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The Whitney Museum’s Careless Attempt to Curate a Summer of Black Uprising

The self-appointed guardians of America’s visual heritage are at it again.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In late June, the Black photographers’ collective See In Black, which formed after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tony McDade, and other Black people earlier this year, launched a sale of discounted fine art prints. Works were all priced at $100, and sites like Dazed Digital reveled in reproducing the lush photography of Andre L. Perry and Miranda Barnes among others, their saturated colorways and editorial grandeur an appropriately “aesthetic” way in to political conversations. All the proceeds benefited organizations working in social justice, including bail funds. “Through the sale of highly-curated original images from Black photographers, we raise funds to support causes that align with our vision of Black prosperity,” a statement at See In Black’s website reads. “Our intention is to replenish those we’ve been nourished by.”

On Tuesday morning, several artists whose work was included in that print sale reported that they’d received a strange email from the Whitney Museum of American Art. From emails described by the photographer Goblin and posted as screenshots by the photographer Gioncarlo Valentine, it appeared that a curator from the Whitney had reached out to announce that their works had been “acquired” for an upcoming exhibition.

“Greetings from the Whitney and I hope this message finds you in good health and spirits,” the message began, before the sender, the museum’s Director of Research Resources Farris Wahbeh, announced that he had acquired their work for the Whitney’s special collections: “Your work is incredibly important and speaks to our time, and I’m so honored that the Whitney was able to acquire this work.”

In parallel with the acquisition, Wahbeh went on to explain that he was also working on an exhibition “comprised largely of works from our Special Collections holdings titled Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change,” corresponding to a show of the same name scheduled to open on September 17.

After dropping this bombshell on the artists, Wahbeh thanked them and noted, “In recognition and appreciation of your inclusion in the Whitney’s program, I’m happy to note that you will receive an Artist Lifetime Pass which allows you and a guest free to the museum as well as other benefits.”

“People DREAM of having their work shown in the Whitney,” Valentine wrote on Twitter in response to the letter from the museum. The museum “preyed on Black artists in this moment in such a disgusting way. No scruples. An embarrassment,” he continued. “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.”

Valentine was not alone in this response. By 4 p.m. that afternoon, the Whitney had canceled the exhibition. In a letter shared with The New Republic by the museum, Wahbeh wrote:

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. We apologize for the anger and frustration the exhibition has caused and have made the decision not to proceed with the show.

The Whitney wanted to capture a moment. The artists of See In Black who found themselves newly part of this collection wanted to help fuel a movement. The artwork was the same in each case but transformed by the new context in ways Wahbeh doesn’t acknowledge. That an exhibition at one of America’s most famous art museums could be announced and then canceled within 24 hours demonstrates just how far contemporary curatorial culture is from understanding its own role in the economy of images we all participate in.

Museums are not passive observers of society; they play an important role in legitimizing the boundaries of fine art and influencing its market. The necessarily political space of the museum has been made more explicit in recent years as the museum sector has itself been a locus for union organizing, a reckoning over diversity among its staff and collections, and protests against funding from the munitions sector ousted Warren Kanders from the Whitney’s own advisory board. In negative form, the unfolding scandal over the so-called Collective Action show articulates the most opaque blind spots in museum culture’s relationship to real-life organizing spaces and undermines its raison d’etre as a space meant for New York’s community to belong.

Wahbeh mass-bought Black artists’ work on the cheap in order to meet the requirement of “timeliness” in a rushed exhibition rather than engaging with those works on their own terms. From the academic, museum side of things, it must have seemed like such a good idea at first: They’d fill this out-of-touch museum with new works, and everybody would benefit!

You could see this intent in how the exhibition was framed. “The majority of the works in Collective Actions were initiated by artist collectives to raise funds for anti-racist initiatives, including criminal justice reform, bail funds, Black trans advocacy groups, and other mutual aid work,” a blurb on the Whitney’s website read. “All of these projects were organized quickly and collaboratively using real-time, online networks to mobilize art as a form of activism.” The Whitney “acquired the works on view as the projects were launched and distributed,” as if the museum were just another customer.

The problem here is that the Whitney is treating fine art as ephemera simply because they discovered it through the internet. The curator has assigned himself a very active creative role here, as if he has waved a butterfly net in the storm of social upheaval, capturing political art on the internet in motion. In simply finding and framing these moments in “real-time, online networks,” the Whitney gets to assimilate into its own brand the works’ content: “From documentary photographs to abstractions to text-based images, the works tackle the health pandemic, structural racism,” the site goes on, “and demands for social and racial justice with material diversity and formal ingenuity.”

Wahbeh is not the first or even the hundredth denizen of the fine art world who has used the internet in ways that pissed off other artists. Richard Prince spent much of this summer in court, defending his recycling of other people’s Instagram posts into fine art; the painter Jeanette Hayes has been accused of plagiarizing from the internet several times.

This is not a case of plagiarism but rather of a clash between art professionals and the Black artists whose relevance to the moment we’re living in seems to somehow lessen the value of their work in the eyes of the museum. Because digital files may be free or cheap to access online during the organizing phases of popular protest movements, the Whitney seems to have taken it as a signal to treat the actual artworks with extreme carelessness. The Whitney curator went on the internet and met its visual culture on its own terms, perhaps, but he forgot whose credit card he was using.

The Whitney is not a commercial gallery but an institution invested in collecting and defining American art as a totemic category. They deal in the currencies of prestige and significance; Wahbeh’s initial email announcing the show seemed to imply that the artists should be delighted to be included at all. As critic Zoé Samudzi put it, the Whitney seemed to be trying to profit off the “moment” Black art is experiencing in the media while acquiring that work in a predatory and opportunistic fashion instead of building relationships and providing resources. This event is one more link in the chain of connection, in other words, between the history of exclusion and whitewashing in museum spaces and the exploitative and precarious conditions Black artists and artists of color face in this time of belt-tightening and cut corners.

When confronted with the carelessness of its effort by the very artists it had just collected, the Whitney summarily pulled the plug rather than rectify its relationship with the artists or come to a shared agreement about how this work could be part of the collection while still valuing the work, the artists, and the context in which it emerged. In the email I got from the Whitney, Wahbeh wrote, “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.” He made no mention of the price point the works were acquired at, only that “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.” The pieces, while now no longer part of a show, will remain part of the museum’s special collection.

If institutions want to skim off some of the glory of this year’s historic protest movement—which, after all, has such a long and textured relationship to the American history the Whitney wants to be a part of—they can’t perpetuate the idea that they are somehow exempt from it or simply cancel the whole thing when it goes wrong, replacing a show with vague promises about study and consideration. The museum seemed to regard itself as outside of the scope of this summer’s reckoning over the racist violence of American institutions or as some kind of neutral place in which the moment could be housed. The artists disagreed.