The Whitney Canceled Their Exhibition. Now Those Artists Want Reform.


The Whitney Museum of American Art had planned to show an exhibition of artistic responses to the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter demonstrations shortly after reopening. But the museum reversed course last month, canceling its plans after several artists of color included in the show publicly criticized the Whitney for acquiring their works without consent and through discounted sales meant to benefit racial justice charities.

The artists said it wasn’t fair to acquire the works the way the museum did — saying that the museum should be compensating artists properly if they wanted to acquire their work, especially in a time when the artists need money because of the pandemic.

On Thursday, more than 45 of the 80 artists in the exhibition released a letter urging that the museum “commit to a year of action” to produce meaningful change, by reforming its ethical guidelines for acquisitions and by reconsidering its role in a charged political moment.

“Rather than hurriedly canceling 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 signed letter reads. “The brave move would have been to lean into the discomfort rather than further demonstrating our dispensability to your institution by canceling the show within hours of receiving criticism online.”

“These fumblings are born of the broken system that undergirds all of our lives and our institutions,” the letter continues. “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 a profound undervaluing of our labor and denial of our agency.”

Whitney curators have embarked on a listening tour with many of the aggrieved artists regarding the exhibition, called “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change,” to heal divisions. “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,” Scott Rothkopf, the museum’s senior deputy director and chief curator, wrote in an email Thursday to The New York Times.

“We recognize the issues raised and are committed to continuing this dialogue and making positive changes for the future,” he added.

According to several signatories, drafting the letter was a collaborative process that occurred over the last three weeks with the artists Kara Springer, Chiara No and fields harrington spearheading the initiative.



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