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The Whitney Museum Pillaging Black Art Is Nothing New

Where can Black creatives share their work and uplift their community without feeling the grasp of predatory white institutions?
August 28, 2020, 7:43pm
Whitney Museum See in Black
Credit: 

Noam Galai / Getty

See in Black was founded on June 19 with an exciting idea: to bring together a collective of Black photographers aiming "to dismantle white supremacy and systematic oppression" and bring visibility to Black art and artists through the sale of high-quality photographs, held on Juneteenth with all funds raised supporting restorative justice causes. Following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and an incalculable amount of other Black lives, it was an imperative action in support of the Black community, using digital spaces as an alternative to traditional museum spaces, allowing the work to reach further. But the artists and project curators fell prey to greater institutional powers: the Whitney Museum of American Art. Unbeknownst to the collective, the New York-based art museum had purchased the works set at a discounted price, and intended to exhibit them in a large exhibition revolving around the current uprisings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the country.

On Tuesday, Whitney curator Farris Wahbeh, who was organizing the exhibition Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In a Time of Change, scheduled to open on September 17, emailed various artists involved in the See In Black project. The email informed artists that the Whitney had "acquired" their work from the See in Black project—helmed by Black creatives Joshua Kissi, Micaiah Carter, Andre Wagner, Florian Koenigsberger, Anthony Coleman, and Dani Kwateng (who was formerly a senior editor at VICE and is a close friend of mine)—and would be exhibiting them. In exchange, the museum would give the artists an Artist Lifetime Pass, allowing them and a guest free admission for life. The exhibition would also include protest prints that had been made available for free online by artists for the intended use of protest signs, and other ephemera tied to this moment of collective uprising. However, once artists were made aware of the Whitney's plans, a backlash ensued online.

Artists Gioncarlo Valentine, and others, posted a screenshot of the email, with Valentine tweeting "Y'all. YALL. This is unreal. I'm... First of all I'll never do another print sale again so please no [sic] that ahead of time. @whitneymuseum y'all preyed on Black artists in this moment in such a disgusting way. No scruples. An embarrassment."

See in Black released a statement denouncing Whitney's action, saying it "constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated."

On Wednesday, the Whitney announced the cancelation of the Collective Actions exhibition, tweeting, "The Whitney has decided not to proceed with the exhibition Collective Actions. We have heard the artists who have voiced their concerns. We apologize for how we handled the exhibition and the pain and frustration it caused."

Black artists, as well as artists from other marginalized groups, often turn to digital spaces like social media to share their work and engage with their community, largely because storied institutions like the Whitney have a long history of erasing, abusing, and preying on them. The Whitney's actions serve as proof of why Black people create these digital communities for themselves, and, sadly, also how creating those communities still doesn't protect them from the predatory nature of white institutions. They are part of a centuries-old tradition of unscrupulous colonialist plunder, with museums serving as trophy houses of art and artifacts stolen from different cultures and lands. It's why there's a movement to return museum pieces to their native homes and rethink museum systems and structures as a whole.

But more specifically, it's just more damning evidence of the Whitney's white gaze and institutionalized racism. Recall, it was only last year that their board included the CEO of a tear gas manufacturing company, who only resigned after protests ensued. And in 2017, during the Whitney Biennial, they included a piece by white artist Dana Schutz depicting the body of Emmett Till, a Black child lynched in 1955 after he was accused of offending a white woman, which drew outrage and protests from Black critics and artists over why a white artist and institution felt entitled to create a spectacle of Black pain.

Acts like these, at the Whitney and beyond, only continue in large part because of a severe lack of diversity within these spaces. A 2018 survey of staff demographics at museums across the country reported that 35% of museum hires were people of color, up from the 26% reported in 2015. The same 2018 survey reports 16% of curators and 26% of education workers were POC, while 11% held museum leadership roles. While those figures showed an increase from three years prior, let's not fool ourselves thinking our bellies are full when all we've been fed are crumbs. Especially when we know the experience of BIPOC working within these spaces.

In 2019, New York's Guggenheim Museum brought on Chaédria LaBouvier as the first Black curator (she was a guest curator) and the first Black woman to curate an exhibition, “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” in the institution's then-80-year history. It was an exciting, albeit long overdue, moment for visibility within major arts institutions. However, LaBouvier later revealed her experiences of erasure and microaggressions at the Guggenheim, including being left off a panel around the very exhibition she curated. During that discussion held at the museum in November 2019, LaBouvier confronted panelists as well as Guggenheim COO Elizabeth Duggal, accusing the museum of "institutional white supremacy." She would later tweet more about her time at the Guggenheim.

Even if hiring practices have somewhat improved, it's not nearly enough to create a safer space for Black, Indigenous, and other POC artists, within museums or in the digital sphere. Their reach extends far beyond their white walls. That the Whitney would scoop up prints at an accessible price for communities that can't often purchase art of this caliber—art that reflects the beauty and complexity of their existence—and use it to capitalize off this moment of social reckoning to gain clout points (and actual money considering attendees would have to pay for entry) shows how exploitative and capitalistic an institution it is. But also, the gall!

The cancelation of the exhibition is certainly a win, but I can only hope there are serious conversations being had within their conference rooms to reform their structure and do better by Black artists, and that the Whitney will return the art they purchased from the See in Black project so it can be resold or returned to the artists. They should also donate to every organization that the sale benefitted, which includes the Know Your Rights Camp, the National Back Justice Coalition, The Bail Project, Black Futures Lab, Youth Empowerment Project NOLA, and consider gifting a space and resources for the curators of the See in Black project to build their own exhibition without their intervention, should the curators want that.

The See in Black project built a structure that eschewed the industry completely, and it was a huge success, garnering the support of countless publications and individuals, including Beyoncé, who included the project on her website's Black Parade Route, which links to Black creatives across different mediums. It remains a beautiful and inspiring work of community organizing and celebration of Black culture. That a white institution would want to capitalize on it is not shocking. It's the way of white supremacy—to enforce gatekeeping while raiding from a culture. The collective action against the Whitney was a powerful movement against white pillaging of Black culture; they faced a Goliath and won. Institutions bank on silence, but that silence was not, and will never be, given.