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.
“Writing the letter was about letting this be an opportunity for accountability,” Ms. Springer said. “The letter that we wrote is very much in dialogue with other letters that have come out collectively this past summer.”
Following months of nationwide protests against racial injustice, museums have faced a reckoning on their equity and diversity policies. Internal pressure at the Guggenheim recently led to the creation of a two-year plan to address accusations of institutional racism within its ranks. Similar measures are reportedly in the works at the Museum of Modern Art, where 229 employees signed onto a July letter that expressed concerns about the institution’s reopening procedures and what they saw as the museum’s inaction on promised anti-racism efforts.
MoMA had not responded to requests for comment.
What remains unclear to the artists involved in the Whitney dispute is whether “Collective Actions” will ever be shown in its galleries. Some artists would like to see the exhibition mounted as a testament to the strides the Whitney must take to improve its policies.
“The museum has a year to account for what it’s done,” Ms. No said. “There is growth that needs to happen and having the exhibition could add transparency to that work.”