The Whitney Museum of American Art will reopen early next month after closing due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the museum’s reopening is already going less than smoothly. After artists revealed that many of the pieces in a planned exhibit on the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic were acquired through unethical means, the museum has cancelled the upcoming show.
The exhibit “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In A Time of Change”, scheduled to open September 17, focused on the role of artists in documenting moments of change, such as this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing pandemic. Controversy around the museum’s acquisition practices began when photographer Gioncarlo Valentine received an email from Whitney curator Farris Wahbeh informing him that a print of one of his photographs would appear in the show. The print was a part of a fundraiser organized by the collective See in Black, a group of Black photographers who “invest in Black visibility.” According to their site, the collective sells prints like Valentine’s to raise money in order to “support five key pillars of Black advancement: civil rights, education/arts, intersectionality, community building, and criminal justice reform.”
Valentine’s print for the See in Black project was deeply discounted because it was meant to raise funds for charity. Upon learning that the Whitney had acquired the print through the sale and intended to exhibit it, See in Black charged the Whitney with not fairly compensating the artists. “The Whitney’s use of the work acquired through the See In Black Print sale at significantly discounted prices – the proceeds of which were donated 100% to charity – constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated,” the collective said in a statement.
Other artists found out that work they had submitted as part of a call by Printed Matter for anti-racist posters had also been acquired by the Whitney. These pieces were made available by Printed Matter as free pdfs to support anti-racist organizing. Fields Harrington, an artist whose poster was downloaded from Printed Matter by the Whitney, told Hyperallergic that the work was not meant for the context of the museum. “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,” Harrington said.
The museum announced its decision to cancel the exhibit on Tuesday, August 25.