End the Whitney Biennial 2014

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

26 thoughts on “End the Whitney Biennial 2014

  1. This is short sighted madness. I am an artist and an art worker and I find this letter to be childish. If Sotheby’s has locked out unionized art handlers, then they should strike!! The Whitney, while subject to cronyism and the whims of it’s donors/sponsors like ANY OTHER museum, has also done a great service to this country over the last 100 years by canonizing and recognizing works which would have otherwise lived only in the margins of the “Art World”. It celebrates the new, and while not always correct in it’s judgements, the Biennial is one of the only truly contemporary cultural events in this country. What you ask for is self destructive and counter productive. I would be the first to stand by a letter like this if it called for reforms, but complete eradication? NO. That would only serve your pride and nothing else.

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  5. Perhaps rather than ending it, they change instead, to be more like what Arts & Labor is demanding. I think though that Arts and Labor should be more specific about what they want in it’s place. You are too vague.

  6. At the most it’s a symbolic gesture being significant in that it brings your attention to the injustices of the entire system.

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  11. Some of this may provide ideas for OWS & be quite helpful related to the arts. I initiated the artist driven Whitney Counterweights juxtaposed against the Whitney Biennials in SoHo in 1977, 1979 & 1981 & was it’s project director. We were donated major gallery spaces all over SoHo from my then studio gallery 74 Grand Street headquarters at Wooster Street & achieved enormous positive press in all the major media for all three Whitney Counterweight’s which were seen as successful from all the major art writers in its day for totally vanquishing the Whitney Biennials in dramatic creative ways that actually changed things. We received an emergency grant from the NEA because of US President Jimmy Carter in 1977. I was in the 1973 Biennial having paradoxically been a painter in the Whitney Independent Study Program.

    Here’s a bit of our brief 1977 Manifesto that began this way: “It is the belief of the Whitney Counterweight that artists should be, realistically, responsible & adequately equipped to initiate change, redefine and liberate new movements in the world in which we are one of the working forces. We artist’s are our own gatekeepers and it is from us, not the anterooms of creation, that new visions and new movements arise”…. “American art by definition includes several aesthetic realities, several cultural realities and a broad geographical representation. We are responsible for our times”.

    We at the core including Vernita Nemec & Barnaby Ruhe & we had by the way just about 50% women in these several Counterweights in 1977, ’79 & ’81 — plus many ethnic artists which was considered revolutionary by many critics in the major art media, NY Times, etc, — & especially Lawrence Alloway who wrote about ours in The Nation several times after replacing their previous famous critic Clement Greenberg of AB Ex & Pollock fame whom I also knew & had a running earlier dialogue & even an exchange of letters which for me played a significant inner part for me in what unfolded. It was complex & major real drama as played out in the press especially in 1977. There may be some useful things relevant for OWS that have not been considered — & also for the artists of both The Whitney Biennial and the 2012 Brucennial alternative downtown may want to give these matters some serious thought about conceivable relevancies for OWS. Our artist selection wan’t at all determined beforehand by principal — but organically worked out that way as part of a natural but still complex artist selection & review process — although I believe it would have made it all far more radical to Alloway if it was first determined that way by principal. I fought him on this in The Nation & we left it this way.

    Art critic Christian Viveros-Faune in fact ends his January 2012 article in Art Review magazine Pg 50, about how OWS has been handling their involvement with their OWS events at art museums saying: “Artist’s have a responsibility to address the issues of their time- creatively, provocatively, thoughtfully. No one ever said the obligation ended with just speaking up.” 
Does any of this sound familiar regarding what artist should do — although no credit given me? Art-revisionism or unintentional… Either way– now setting the record straight. 
Christian’s here criticizing the OWS engagement with the art museums as so far being inadequate, without a larger viewpoint — something I would agree with… & hope they do better. Perhaps they are now staring to — but they are surely not yet taking into account the deeper issues.

    Much of the dialogue going on about the art world & OWS is still a placebo for a real deeper dialogue on culture.

    I’ve been sympathetic to OWS in other ways by creating a dozen high art images images on Facebook reflecting real time drama of unfolding major events of OWS throughout the past fall. Many are part of various FB Friends critic threads, some even on museum director’s own FB pages & all on my FB page.

    Andy Warhol who I knew back then, strongly believed in what I was doing… & I was tangibly helped by him — some of this is noted in related issues about the Warhol Foundation in the NYT’s even in 2011 besides related pieces I’ve written in Facebook, etc, & to other linked media articles during the past year.

    I’ll attend the 02-29-12 Brucennial evening opening at 159 Bleecker St & give comments to any press curious about these matters. Have long hair, not tall & with a yellow tie, so easy to spot. Otherwise contact me on Facebook. More on my Facebook page…where I am both active artist & feature filmmaker about the art world noting my background as USAF jet pilot & as scientist for deep space projects.

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  18. I don’t like it for the simple reason it does nothing to actually help artists. How do artist benefit from losing a show which hundreds of thousands attend? How would closing down the largest contemporary art show in the US help get artists and art workers more money? Instead of closing down any exhibit that benefits trustees, collectors, or corporations (pretty much any exhibit would fall into this category), why doesn’t the occupy movement, with it’s hundreds of thousands in donations, propose putting on their own show which WOULD benefit the artists? Why don’t you push an agenda which actually directly helps artists, in the way they say the Whitney Biennial doesn’t?

  19. New aspects to my below comment… A new Zeitgeist shared amongst artists emerged as result of the Whitney Counterweight, eg, the explosive East Village art scene & Times Square show… which may also have relevance here for OWS. Suspect this can happen again in totally new ways with OWS, both here & elsewhere, that will now as a result really change things. More on the below Facebook link.

    Bill Rabinovitch Our First “Whitney Counterweight” Catalogue held in multiple gallery spaces in SoHo spring 1977 in conjunction with the Whitney Biennial — possible ongoing relevance for OWS.

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