Whitney Slammed for Buying Black Photographers’ Art Indirectly for Exhibition

The famous Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan is being accused of “predatory” and “exploitative” behavior after it purchased artwork by Black photographers indirectly (and at a steep discount) through a fundraiser to exhibit the photos without the artists’ permission.

HuffPost reports that the Whitney had purchased artwork by Black photographers through the collective See In Black, which sold prints by Black artists at a deep discount and donated 100% of the proceeds to charity.

The Whitney purchased the prints with the intention of including them in an upcoming exhibition titled “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change,” which is set to run from 9/17/20 through 1/3/21.

A screenshot of the exhibition page on the Whitney website.

“Showcasing the critical role of artists in documenting moments of seismic change and protest, this exhibition brings together prints, photographs, posters, and digital files that have been created this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement,” the exhibition’s description reads. “The majority of the works in Collective Actions were initiated by artist collectives to raise funds for anti-racist initiatives, including criminal justice reform, bail funds, Black trans advocacy groups, and other mutual aid work.”

However, the Whitney didn’t reach out to the photographers behind the purchased artworks until afterward, when they were already set to be included in the show.

Photographer Gioncarlo Valentine, who had donated his work to the See In Black sale, Tweets that he was contacted by exhibition organizer Farris Wahbeh, who informed him that his work had been purchased for the show and that in “recognition and appreciation” of his work’s inclusion, Valentine would be given a “Lifetime Pass” to visit the museum with a guest.

“I’m writing to let you know that I acquired your work Untitled from the project See in Black for the Whitney’s special collections,” Wahbeh writes in the screenshot shared by Valentine. “Alongside the acquisition, I’m also working on an exhibition comprised largely of works from our Special Collections […] [I] am excited to share that I plan to include your work as part of [this] project […]

“I’m so honored that your work will be on view in this exhibition […]”

Valentine wasn’t pleased.

Photographer Texas Isaiah says that the Whitney bought his photo through the See In Black sale for $100.

“It’s bewildering to think that a multi-million dollar museum went around to buy works for $100, some unsigned, untitled and not dated for their collections,” Isaiah tells HuffPost. “It is predatory, condescending and irresponsible.”

See In Black also released a statement to speak out against the Whitney’s actions.

“[…] [T]he Whitney’s use of the works acquired through the See in Black print sale at significantly discounted prices […] constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated,” See in Black writes.

Others have chimed in as well.

We’ve reached out to Whitney for comment and will update this article with the museum’s statement if/when one is provided.

Update: A spokesperson for the Whitney tells PetaPixel that “the exhibition Collective Actions will not be proceeding.” Here is a letter Wahbeh has sent to the artists whose work the museum had purchased:

I wanted to follow up on my emails about the Collective Actions exhibition we had planned to open in September. We at the museum have been listening and hearing from artists about their concerns. 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.

The works in the exhibition were collected as part of the Whitney’s Special Collections, an area that houses artists books, zines, posters, prints, and objects that document how artists distribute published materials as a form of practice, both physically and on-line, and are collected as the materials are launched and circulated.

My sincere hope in collecting them was to build on a historical record of how artists directly engage the important issues of their time. Going forward, we will study and consider further how we can better collect and exhibit artworks and related material that are made and distributed through these channels. I understand how projects in the past several months have a special resonance and I sincerely want to extend my apologies for any pain that the exhibition has caused.

I’d welcome the opportunity to talk more about the organization of the show and other concerns you have, as would our chief curator, Scott Rothkopf. If so, please reach out to me and let me know.

With thanks,

Image credits: Header illustration photo of the Whitney by Ajay Suresh and licensed under CC BY 2.0

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