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The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Photo: Shinya Suzuki/Flickr.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Photo: Shinya Suzuki/Flickr.

Whitney Museum Cancels Show Amid Artists’ Outcry over Acquisition

New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has canceled a show amid a fierce backlash from its artists, who discovered via email that their work had been acquired by the museum without their knowledge or consent and that the works would be appearing in an exhibition there slated to open within weeks. “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change” was scheduled to open at the Whitney on September 17 and to focus on responses to Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement through prints, posters, and photographs.

Much of the wrath directed at the Whitney centers around the fact that the work was acquired indirectly through mutual aid funds, rather than through the artists themselves, at bargain-basement prices meant to foster donations from individuals. 

“We at the museum have been listening and hearing from artists about their concerns,” Farris Wahbeh, the nixed show’s organizer and the institution’s research director, wrote today in an email to artists. “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.”

Earlier today, photographer Gioncarlo Valentine tweeted a screenshot of an email he received from Wahbeh, informing him that the Whitney had acquired his work from the fundraising project See in Black and would be presenting it as part of “Collective Actions.” Founded to support various aligned charities while amplifying the work of Black artists, See in Black launched its first fundraiser earlier this summer in celebration of Juneteenth, offering prints from 80 artists for just $100 apiece. No further offer of remuneration was made to Valentine outside the promise of a lifetime membership to the Whitney; the institution also asked him to provide his bio and a digital copy of the purchased image.  

Valentine’s print wasn’t the only print the Whitney bought through the fundraiser; Texas Isaiah told the Huffington Post that the institution acquired his work through the organization for $100. Multidisciplinary artist Fields Harrington received the same notifying email that Valentine did and had put out a call for other recipients to organize. It has not gone unnoticed that all the artists in question are Black, and that none were asked for permission to display the works, which were obtained for the museum’s research division, not the permanent collection.

Early this afternoon, See in Black posted a statement condemning the Whitney’s actions and proclaiming their solidarity with the photographers whose work was acquired through them. Artforum has reached out to the Whitney for a statement.