In a few months, more than 70 artists will be contracted by the Whitney Museum of American Art to supply the content for its 2019 Biennial exhibition. In the capacity of temporary workers, these artists will be permitted, and even encouraged, to publicly dissent, openly question, and politically engage with visitors through their participation.
If you are one of these artists, this invitation from W.A.G.E. is for you. We invite you to use your exceptional status as a worker who can claim both the freedom to dissent and the right to be paid to withhold your labor in solidarity with Whitney staff who cannot. We invite you to put your exceptionality to work.
This Saturday January 26th, W.A.G.E. will co-host a public Town Hall with Decolonize This Place and Chinatown Art Brigade to address what Decolonize This Place has described as a “crisis” within the Whitney Museum. This crisis concerns Warren B. Kanders, the Whitney board’s Vice Chairman, who is also the owner of Safariland, a private defense manufacturer of tear gas cannisters and smoke grenades that were most recently used against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border this past November.
If this is a crisis, it should be understood as one that is recurring and not isolated to a single institution. Efforts by the Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969 to connect the economies of major cultural institutions to state violence and race and class-based oppression prefigure a string of recent crises implicating the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as well as the Tate Modern and the Zabludowicz Foundation in the UK.
What makes the Whitney crisis unique is that it came about not because of the public dissent of artists, but through the private dissent of a group of full-time employees and part-time contracted workers. They composed an internal letter to Director Adam D. Weinberg decrying the museum’s silence as complicity and pointed to an abdication of responsibility that would fall, in the form of increased labor and decreased political agency, on those already impacted most directly by state violence, oppression and exploitation: the museum’s visitor-facing staff. The task of explaining on behalf of silent leadership why Warren Kanders remained Vice Chairman would be assigned to the lowest paid workers who are also disproportionately Black and People of Color. Finally, the letter insists on a restorative approach to realigning power at the leadership level predicated on transparency, accountability, and museum-wide staff participation. The letter was made public without staff consent.
Unlike artists, from whom dissent is expected, dissent by museum workers is carefully managed and in the case of visitor-facing staff might easily lead to dismissal. It is in solidarity with these workers, and on behalf of their demands, that W.A.G.E. invites artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial to do two things: demand to be paid for the content they provide and withhold that content until the demands of Whitney staff are met.
With the arrival of each biennial there is a rare opportunity for a large group of artists to collectivize their leverage because for a short time they will all share the same employer. This year there is also WAGENCY, as well as an opportunity for artists to use their “exceptional” status of “getting to have it both ways” in support of those who do not. Having it both ways means being able to dissent and get paid. We believe that everyone should get to have it both ways—and until everyone does, the right to exceptionality will remain our demand.
If you are interested in withholding content from the 2019 Whitney Biennial using WAGENCY, please contact W.A.G.E. directly: @ . All correspondence will be kept confidential. Biennial artists will receive free access to WAGENCY for the duration of the exhibition.
Town Hall Assembly
Saturday, January 26th, 1-4 PM
41 Cooper Square
Rose Auditorium, Cooper Union
New York, NY