Last month, the Whitney Museum of American Art canceled its planned exhibition Collective Actions after numerous artists denounced the acquisition process for the works, most of which were purchased by the museum from social justice fundraisers and included in the show without their input. Critics noted that many of the works were by Black artists, prompting accusations that the show exploited the labor of creators of color.
Today, September 17, the intended opening date of the now-defunct exhibition, a group of artists that were selected for the show has released an open letter asking the museum to “commit to a year of action — of mobilization and introspection.”
Authored by Chiara No, Kara Springer, and fields harrington and signed by 47 artists who were selected to participate in Collective Actions, the letter urges the Whitney to seriously examine its practices and policies to better represent and engage with historically excluded communities. Among its signatories are artists Lola Flash, Texas Isaiah, Shaniqwa Jarvis, and Dana Scruggs.
The letter begins by acknowledging that the exhibition “originated from a place of well intentioned interest in marking a historical moment of political action.”
However, the artists continue, “Though it was our commitment to mutual aid and political action that brought us together and drew you to us in the first place, rather than joining us in that effort and that spirit of reciprocal support, the missteps made here stand in marked contrast to the ethical framework within which these projects were created.”
Spanning prints, photographs, and posters sold primarily to benefit causes related to Black Lives Matter and COVID-19, the works in Collective Action were priced below market value, critics of the show argued. Others were downloaded free of cost as digital files submitted to Printed Matter’s open call for anti-racist protest material. Rather than negotiating the value of the works and discussing the context of the exhibition with the artists, the show’s curator, Director of Research Resources Farris Wahbeh, apprised most selected participants of their inclusion via email less than a month before the exhibition’s scheduled opening. The controversy went viral, and within 24 hours, the museum formally called off the exhibition and issued an apology to the artists.
Rather than “hurriedly cancelling a show whose failures lay in the museum,” the Whitney should have “taken the time to listen and respond,” the open letter argues. “The brave move would have been to lean into the discomfort rather than further demonstrating our dispensability to your institution by cancelling the show within hours of receiving criticism online.”
The incident has sparked a conversation about the ways in which cultural institutions at large contribute to the systemic devaluing of Black artists’ work. Springer, No, and harrington encourage the Whitney to institute ethical guidelines for acquisition practices and determine approaches that do not rely on “the unpaid labour of Black, Indigenous, and POC artists and community members,” among other recommendations.
“This is a critical historical moment that calls for us to move past easy statements of support for Black lives into the real work to transform and dismantle oppressive systems of power,” they write. “We, the undersigned, come together now as we will again in a year, as an offer of accountability.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Senior Deputy Director Scott Rothkopf said, “Over the past three weeks, we have reached out personally to each of the artists to acknowledge their concerns and have had productive conversations with many of them. We recognize the issues raised and are committed to continuing this dialogue and making positive changes for the future.”
Read the open letter in full below or at cancelledcollectiveactions.com:
To the curators, directors, and board members of the Whitney Museum:
We are living through a moment marked by well-intentioned, but all too often hollow, gestures of support for Black Lives and racial justice. We understand that the now cancelled Collective Actions originated from a place of well intentioned interest in marking a historical moment of political action. Though it was our commitment to mutual aid and political action that brought us together and drew you to us in the first place, rather than joining us in that effort and that spirit of reciprocal support, the missteps made here stand in marked contrast to the ethical framework within which these projects were created. We come together here to ask what a real effort by the Whitney Museum to support communities further marginalized and pushed toward precarity in this moment of global crisis and national reckoning might look like.
The Whitney’s formal statement in support of Black communities states that you have increased the racial diversity of your collection, exhibitions, and performances. The ways in which you acquired our work and planned to show it, without conversation with or consent from many of the included artists, demonstrates an undervaluing of our labor and denial of our agency. This calls into question how you have increased the diversity of your collection. The purpose of acquiring work is not only to preserve a moment in time but also to support living artists. All too often, Black, Indigineous, and POC artists are invited in because our radicality serves to signify institutional inclusivity and progressiveness. This performance of racial inclusion seldom comes alongside a real commitment to supporting historically excluded communities. That we were brought into the museum through an administrative loophole in which the special collection acquisition made it possible to collect and exhibit our work without adhering to the museum’s own standards of compensation offers an important insight into how Black, Indigineous, and POC artists continue to be inadvertently marginalized and exploited.
While this is very much a situation born of the specific longstanding problems of the Whitney Museum, it is also true that there are very few institutions who don’t suffer from the same blindspots. Rather than hurriedly cancelling a show whose failures lay in the museum’s rush to encapsulate a still unfolding historical moment, the museum could have taken the time to listen and respond. The brave move would have been to lean into the discomfort rather than further demonstrating our dispensability to your institution by cancelling the show within hours of receiving criticism online. We want to be clear that this is not a calling out of the failure of any individual. These fumblings are born of the broken system that undergirds all of our lives and our institutions. That the Whitney found itself in a situation in which it was called out by individuals and communities who felt their actions here were unethical and exploitative is neither new nor remarkable. What could be new, what could be remarkable is to allow the radicality of collective vision and action to seep into the fabric of your institutional foundation. You could change.
We urge the Whitney Museum to take this opportunity to do so. We’re writing to you on September 17th, the day of the scheduled opening of the Collective Action exhibition. We ask that you as an institution commit to a year of action – of mobilization and introspection. How will you take less and give more to historically excluded communities? How will you institute ethical guidelines in future acquisition practices? How will you ensure that your institution holds the capacity to navigate this charged political moment without relying on the unpaid labour of Black, Indigenous, and POC artists and community members to advocate for the betterment of your institution?
We appreciate that the Whitney has entered into dialogue with many of the artists from the now cancelled Collective Actions. The question at the root of our collective actions and of your assembling of our work, is how can we make use of the means we have available to us to support the urgent needs of our most vulnerable in this time of global and national crisis? This is a critical historical moment that calls for us to move past easy statements of support for Black lives into the real work to transform and dismantle oppressive systems of power. We, the undersigned, come together now as we will again in a year, as an offer of accountability. Let us hold each other to the task of real action and intervention in this time of change.
Kara Springer, Whitney ISP ‘18
Chiara No, Artist
fields harrington, Whitney ISP ‘20
Charles Mason III, Artist
Spyros Rennt, Artist
Simi Mahtani, Artist
Joe Kusy, Artist
Texas Isaiah, Artist
Katy Nelson, Artist
Jessica Caponigro, Snake Hair Press
Zora J Murff, University of Arkansas / Strange Fire Collective
Lola Flash, Artist
Christelle de Castro
Linda Huang, Designer
Andrew LeClair, Designer
Mimi Zhu, Artist
Sheldon Abba, People’s Film Program
Denise Shanté Brown, Holistic Design Strategist
Milcah Bassel, Sol JC
Shantal Henry, Sol JC
Michelle Pérez, Sol JC
Gisel Endara, Sol JC
Joana Arruda, Sol JC
Kimi Hanauer, Press Press
Seitu Ken Jones, Seitu Jones Studio
Julia Kim Smith, Artist
Shaniqwa Jarvis, Artist
Jessica Foley, Photographer