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W.A.G.E. Calls on Artists to Withhold Works from Upcoming Whitney Biennial

Working Artists and the Greater Economy, a New York–based activist group better known as W.A.G.E., has issued a call to action. The group, which advocates for sustainable economic relationships between artists and institutions, is urging the artists who will be invited to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial to withhold their works in solidarity with the museum’s staff and to demand compensation for the labor that went into making the pieces that will be included in the exhibition.   

In November 2018, nearly one hundred Whitney staffers signed an internal letter in protest of Warren B. Kanders, the owner of Safariland—the private defense company and manufacturer of tear-gas canisters that have been used against asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border—and his ties to the museum. Kanders currently serves as vice chair of the museum’s board and has backed the Andy Warhol retrospective that is now on view.

In the letter, addressed to director Adam D. Weinberg, the employees listed several demands. They pressured the museum to issue a response regarding Kanders’s business affiliations, review his role on the board, and develop more transparent policies for electing trustees.

Until those demands are met, W.A.G.E. encourages artists not to showcase their works in the upcoming biennial. In an open letter that W.A.G.E. issued on Wednesday, January 23, the group wrote: “With the arrival of each biennial there is a rare opportunity for a large group of artists to collectivize their leverage because for a short time they will all share the same employer. This year there is also WAGENCY, as well as an opportunity for artists to use their ‘exceptional’ status of ‘getting to have it both ways’ in support of those who do not. Having it both ways means being able to dissent and get paid. We believe that everyone should get to have it both ways—and until everyone does, the right to exceptionality will remain our demand.”

While Weinberg did issue a statement addressing the staff’s concerns, his response was perceived by many as inadequate since it did not say whether Kanders’s status at the museum would change or whether the institution would review any of its policies. Instead, he appealed for the employees to “observe the ‘rules’ of our Museum—mutual respect, fairness, tolerance and freedom of expression and, speaking personally, a commitment to kindness.”

Kanders also responded to the controversy with a statement that said that it was Safariland’s responsibility to manufacture products that work properly, not to “determine when and how they are employed.” He also stressed that its products are only sold to “government-approved users.”

The 2019 Whitney Biennial will be cocurated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, members of the museum’s curatorial staff, and will run from May 17 to September 22. The artists participating in the event have yet to be announced.

[Update:]

On Saturday, January 26, W.A.G.E. cohosted a public Town Hall with the advocacy groups Decolonize This Place, who organized a demonstration at the museum on December 9, and the Chinatown Art Brigade to address the “crisis” at the Whitney. The four-hour event drew artists, curators, and activists as well as a few employees from the museum. While attendees may have disagreed on tactics for ridding the institution of Kanders, they seemed to all agree that he needs to go.

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