An Incomplete History of the Whitney’s Curatorial Fumblings

Understanding the museum's recently announced and recently cancelled show, "Collective Actions: Artists Interventions in a Time of Change."

by Annie Armstrong
Aug 28 2020, 7:41pm

On Sunday, the Whitney Museum of Art announced it would be reopening on September 17 with a new show titled, “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change,” comprising “prints, photographs, posters, and digital files that have been created this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.” Immediately, the critic Antwaun Sargent called foul, noting how many of the works were acquired through charity auctions for significantly discounted rates as opposed to going through the standard museum practice of using an acquisitions committee to purchase pieces.

“This is why you shouldn’t be out here selling your images for $100 because a major museum will ‘acquire’ your art through [sic] and stage an exhibition,” he wrote. Several of the pieces that were going to be in the show came from a benefit sale hosted by photography collective See In Black, which began on Juneteenth and sold unsigned, unnumbered prints for a flat rate of $100, the profits of which went to five different charities that support Black advancement through civil rights, education/arts, intersectionality, community building, and criminal justice reform.

Soon after, many of the 80 artists that were going to be “included” in the show revealed the emails they received from the show's organizer and the museum’s director of research sources, Farris Wahbeh. The artists had no previous knowledge that their work was to be included in the show, and Wahbeh was not even pretending to ask them. Instead, they were informed of their involvement in the show, and offered a lifetime membership to the museum as recompense.

Gioncarlo Valentine, one such photographer, wrote on his Twitter that he would never do another print sale again, adding, “@whitneymuseum y'all preyed on Black artists in this moment in such a disgusting way. No scruples. An embarrassment...This man was following me, not engaging my work, not asking me shit, and ‘acquired’ a print that I did not sign or make, meant to raise money. I wanna fucking fight.”

Other artists that were approached by the museum include Miranda Barnes, Kennedi Carter, Dana Scruggs, Fields Harrington, Christelle de Castro, Daniel Arnold, Jessica Foley, Justin French, Nicole Rodrigues, Shaniqwa Jarvis, Lola Flash, and Ike Edeani, among others. By Tuesday, three days after the show was announced, the Whitney cancelled the show and issued an apology. “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,” Wahbeh wrote in an email. “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.”

Needless to say, many of the artists that had been approached for the show felt whiplash. Since the show was cancelled, an email chain has been circulating with many of the artists that were supposed to be involved under the title, “Cancelled Collective Actions.” The group is comprised of the artists who feel wronged by both the original intention and execution of  “Collective Actions,” as well the museum’s decision to outright cancel it altogether.

Fields Harrington, who has helped organize the group, told GARAGE that an anonymous Whitney employee messaged him the list of all artists in the show. From there, he went about tracking down their emails to compile a list of 79 artists whom he reached out to. “I reached out and told them I was interested in starting a list of demands or an action,” he said. “Something that would address the Whitney’s unacceptable and inappropriate behavior.”

Though not all of the artists were on board, a group of around 50 artists are organizing together, and over the weekend, plan to come up with a solidified course of action. “We want to write a list of demands and to rewind. Do we want the show canceled entirely? We all did receive an email from Farris apologizing for the frustration and also [using] language that says that there is a potential for a future show.”

Among the other concerns that Harrington outlined, he stated that many artists that responded back to Wahbeh’s original email informing them of the show have not received any personal response, but many of the more established artists had dedicated phone calls with Wahbeh organized. “It's really unfair,” said Harrington. “I was like, Oh, so that’s how they're strategizing. That feels very predatory to me as well.”

Whether it’s a lack of internal organization, clear curatorial direction, or misguided moral codes, this exploitative behavior is certainly not new to the museum. When the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted its “An Incomplete History of Protest” back in 2017, I was one of the many hopeful who entered the museum. The show came directly on the heels of the museum’s 2017 Biennial, controversial (yeah yeah, I know, they’re pretty much all controversial, but I’ll get there!) for the use of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), which depicted Emmett Till dead in his casket, dressed in the suit he’d be buried in, his battered face represented by a smudge of smeared paint. Protests broke out over the piece, with claims that a white artist was capitalizing on and making a spectacle of Black pain and death, demanding its removal and even destruction. These requests were not met, and “An Incomplete History of Protest,” curated by David Breslin, seemed poised to be the museum’s response.

The show was tepidly received. Though it had many highlights, I look back on the show and get a sense of self-congratulation from the museum, mainly for their inclusion of two works—which by all means deserved to be in the show—Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney (1987), a poster showing one member in a gorilla costume posing with a banana, and Faith Ringgold’s Hate Is A Sin Flag (2007), which was the artist’s response to receiving hate speech outside of the Whitney back in 1971 while attending an anti-discrimination protest. It’s clear now that the inclusion of these self-referential works function more as a way for the Whitney to assert that they’re hip to the critique than that they actually internalize their messages.

Last summer, protests roiled outside and inside the museum demanding the resignation of vice chairman of the board Warren Kanders. Just upstairs, a video art piece by art collective/research group Forensic Architecture explored how Kanders’ company, Safariland, supplies teargas and other war munitions to suppress protesters in different conflict areas around the world. Kanders eventually stepped down after months of stand-ins and protests, but the biennial had already been stamped as “The Teargas Biennial.”

That’s why a few years later, the Whitney’s Incomplete History of Protest reads more like an incomplete understanding of what protest is, and how it’s meant to function. That has made itself abundantly clear this week. By this point, in this year of all things “unprecedented,” we’re pretty used to this kind of apology, and even cynical towards it. And with good reason. Over and over again, we see institutions that pose themselves as progressive, innovative, and forward-thinking, yet continuously avoid systemic change within. Until that happens, their understanding of the American history of protest will remain glaringly incomplete.

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The Whitney Museum of American Art