Story at a glance

  • The Whitney Museum of American Art purchased art from several charity and fundraising initiatives and will display the works in an upcoming exhibit.
  • Several of the artists, many of whom are BIPOC, are criticizing the museum for not paying outright for the art or seeking permission to display it.
  • The museum is facing criticism over racial inequity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

UPDATE: The Whitney Museum announced that the "Collective Actions" exhibition was cancelled. 

Farris Wahbeh, the curator, apologized in a statement and said, "My sincere hope in collecting [these works] was to build on a historical record of how artists directly engage the important issues of their time. 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."

For many artists, seeing their work displayed in the halls of the Whitney Museum of American Art would be an honor. But for some Black artists who had sold their work at discounted prices for charity, the museum's methods have tarnished the exhibition.

Gioncarlo Valentine, an award-winning photographer and writer, shared a screenshot of an email he said was from the Whitney Museum. The email informed him the museum had acquired his work "Untitled" from the project See in Black, an initiative by a collective of Black photographers to raise money for specific charities, for the museum's special collections. Museums sometimes collect ephemera — temporary works that are not intended to survive long-term, such as memorabilia from historic events — in special collections that are a part of their archives but not necessarily part of the museum collection. 


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"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 said on Twitter, adding that the museum did not ask him for permission to display his work. 

The collective behind the See in Black initiative posted a statement on Twitter saying the museum's use of the works is "unauthorized."

The museum offered Valentine an Artist Lifetime Pass and asked for information and an image of the work for their records. The private museum charges up to $25 for tickets, but is offering "pay-what-you-wish" tickets through Sept. 28, with early access for members, who pay anywhere from $81 to $300 a year. 

"The majority of the works in Collective Actions were initiated by artist collectives to raise funds for anti-racist initiatives, including criminal justice reform, bail funds, Black trans advocacy groups, and other mutual aid work. The Whitney acquired the works on view as the projects were launched and distributed," the museum said in a press release announcing its reopening on Sept. 3. 

Located in Manhattan, the Whitney closed to the public in March as New York City, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, went under lockdown. The exhibit, "Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change," will debut on Sept. 17 and includes prints, photographs, posters and digital files created and sold this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Changing America has reached out to the Whitney for comment. 


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"This is not a responsible or a respectful way to engage with artists — nor does it feel particularly sound for an institution with a $300 million+ endowment to acquire $100 prints that were priced to benefit anti-racism non-profits," said Women Photograph, an initiative to elevate women and nonbinary visual journalists, in a statement on Twitter. 

The Whitney was last embroiled in controversy last year when several artists left the museum's biennial exhibition in protest over the vice chairman's company's sale of tear gas. Warren Kanders stepped down last July after months of protests, the New York Times reported

Another Twitter user criticized the museum for exhibiting work by artist Carl Andre, who was tried and acquitted by a judge with no jury on charges of second degree murder for the death of artist Ana Mendieta, his wife, reported the New York Times.

In a statement after the death of George Floyd and ensuing protests, director Adam Weinberg said the Whitney would re-examine their exhibitions and programs as well as staff, organizational structures and culture to ensure racial equity. 

“We understand the weight of our position and stand with Black communities across the country who are suffering—and everyone who is working to make a more just future,” he said in the statement. “At the Whitney, we must undertake this work as well. Over the past five years since opening downtown, we have made mistakes. We have also listened and are always learning. We have increased the racial diversity of our collection, exhibitions, performances, educational programs, audiences, and staff. But we must go further and do more still.”

The featured image on the museum's page for the exhibit is a work by artist Steven Montinar of a burned $1 bill with the words "Koupe Tet, Bole Kay," which translates to "Cut off the head, burn down the house." One user pointed out the irony in the slogan, originally associated with the Haitian Revolution. 


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Published on Aug 25, 2020