The Whitney Museum of American Art canceled its planned exhibition “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change” after criticism over how it acquired the works that would be shown. The exhibition, announced August 25, planned to consist of “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.” It would have gone up September 17, two weeks after the Whitney’s planned September 3 reopening. Many of the works acquired had been made by Black artists and bought at low prices, as they were sold to be accessible to the public to fundraise for causes related to COVID-19 and systemic racism.
“Collective Actions” curator Farris Wahbeh confirmed the cancellation in a statement that the museum shared with Vulture. “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,” he wrote. “We apologize for the anger and frustration the exhibition has caused and have made the decision not to proceed with the show.” Wahbeh added, “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.”
Some of the pieces came from See in Black, a collective that sold photography prints by Black artists to raise money for five organizations supporting Black Americans. In a statement, See in Black called the exhibition an “unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated.” The group added, “Furthermore, See in Black is not affiliated with the Whitney’s exhibition.” A photographer who worked with See in Black, Gioncarlo Valentine, tweeted an email he received from Wahbeh about acquiring his work for the Whitney’s special collections (which often archive historical ephemera, although aren’t always shown) and showing it in the exhibition. Wahbeh offered no additional compensation other than a lifetime pass to the museum and asked Valentine for biographical information for a placard in the exhibition. “@whitneymuseum y’all preyed on Black artists in this moment in such a disgusting way,” Valentine tweeted. In another tweet, he added, “I’m speechless. Like… people DREAM of having their work shown in the Whitney, and y’all out here trying to grab the shit on sale?” Texas Isaiah, another artist who worked with See in Black, told HuffPost the Whitney paid $100 for his print. “If they managed to acquire the works in this manner,” he said, “they do not deserve them at all.”