Arts & Labor Calls For an End to Whitney Biennial, Pranking Follows

by Whitney Kimball on February 27, 2012 · 4 comments Rise Up

This morning, ArtINFO reports two protests staged against the Whitney Biennial, which opens to the public on Thursday. Firstly, the OWS Arts and Labor group has sent a letter calling for the end of the Biennial in 2014, indicating that it “upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers.” Specifically, they cite the museum’s ties to the real estate industry and the fact that participating artists are not compensated, while their work benefits trustees and corporate sponsors.

Then a credible press release was sent out under the museum’s name and logo, announcing a break with two of its sponsors — Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank — the morning of the press preview.  Again, Sotheby’s is named for locking out its art handlers, and Deutsche Bank for its billion-plus dollars of mortgage fraud. In addition, the press release points out that the “financial speculation on art taking place in secondary sales of works benefits wealthy investors far more than the artists who created the works, let alone the workers who craft, move, install, maintain, or guard them.” The letter goes on to apologize to its artists, “recogniz[ing] that many emerging artists cannot refuse to participate in a major museum show without endangering their careers,” as sponsors “seek to use their partnership with the Museum to whitewash their image.”

Obviously, it’s a prank. The e-mail came not from the Whitney’s PR firm, but from, a domain that was registered last week and contains only a quickly-put-together copy of the Whitney’s frontpage. “Certainly if we broke with our sponsors the morning of the press preview, once the exhibition has already been mounted, that’s insane,” reported Graham Newhall, a rep from the Whitney’s press office.  When asked whether such a last-minute break would affect the artists, he confirmed that “the sponsorship has nothing to do with our artists, [but] goes toward exhibition costs in general.”

We’ve pasted the Arts and Labor letter below, then the mock press release on page 2.

Dear Whitney Museum of American Art,

We are Arts & Labor, a working group founded in conjunction with the New York General Assembly for #occupywallstreet. We are artists and interns, writers and educators, art handlers and designers, administrators, curators, assistants, and students dedicated to exposing and rectifying economic inequalities and exploitative working conditions in our fields through direct action and educational initiatives. We are writing to call for an end to the Whitney Biennial in 2014.

Biennials were born in the nineteenth century, in an era when many nations were young and wished to showcase their greatest cultural products and achievements. The Whitney annuals grew out of this, championed by the patron and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, in a period when American art had little critical or financial support.

Much has changed since the founding of the Whitney Studio in 1914 and the advent of the current biennial format in 1973. The absorption of contemporary art into museums, the rise of a speculative art market, and the need for artists to obtain advanced degrees to participate in the current system have changed how art is produced and exhibited.

We object to the biennial in its current form because it upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers. The biennial perpetuates the myth that art functions like other professional careers and that selection and participation in the exhibition, for which artists themselves are not compensated, will secure a sustainable vocation. This fallacy encourages many young artists to incur debt from which they will never be free and supports a culture industry and financial and cultural institutions that profit from their labors and financial servitude.

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's 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 Meat Packing 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.

We therefore call upon the Whitney in its centennial year to end the biennial and to support the interests of art workers over the capital interests of its trustees and corporate sponsors. As the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City states, “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Art institutions have come to mirror that ethos. We therefore call upon the Whitney to terminate its collusion with this system of injustice and use its resources to imagine sustainable models of creativity and culture that are accessible not just to Americans but to people around the globe.

Arts & Labor


Click through for the prank press release


Alanc230 February 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm

This was very clever. I was not aware of the Sotheby’s story.

I still hope to get into the city to see the biennial. 

Uni February 28, 2012 at 3:12 am

The very definition of an artist is one who makes work without the concern for making money.  Has been and always will be.  But unfortunately, it is evident that a capitalist system has run amok when even the artists themselves are part and parcel of it.

Anonymous February 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm

The very definition of ignorance is someone who believes that the “very definition of an artist is one who makes work without the concern for making money.” 

The interesting question is not whether artists are part and parcel of a capitalist system (they are, and so are you if you’re using a computer!) but what part they play and what kind of parcel they have. I think it’s great to question Sotheby’s here, but calling for the cancellation of the Biennial is problematic, and I think wrong. 

I support OWS (as do the Biennial curators and artists, several of whom I know have been arrested while protesting…) But I’m afraid that these demands for artists to be completely pure of all corporate money simply unearths the old reactionary demands for art to be autonomous from society and politics–beauty for the sake of beauty– that I thought were buried long ago. Art can do far more when it’s conceived as embedded within social life. 

The demand for canceling the Biennial also plays into the charges of OWS opponents who scream “hypocrisy” whenever they see an OWSer with Nike shoes or an Apple laptop. The idea is to protest corporate crime and the corruption of our political system. But we can’t do that effectively if we have to do it from a magical position outside of capitalism where we make our own shoes and live in a log cabin. 

Artists have been dealing with these contradictions in sophisticated ways for a long, long time (“has been and always will be”). There’s more for OWSers to learn inside a museum (especially exhibitions like Diego Rivera at MoMA) than from standing on the street outside. We need to demand better exhibitions, and more accountability to the public trust on the part of institutions that receive public benefits. Calling for cancellations and prohibitions is the wrong course. 

Forensic Artist March 3, 2012 at 11:56 am

Actually, it’s *hobbyists* who make work without concern for making money.

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