Whitney museum cancels exhibition after claims it exploited Black artists

The museum drew criticism for acquiring a series of prints through fundraising sale See in Black and including artists without permission

The Whitney Museum has cancelled an upcoming show titled Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change after the exhibition and one of its curators, Farris Wahbeh, came under fire by artists who accused it of exploitation.

The exhibition, due to open 17 September, would have included “prints, photographs, posters, and digital files that had been created this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement”. However, the show would also feature a series of prints purchased through the fundraiser See in Black, which sold prints for $100 in aid of Black communities in the US.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, dozens of fundraisers sprang up to raise money for bail outs and communities, with most selling prints at $100 – much less than what artists would receive through usual sales and acquisitions.

Artists were first informed of their inclusion in Collective Actions through an email from Wahbeh, which stated that the museum had acquired the work through See In Black for the Whitney’s special collections, detailing further plans for the purchased works to be exhibited in the upcoming show. Artists were offered no monetary compensation in the correspondence, and instead, were to be given a “lifetime pass” for two people to the museum, as well as “other benefits” – although didn’t give details on what these would be.

Curator and critic Antwaun Sargent raised concerns around Collective Actions on Monday evening (24 August) by tweeting a screenshot of the show’s announcement and warning artists not to sell their works for $100 “because a major museum will ‘acquire’ your art and stage an exhibition”. He added: “If you are an artist in this show what you should do is organise against it.”

Other artists followed suit, leaving outraged comments on Wahbeh’s Instagram as well as flooding the Whitney’s own. “We denied to participate in this exhibition and you still included our work. Y’all are messy,” wrote musician Abdu Ali. Artist Sage Adams added: “This is easily the weirdest thing I have ever seen. Pay these artists.” Many of the frustrations centred around the lack of transparency, consent, and compensation of the acquisiton of Black artists’ work.

Last night, See in Black spoke out on its Instagram and Twitter distancing itself from the show and claiming the Whitney’s acquisition and exhibition of such works constituted “unauthorised use of the works to which the artists did not consent and for which the artists were not compensated.”

Soon after, the museum emailed the artists a statement and apology from Wahbeh (which was also sent to Dazed after a request for comment) which announced that after listening to artists’ complaints, the show was being cancelled.

“We at the museum have been listening and hearing from artists about their concerns. The conversations and discussions that have come out of the exhibition are deeply felt,” wrote Wahbeh. “We apologise 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 them 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.”

The apology comes just months after a recent statement made by the Whitney’s Director, Adam Weinberg, which pledged solidarity to the Black community. It said the museum would take a close look at its exhibitions and programmes, as well as its staffing, culture, and organisational structure, to help ensure equality.

Journalist Melissa “Bunni” Elian (@bunnisays) tweeted about the irony of an artwork by Steven Montinar – which features a burned dollar bill (“Koupe Tet Boule Kay”, 2020) – being used to promote the show. “It's that the leading artwork invokes the words of the Haitian Revolution to publicise the colonisation of original artworks from marginalised people without notice/compensation for me... @whitneymuseum,” she wrote.

While some artists have expressed relief that the show has been cancelled, others, such as LA-based photographer Texas Isaiah, have called for their work to be removed from its special collections entirely. New York-based photographer Dana Scruggs criticised the Whitney – which usually charges up to $25 for tickets, but is currently offering ‘pay-what-you-wish’ until the end of September – on her Instagram for cancelling the show rather than paying the artists the fees they deserved. “They only wanted to exhibit our work for cheap or for free,” she wrote. “Their actions show you how much institutions like The Whitney value Black People.”

Photographer Myles Loftin, whose work was sold in the See in Black sale, told Dazed: “I think the show that the Whitney (was) attempting to put on is another example of white institutions trying to benefit from the backs of marginalised artists. It’s a complete disrespect of the value that should rightfully be accorded to these artists work.” Loftin suggests that the Whitney personally apologise to the artists who were included without permission and look at how they can acquire the same works for the market price.

It is not the first time the Whitney has drawn ire. Last year, protests led by activist collective Decolonize This Place resulted in then-board member Warren Kander – whose company manufactures tear gas, riot gear, and munition, which has been used against protestors and immigrants – stepping down.

The first iteration of the See in Black print sale finished in July, but you can still donate to the sale's beneficiaries – Know Your Rights CampYouth Empowerment ProjectNational Black Justice CoalitionBlack Futures Lab, and The Bail Project