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

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





Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY 10021
Press Office: (212) 570-3633,
General Information: (212) 570-3600


NEW YORK, February 27, 2012 — Sculpture, painting, installations, and photography—as well as dance, theater, music, and film—will fill the galleries of the Whitney Museum of American Art in the latest edition of the Whitney Biennial. With a roster of artists at all points in their careers the Biennial provides a look at the current state of contemporary art in America. This is the seventy-sixth in the ongoing series of Biennials and Annuals presented by the Whitney since 1932, two years after the Museum was founded.

The Biennial will open on March 1 despite the Whitney’s recent action to return money provided by two major sponsors of the Biennial—Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank—whose recent corporate conduct has made it impossible for the Museum to maintain a partnership with them.

About Our Sponsors
The Whitney will find a way to open the 2012 Biennial in spite of the Museum’s difficult decision to break with the two major corporate sponsors of the Biennial. Regretfully, the Whitney entered into a sponsor agreement with Sotheby’s before the auction house locked out forty-three of its unionized art handlers once their contract expired in July 2011. Last year saw record-breaking sales with profits over $100 million for Sotheby’s; the pay of the CEO alone doubled to $6 million. Yet Sotheby’s has sought to break organized labor by starving their workers into submission—locked out of their jobs and without wages since August, these workers and their families lost their health care benefits at the end of 2011.

The Whitney recognizes 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 Museum understands the importance of providing working people—including artists who must work second jobs to support their careers—with the livable wages and healthcare for which the Sotheby’s art handlers are fighting. Sotheby’s actions are a direct attack on the Museum’s mission to support and collect the work of living artists. For these reasons, the Whitney cannot allow Sotheby’s to tarnish the image of the Biennial any longer.

The Whitney also announces its break with major sponsor Deutsche Bank, which is facing numerous lawsuits and accusations of fraud from both investors and the U.S. government. Deutsche Bank and its subsidiary Mortgage IT profited from selling and insuring mortgages, and are currently in litigation with the U.S. government over a $1 billion claim for fraudulently obtained federal mortgage insurance; because of their dealings in mortgage-based collateralized debt obligations, they have also been sued by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association. The reckless and even fraudulent financial speculation by banks like Deutsche Bank has created enormous social costs in terms of lost jobs, savings, and homes. The Whitney does not want the bank’s sponsorship of the Biennial to distract from these serious matters or to reflect poorly on the Museum, and so must end the sponsorship agreement.

An Apology to the Participating Artists
The Whitney is proud to be able to redistribute resources from major corporate donors and super-wealthy individuals to deserving artists, especially within a political and economic system that concentrates wealth for a tiny minority while the majority grows poorer, suffers without healthcare, is forced from their homes, or goes without food. However, the Whitney also recognizes that some donors and sponsors may seek to use their partnership with the Museum to whitewash their image and to hide the social costs of unchecked capital accumulation behind a façade of charity. These sponsors seek to capitalize on the creativity, intelligence, and culture brought into the world by contemporary artists even as the sponsors make that world unlivable. The Whitney recognizes that many emerging artists cannot refuse to participate in a major museum show without endangering their careers, and so apologizes deeply to the participating artists for allowing them to be exploited by the former sponsors in this manner. The Museum hopes the participating artists will join us in denouncing the wrongs committed by our former sponsors and trusts the artists will use the resources provided to them to foster a more vibrant, livable, just, and sustainable world.

Tickets & Membership
Tickets for the Biennial go on sale February 10 and may be purchased or in person at the Whitney, Wednesday through Sunday during gallery hours. All Biennial performances are free with Museum admission. Note: The Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark performances require special entry tickets (advance ticket booking is strongly suggested); all other events are first-come, first-served. Whitney members receive unlimited express admission to the Museum’s galleries and film programs. To become a member, visit or call (212) 570-3641.

For a closer look, see, with information on what the Biennial artists are presenting, as well as dates and times of residencies, performances, screenings, and events.

About the Whitney
The Whitney Museum of American Art is the world’s leading museum of twentieth-century and contemporary art of the United States. Focusing particularly on works by living artists, the Whitney is celebrated for presenting important exhibitions and for its renowned collection, which comprises over 19,000 works by more than 2,900 artists. With a history of exhibiting the most promising and influential artists and provoking intense debate, the Whitney Biennial, the Museum’s signature exhibition, has become the most important survey of the state of contemporary art in the United States. In addition to its landmark exhibitions, the Museum is known internationally for events and educational programs of exceptional significance and as a center for research, scholarship, and conservation.

Founded by sculptor and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1930, the Whitney was first housed on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village. The Museum relocated in 1954 to West 54th Street and, in 1966, inaugurated its present home, designed by Marcel Breuer, at 945 Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side. While its vibrant program of exhibitions and events continues uptown, the Whitney is moving forward with a new building project, designed by Renzo Piano, in downtown Manhattan. Located at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets in the Meatpacking District, at the southern entrance to the High Line, the new building, which has generated immense momentum and support, will enable the Whitney to vastly increase the size and scope of its exhibition and programming space. Ground was broken on the new building in May 2011, and it is projected to open to the public in 2015.


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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