Arts activist group W.A.G.E (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) has urged artists invited to exhibit at the 2019 Whitney Biennial to withhold their work and demand payment for their labour, in solidarity with staff members at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
An open letter, written by New York-based organization calls on invited artists to ‘demand to be paid for the content they provide and withhold that content until the demands of Whitney staff are met.’
W.A.G.E.’s demands relate to controversy surrounding Warren B. Kanders, Whitney vice chair, who became embroiled in scandal when it was reported that his company, Safariland, supplied tear gas canisters and other weapons used against men, women and children along the US-Mexico border. In November 2018 more than 100 Whitney staffers signed a letter demanding that the museum respond to allegations against the vice chair. Whitney director Adam Weinberg responded by issuing a statement, which failed to address whether Kander’s position at the museum would be reconsidered. In a letter addressed to the Whitney community, Kanders said: ‘I think it is clear that I am not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve.’
W.A.G.E. now aims to leverage the museum with the assistance of more than 70 artists. The letter reads, in part:
‘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.’
The letter goes on to urge artists to act in solidarity with museum workers, specifically because of their privileged position: ‘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.’
W.A.G.E has offered support to artists willing to withhold their work. A contact email address has been listed on their website, as well as fee request system WAGENCY, a platform for artists to negotiate payments.
In December 2018, activist group Decolonize This Place staged a protest against Kanders in the Whitney lobby. This weekend the group will join forces with Chinatown Art Brigade to host ‘#J26 Town Hall Assembly’. ‘Bring your friends, families, & colleagues and join us to plot, organize, & upend these institutions that support war profiteering, settler colonialism, and other projects of domination,’ a twitter post by Chinatown Art Brigade reads.