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The Whitney Museum's Biennial Silence and Its Culture of Oppression

The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership.

By Jamara Wakefield

May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The event began as an annual exhibition in 1932 with the first biennial in 1973. The Whitney museum as an institution has a long sordid history when it comes to access, equity and giving space to non-white, non-male artists, and has an equally long history of responding with silence when confronted their lack of exhibition diversity and complicity in oppressive politics.

In honor of the 79th biennial, this is a rundown of oppressive and insensitive moments from the Whitney Biennials history, starting with a protest in progress right now:

For the past several weeks, artists and organizers have been protesting and demanding the removal of Warren B. Kanders from the board of the Whitney Museum. As the CEO and owner of Safariland, he is responsible for the manufacturing and marketing of weapons such as the tear gas used against migrant families at the U.S./Mexico border, Water Protectors at Standing Rock, protesters in Ferguson, Oakland, Palestine, Puerto Rico, and Egypt. In November of 2018, nearly 100 Whitney staff sent an open letter to the administration in protest of Kanders after photos of Safariland tear gas cans circulated online. Kanders responded stating, “While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society. This is why I believe that the politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy.” Unfortunately Kanders doesn’t understand that for Black, brown, queer and disabled people and other marginalized groups, that every aspect of public life is political. We never get to opt out.

Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s current director responded with a call for “unity and kindness” amongst dissenting staff, but failed to address whether Kanders’s status at the museum would change. A group of artists, theorists, and critics sent an open letter to the museum leadership. In the weeks before the 2019 Biennial, 46 of the 75 artists and collectives chosen for the Biennial signed an open letter and called for a conversation about private funding of cultural institutions. Iraqi-American conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz withdrew from the show stating he stands “in solidarity with the staff and say no”.

Despite a 9 week protest at the Whitney by community coalitions organized by Decolonize This Place and other community coalition groups the museum, Kanders is currently listed on the Whitney’s website as vice chairman. He is also named as a “significant contributor” to the museum’s current Andy Warhol retrospective.

Prior to this year’s protest, activists from the New York chapter of ACT UP staged a protest at the “History Keeps Me Awake at Night” exhibit posthumously honoring 1985 biennial alum and ACT UP member David Wojnarowicz in 2018. ACT UP saw the Whitney as historicizing AIDS without addressing its present day reality as a global pandemic. They held signs that read “AIDS did not die with Wojnarowicz” and “AIDS is Not History” and questioned the ethics of the museum as a nonprofit earning revenue from the sale of the show’s catalog arguing that money should be redirected to AIDS and HIV serving organizations.

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Ariel Friedlander one of the artists who sparked the protest idea told Art News, “People see what the Whitney is doing as very neutral and that it’s not their duty to connect AIDS artworks to contemporary AIDS issues, but I don’t see it as neutral because when you put these artworks up in a museum and you talk about these issues as if they were all in the ’80s, how are people supposed to know that these issues are still going on? That further contributes to the stigma that we still see today when it comes [to] HIV/AIDS.”  

In 2017 the Whitney featured a controversial painting of Emmett Till, entitled “Open Casket” by a white artist named Dana Schutz and described by protesters as a “Black death spectacle.” It rightfully sparked protests and a highly-circulated petition calling for the painting to be removed and destroyed. Artist and writer Hannah Black penned an open letter co-signed by other artists stating, “the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time. Schutz responded that “it’s a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it.” The Whitney never publicly responded.

The 2014 Whitney Biennial sparked controversy over its lack of diversity where just nine out of the 109 artists were Black, including Donelle Woolford, a fictional character developed by 52-year-old white artist Joe Scanlan. Scanlan hired two actors to play Donelle Woolford. He created a body of work and masqueraded it as Woolford’s creation. This fictional artist was the only supposedly Black female artist included in curator Michelle Grabner’s exhibition. She wasn’t a real person and the Whitney included her as a part of its diversity numbers. Aye.

In their essay for New Inquiry, Eunsong Kim and Maya Mackrandilal criticized the piece, “the insertion of people of color into white space doesn’t make it less colonial or more radical—that’s the rhetoric of imperialistic multiculturalism, a bullshit passé theory.”  Additionally, The YAMS Collective, or HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, a collective of 38 mostly Black and queer artists, writers, composers, academics, filmmakers and performers participated and withdrew from the 2014 Biennial to protest Whitney Museum’s policies. Why would they want a fake Black artist in their catalogue when they could have an actual Black artist? This is at the core of the YAMS collective critique. The Whitney offered no response.

In 2014, Arts & Labor, a working group founded in conjunction with the New York General Assembly for #OccupyWallStreet, confronted the museum’s legacy of classism, stating: “the Whitney Museum, with its system of wealthy trustees and ties to the real estate industry perpetuates a model in which culture enhances the city and benefits the 1% of our society while driving others into financial distress. This is embodied both in the biennial sponsorship—represented most egregiously in its sponsorship by Sotheby’s, which has locked out its unionized art handlers—and the museum’s imminent move to the Meatpacking District, a neighborhood where artists once lived and worked which is now a gentrified tourist destination that serves the interests of the real estate industry.” The working group’s demands included severing the relationship with Sotheby’s and cancelling the 2014 Biennial. The relationship with Sotheby’s went uninterrupted and the 2014 Biennial was not canceled.

In the 90’s, critiques of the Whitney’s Biennial were less about physical forms of protest and more about culture wars, definitions of art, and cultural ethics. The museum remained silent on all of these issues which is odd because the curators of the Biennial chose artists whose work spoke to the issues affecting marginalized people, from AIDS, sexuality, imperialism, poverty and race, to critiquing the Clinton administration.

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In 1987, the show was protested by the Guerrilla Girls for its sexism and racism. The rogue, anonymous gorilla mask-wearing feminist group held a “Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney” at the Clocktower in New York protesting the Biennial. Their “Banana Report” presented numbers on inclusion of women and minorities, which between 1973 and 1987 and showed a distinctly exclusionary trend—At 0.3 percent for the entire period, the representation of Black women was statistically insignificant.

History has shown us that the Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. Eventually the museum’s leadership will have to address their own complicity in maintaining oppressive structures. We are building a case against white supremacist, misogynistic and classist institutions. The longer they remain silent, the louder we will get and the more pressure we will apply. Until then, there is an even more important lesson for artists, activists, and organizers: we must continue to apply pressure to power. The fight for decolonization and visibility cannot be done in isolation. Liberation is not a phenomenon in reaction to a single event—it takes time, it takes generations, it takes shifts, it will not stop.

Jamara Wakefield is an art and culture writer. She writes for publication and stage. She currently has bylines for Shondaland, Playboy, Very Smart Brothers, RaceBaitr, Broadway Black, B- Word Magazine and Broadway World.

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