Whitney Biennial and Cultural Leadership

We went to the opening night of the Whitney Biennial with friends who have been in the art world their entire careers. We met them before they were married, both involved in the growth of individual galleries until they opened one themselves, closed it and chose other career directions in this art world. We don’t see them enough but what a perfect duo to go to the Whitney opening with.

None of us could get over how many people were at the opening. Is it the rise of the art industry? These days there are so many events to pay attention to in the industry from museum and gallery openings to art fairs and of course social media which gives artists their own platform. It is overwhelming.

Almost half of the 75 chosen pieces are from female artists, and half are artists of color. It is about time. As the co-creators of this event, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley have a tremendous amount of power to choose from the hundreds of artists that they have seen to be given the honor of being represented in the Biennial.

Is the art amazing? Is that art pushing boundaries? Is the art representative of what is happening in the world now? Is the making a statement? Is it just not that interesting? Are they showing new artists who have yet to make their impact a chance to show the world their work? I could go on and on and some of the answers are yes and some are no but overall the event is an overview of art being made today and although skewed to the curators eyes, it is worth seeing.

Underlying this show is the protests against the Vice Chair of the Whitney, Warren Kanders, who is also the Chairman, CEO and owner of Safariland Group, the largest manufacturer in the world of body armor, guns, and other gear for law enforcement. It is worth taking a look at the website to understand the artistic rage.

The Guggenheim recently ceased from taking donations from the Sackler family. The Sacklers have been the leading distribution and manufacturing center for opiates in this country. They ran a killer PR campaign (no pun intended) and through that they were able to rope people into using their products, particularly in low income areas, knowing that they were highly addictive. We will see lawsuits pile up against the Sacklers in the years to come. They have already made a few financial deals out of court because what they did was illegal. I wrote a post called “Who Do You Want to be in Bed With” in April and that gives a bit more insight into the Sacklers.

What Kanders did was not illegal but it does bring up a whole other set of issues. Certainly if Kanders is impeding the Whitney to collect artists then he should leave. Most importantly this is creating an essential conversation around giving back. Giving back can disguise a lot of ill wills. Think about the leaders of Exxon who knowingly kept doing what they were doing even though their analysis was that they were creating havoc on our globe. Or the leaders of Phillip Morris who knew that cigarettes gave you lung cancer and other ailments but greed outweighed social responsibility. Society has begun to look at all those leaders differently. They do not want to necessarily be associated with people who have become billionaires on products that kill. Safariland’s products are being used on our border, they are being used by the Israeli’s and Palestinians to wreak havoc on each other and more than likely are being used in Syria too. Governments that for all intensive purposes need to buy those products to protect their countries but does that make Kanders held accountable for the end use of those products?

Since the Guggenheim’s decision (and the MET and Tate) to not take tainted money, how long will it take other cultural institutions to begin having those conversations at the board level to make similar decisions. Their patrons should be asking them to do so. Should organizations be asking donors how they have made their money? Patrons, just like consumers, can make their own personal impact by not supporting those institutions or buying their products. Each person banded with others can make a huge difference. We need to think harder about who we want our cultural institutions to represent.

Comments (Archived):

  1. jason wright

    “None of us could get over how many people were at the opening. Is it the rise of the art industry?”Is it not the ever greater concentration of financial capital in the hands of the few that drives this, with ‘art’ as ‘asset class’ being the attraction for those looking for a more broadly diversified portfolio? I’m sure the process of macro quantitative easing has come to the art market – ‘printing art’.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Could be

  2. awaldstein

    Sometime you should write or we should chat on what is happening in the NFT space with art.And the weird sliders of Scarcity and Value and how they are so much not the same.

    1. Gotham Gal

      it is crazy!

  3. JLM

    .Safariland does NOT make guns. They make gear.Much of their gear is life saving tactical gear when used by law enforcement and the military. A cop wearing a vest raiding a criminal has his life in the hands of a bulletproof vest. It saves lives.The closest they come to guns is holsters for pistols.They could not be selling in Syria by law. No American company can sell anything even remotely near tactical gear to the Syrians, the Russians, the rebels.Some of the EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) protective gear is the state of the art. EOD disarms IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that kill Americans and our allies. It is very dangerous work. This is very good gear that saves American lives.You should correct your blog post as you cast a false aspersion against the company and the individual that I know you don’t intend.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  4. Sarah Brown

    Great oped with suggested guardrails for institutions maintaining the public interest in balance with patronage: https://www.nytimes.com/201

    1. Gotham Gal

      really solid.

  5. denmeade

    There was an artist boycott of the Sydney Biennale in 2014 because of the business activities of one of the sponsors.https://theconversation.com

    1. Gotham Gal

      So it is worldwide.