominant and aloof powers in the art market to turn critics and writers into hierophants who attempt to read the entrails of the various politics and concerns that the galleries ritually disembowel. I slowly realized that these mercenary for-profit entities aren’t likely to respond to political pressure to ante up when it’s their turn at the table in the representation stakes. I am looking in the wrong place if I’m looking at these businesses to help me negotiate this brittle time.

Rather I’ve come to conclude that these purveyors of the visually fashionable (and yes, occasionally meaningful) work of artists aren’t constructed to help us imagine a better system of artist training and art production, display, and collection. These galleries exist to make profit, to make markets, not to make meaning. Though on occasion I love the artists they show, I’ll need to look elsewhere for clues on how to save ourselves.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

14 replies on “How Woke Are the Fall Shows at New York’s Blue-chip Art Galleries?”

  1. “Rather I’ve come to conclude that these… These galleries exist to make profit, to make markets, not to make meaning.” Well, duh. Thanks for the insight.

  2. The problem with the art system is that the power rests in the hands of white people. Look at the Guggenheim upper staff. All white. Same with Brooklyn Museum. Same with Moma. Same with all blue chip galleries. They are all frantically showing African American artists right now but they will not, I repeat, they will not give up their power easily. The chief curator at the Guggenheim just disappeared for three months as if that would magically disappear any problems. The museums quickly manufacture a report usually led by a white lawyer and then show the implementations they are doing in this regard. Nowhere does it say to get new leadership. Put Thelma Gooden as director of the Guggenheim or Moma. Sounds radical doesn’t it? It shouldn’t.

    1. Dear Gino,

      But the assumption you seem to be making is that power would be wielded differently by Black people and other people of color. You should have a chat with people who aren’t liked or loved by Thelma Goldman, and find out from them what kind of power she wields and how she wields it. Look around the world at the regimes where Black people are in charge. You will often find a similar level of graft, exploitation, dishonesty and cruelty. The problem is not White people. The problem is deeply and endemically human. Mind you, the racial hierarchy of this country is poisonous, but if Black people were put in charge tomorrow, these problems would, I bet, persist.

  3. “This lineup seems rather more in tune with the times given that they have a (European) woman and ostensibly two Black men in the lineup (with Kaphar as the scribbled-in designated hitter).”

    One of the big issues with trusting in representation to the extent that so many people in overdeveloped democracies tend to is that it is nearly impossible to break the hold cultural, social, and economic elites have on occupying and/or influencing those positions without completely dismantling the overarching systems. Even when it seems like an outsider has managed to find a foothold it will frequently prove a lie, because the individual will very likely reveal themselves to have more in common with the ruling hegemony than they do laypeople. Based on what I’ve heard about Gates’ operations on the Southside of Chicago he doesn’t sound like an exception to this to me.

  4. It’s is silly to hold galleries accountable to some ambiguous definition of “wokeness” when their shows are planned years in advance and their goals are to make profit as mentioned. Of course commercial galleries aren’t constructed “to help us imagine a better system of artist training and art production, display, and collection.” What is the point of this other than complaining things aren’t woke enough? It’s like concluding that water is wet.

  5. The problem with the “art world” is the problem with 20th-21st C world. It’s a “world” ruled and dominated by the rich, by and for the 1%. The purpose of life is not profit. The purpose of life is the evolution to higher consciousness through first biological evolution then conscious intellectual evolution.

    Human intellectual evolution has been frozen by the 1% since their industrial “revolution”. Today’s art world is the still alive zombie stable of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age to house obedient or marketable artists that make pretty pictures for the ruthless and greedy that rule us.

    When the 99% WAKE from the Bankster911RacistWarEmpireMultiExtinctionCollapseCrisis LOCKDOWN hypnosis to remove profit as the 1%’s Ruling Prime Directive and replace it with 99% consensually agreed upon prime directive of Providing For The Social Needs of Humanity we will unfreeze human evolution to continue on the path to a sustainable just and egalitarian world for everyone. With lots of really good art, all forms of the arts & culture, for everyone in decentralized localized vibrant economies of scale … for everyone. Ecotopia, yes we can!

      1. Your future prediction is based upon a negative assertion that you are
        projecting from no accountably perceptable assessment because there is
        no vote, no ability for each person to make their decisions countable,
        and therefore to be assessed. This is the problem. If we did have an
        opportunity to do this, don’t you think “they” would? This situation is
        changeable. It’s called real democracy, a new circumstance only we,
        through our collective self-governing, can do.If we consider this
        impossible before trying, your opinion becomes a preemptive negation.
        You are predestining failure.

      1. Seph, you seem to accept that the existing goal of “civilization” is to increase profits for the rich and powerful rather than to provide for the social needs of humanity. The later would be what 90% of humanity would assume that governments and organizations are for. The 10% who disagree seem to think the 90% exists solely as a tool to the objectives of their wealth lusts.

        So you ask, ‘how do i imagine that benefiting-humanity will replace benefiting-1%-wealth’? That you need to ask why evil is not acceptable to humanity indicates to me that your world view of humanity is that we humans are all just corrupt rats in a cage and only the best (the most unethical (accepting evil as the default system norm for instance) rats) get ahead. So in this instance you seem to suggest galleries and museums are only responding to the demands of the existing system and should not be expected to do otherwise? That an evil elite marketing system for 1% wealth is to be expected rather than for galleries and museums to act as a platform for the best artwork from and for humanity? Don’t you see the corner you’ve painted yourself into? Supporting wealth and profit over the social needs of humanity? Hello?!?

        Direct democracy socialism that will reverse the existing system of selfish greed and establish a sustainable just world for all will happen when the above 90% refuse to listen further to 1% lies justifying their authoritarian rule over humanity. We can and will directly decide policy & budget directly without lying sellout middlehumans.

  6. The owners of these galleries are probably trump supporters even though I’m sure many would never admit publicly to it. I don’t expect that they would do anything different at this time from what they’ve always done. They’ll continue to do what they do into eventual irrelevance as the world evolves past them.

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