The Whitney Museum announced this week that they would be cancelling an exhibition that was meant to center around the Black Lives Matter movement as well as Covid-19. They made this decision after the public learned that the museum had taken a lot of the artwork that was done predominately by Black artists without their permission and at an extremely discounted price.
The many different art pieces were intended to be in a collection titled Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change, and was acquired by the museum at a See In Black print sale. See In Black was a photography fundraiser meant to aid many Black organizations and charities. However, the artists who had their work bought by the museum claim that none of them were properly consulted or paid for the transaction.
This came to light after the Whitney director of research resources, Farris Wahbeh, emailed all the artists informing them that the museum acquired their work for its special collection. The collection was going to be scheduled for September 17th to January 3rd, 2021, and in the email Wahbeh also informed the artists that they would receive a lifetime museum pass in exchange for their personal information.
The See In Black fundraising began on Juneteenth this year with its first print sale. Each piece for that fundraiser was priced at $100, and helped get the world out on what the organization was doing. The Whitney museum then acquired works from 79 different artists for its collection. Antwaun Sargent is an art critic who helped expose the Whitney for their lack of communication and compensation with the artists.
She noted that museums normally take months to go through the process of acquiring new artwork as it has to go through several committees before receiving approval. However, the Whitney can technically skip all those steps when curating pieces to be in a limited collection. See In Black responded to these actions by the Whitney with extreme disappointment and claimed they completely went against their mission of “investing materially in Black communities.”
“The Whitney’s use of the works acquired through See in Black constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated. Furthermore, See in Black is not affiliated with the Whitney’s exhibition.”
Many of the artists also took to Twitter to express their extreme frustration in the Whitney’s use of an acquisition loophole to get out of properly paying Black artists for their work, while also using it to profit off potential ticket sales. Shortly after See In Black made their public statement the Whitney responded by announcing the preemptive closing of the exhibition.
The statement claimed that the museum would be careful in the future when it came to giving artists their proper dues for their work, however, many of the artists and museum-goers in general aren’t so convinced, as this is not the first time the Whitney has made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Last year, the Whitney was under fire for its association with Warren B. Kanders, who was a former board member for the museum. Kanders ran a company that also manufactures tear gas to be used by federal police and border control. The museum also is one of many culture institutions that received a PPP loan between $5-$10 million, despite laying off 76 staff members the same month.
As of right now the Whitney is expected to reopen on September 3rd.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.