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Cancelled Collective Actions: Open Letter

September 18, 2020
Steven Montinar’s digital drawing “Koupe Tet, Boule Kay” (2020) was among the works selected for the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In a Time of Change (image courtesy of Steven Montinar)

To the curators, directors, and board members of the Whitney Museum:

We are living through a moment marked by well-intentioned, but all too often hollow, gestures of support for Black Lives and racial justice. We understand that the now cancelled Collective Actions originated from a place of well intentioned interest in marking a historical moment of political action. Though it was our commitment to mutual aid and political action that brought us together and drew you to us in the first place, rather than joining us in that effort and that spirit of reciprocal support, the missteps made here stand in marked contrast to the ethical framework within which these projects were created. We come together here to ask what a real effort by the Whitney Museum to support communities further marginalized and pushed toward precarity in this moment of global crisis and national reckoning might look like.

The Whitney’s formal statement in support of Black communities states that you have increased the racial diversity of your collection, exhibitions, and performances. The ways in which you acquired our work and planned to show it, without conversation with or consent from many of the included artists, demonstrates an undervaluing of our labor and denial of our agency. This calls into question how you have increased the diversity of your collection. The purpose of acquiring work is not only to preserve a moment in time but also to support living artists. All too often, Black, Indigineous, and POC artists are invited in because our radicality serves to signify institutional inclusivity and progressiveness. This performance of racial inclusion seldom comes alongside a real commitment to supporting historically excluded communities. That we were brought into the museum through an administrative loophole in which the special collection acquisition made it possible to collect and exhibit our work without adhering to the museum’s own standards of compensation offers an important insight into how Black, Indigineous, and POC artists continue to be inadvertently marginalized and exploited.

While this is very much a situation born of the specific longstanding problems of the Whitney Museum, it is also true that there are very few institutions who don’t suffer from the same blindspots. Rather than hurriedly cancelling a show whose failures lay in the museum’s rush to encapsulate a still unfolding historical moment, the museum could have taken the time to listen and respond. The brave move would have been to lean into the discomfort rather than further demonstrating our dispensability to your institution by cancelling the show within hours of receiving criticism online. We want to be clear that this is not a calling out of the failure of any individual. These fumblings are born of the broken system that undergirds all of our lives and our institutions. That the Whitney found itself in a situation in which it was called out by individuals and communities who felt their actions here were unethical and exploitative is neither new nor remarkable. What could be new, what could be remarkable is to allow the radicality of collective vision and action to seep into the fabric of your institutional foundation. You could change. 

We urge the Whitney Museum to take this opportunity to do so. We’re writing to you on September 17th, the day of the scheduled opening of the Collective Action exhibition. We ask that you as an institution commit to a year of action – of mobilization and introspection. How will you take less and give more to historically excluded communities? How will you institute ethical guidelines in future acquisition practices? How will you ensure that your institution holds the capacity to navigate this charged political moment without relying on the unpaid labour of Black, Indigenous, and POC artists and community members to advocate for the betterment of your institution?

We appreciate that the Whitney has entered into dialogue with many of the artists from the now cancelled Collective Actions. The question at the root of our collective actions and of your assembling of our work, is how can we make use of the means we have available to us to support the urgent needs of our most vulnerable in this time of global and national crisis? This is a critical historical moment that calls for us to move past easy statements of support for Black lives into the real work to transform and dismantle oppressive systems of power. We, the undersigned, come together now as we will again in a year, as an offer of accountability. Let us hold each other to the task of real action and intervention in this time of change.

Sincerely,

Kara Springer, Whitney ISP ‘18

Chiara No, Artist

fields harrington, Whitney ISP ‘20

Kirsten Hatfield

Nicole Rodrigues

Charles Mason III, Artist 

Spyros Rennt, Artist

Simi Mahtani, Artist

Joe Kusy, Artist

Texas Isaiah, Artist

Katy Nelson

Jessica Caponigro, Snake Hair Press

Mark Clennon 

Marcus Maddox

Zora J Murff, University of Arkansas / Strange Fire Collective 

Lola Flash, Artist

Kevin Claiborne

Christelle de Castro

Clay Hickson 

Linda Huang, Designer

Andrew LeClair, Designer

Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo

Mimi Zhu, Artist

Sheldon Abba, People’s Film Program

Alicia Smith

Daniel Arnold

Denise Shanté Brown, Holistic Design Strategist

Anthony Geathers

Milcah Bassel, Sol JC

Shantal Henry, Sol JC

Michelle Pérez, Sol JC

Gisel Endara, Sol JC

Joana Arruda, Sol JC

Serena Hocharoen

Kimi Hanauer, Press Press

Seitu Ken Jones, Seitu Jones Studio

Justine Kelley

Julia Kim Smith, Artist

Ike Edeani

Taeyoon Choi

Ciara Mendez

Alex Hodor-Lee

Kenny Cousins

Shaniqwa Jarvis, Artist

Georgia McCandlish

Jessica Foley, Photographer

Dana Scruggs, Photographer

Brandon English, Resistor NYC

Matt Lavine

Steve Saiz, Artist

Adam Lucas, Designer

L’Sharesee Burrell

Read more:

https://hyperallergic.com/584340/whitney-museum-black-lives-matter-covid-19-exhibition-canceled/

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