Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Whitney’s Weinberg silent on unusual WhiBi plan

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On Nov. 19 the Whitney Museum of American Art made an unusual announcement: It was selecting a dealer, Jay Sanders, to co-curate the next Whitney Biennial. The Whitney leaked the story to the New York Times (which promptly reported it inaccurately). That same day, MAN filed a routine request for a Q&A with director Adam Weinberg.

Today, 32 days after my inquiry, the Whitney finally responded: The museum told me that Weinberg will not speak with MAN about the subject. To the best of my knowledge, he has not spoken with anyone about it. (Readers?) The museum referred me to last month’s press release, which is mostly notable for neither quoting nor mentioning the museum’s director.

This is all pretty unusual. Typically museum directors are pleased to discuss their decisions. Typically they are at least mentioned in press releases announcing the major decisions made at their museums. (True: I am assuming the Whitney’s director was involved in this decision.) Furthermore, MAN has a long history of giving directors more space than any other outlet for the discussion of meaty topics: In just the last year or so I’ve welcomed Smithsonian American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun, New Museum director Lisa Phillips and MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch on to MAN to discuss controversial topics. Each has received as much space as they wanted to answer questions about the news of the day. Often museums themselves promote MAN Q&As with their directors as full, fair airings of the institution’s point of view.

I continue think that the Whitney’s hiring of Sanders is newsworthy. (So did the New York Times, for that matter.) I think that art lovers deserve to hear about the unusual direction the museum is taking from the presumptive decision-maker himself. What does the hiring of Sanders say about the Whitney’s relationship with the commercial art market — and New York’s contemporary art market in particular? More broadly, what does the Whitney’s WhiBi direction say about contemporary art, artists and their relation to the market?

Is the idea of an institution having curators of contemporary art old-fashioned? Are they necessary? Traditionally one reason we imbue an art museum with authority is because its decision-making is independent from outside forces, such as commercial forces. Are art museums that show contemporary art so engaged with the art market that independence is no longer extant, relevant or important? What does a dealer bring to a show that an art historian doesn’t? Or vice-versa?

As for answers? Well, we’re all still waiting.

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Comments

  1. [...] After naming Sanders, Weinberg apparently ducked his museum’s own press release (!) and he spent over a month putting off inquiries from MAN before a museum spokesperson said he wouldn’t discuss the decision — or even if the [...]

  2. “Traditionally one reason we imbue an art museum with authority is because its decision-making is independent from outside forces, such as commercial forces.”

    I think the more cautious and skeptical amongst “we” imbue art museums with far less authority (and seriousness) when their dependence on outside forces, namely commercial forces, becomes made more transparent.

    It’s impossible not to think about this when having to face the BP logo while walking into LACMA’s “BP Grand Entrance” and subsequently, impossible not to think of the disaster in the Gulf that killed 11 workers, contaminated a massive body of water, destroyed local economies and ecosystems, and wasn’t able to stop a multinational corporation from continuing to make money.

    Your writing on Sanders at the WhiBi also triggers another Los Angeles reality: that a commercial art dealer with no museum experience was chosen to direct MOCA.

    So it’s quite natural for even the least suspicious person to start scratching his or her head when: that ex-dealer represented and sold the art of someone like Shepard Fairey, for example, who then later gets curated into the Art in the Sheets, I mean, Streets show, a history of graf show aggressively marketed to urban youths with “major support” (from MOCA’s press) by Levi’s (hence, the Levi’s Film Workshop) as well as Nike SB (with on-site skate demonstrations by the Nike SB skate team) and others. Ok, so corporate sponsorship is par for the course, most would say. But then…

    From MOCA’s own press release (10 August 11):

    “For the first time, MOCA commissioned the design studio of artist Shepard Fairey,
    who was featured in the exhibition, to create the exhibition’s poster and banners.”

    Oh, ok. A little extra pocket cash for some side work but that’s an awful lot of exposure (and privilege) focused on one artist in a show of 50.

    And it came as no real surprise when Fairey publicly backed Deitch’s decision to whitewash what resulted in an anti-war mural. commissioned as a teaser for the Art in the Streets exhibition by Italian artist / muralist, blu. The incident ignited enormous controversy amongst the city’s artist community, the graf world and armchair critics both for / against graffiti and beyond. MOCA’s claim was that it was whitewashed to protect the feelings of veterans and soldiers, but it remains to be seen if any veterans or soldiers were even asked their opinion, if they had one.

    From the LA Times (14 December 2010): “When asked about the MOCA controversy, Fairey said in an e-mail that “this is a complex situation that could have been avoided [altogether] with better communication.” He added that “the situation is unfortunate but I understand MOCA’s decision.”

    To revisit: “Traditionally one reason we imbue an art museum with authority is because its decision-making is independent from outside forces, such as commercial forces.”

    If only.

  3. Coincidentally, from Christopher Knight in today’s LA Times, on MOCA having a Los Angeles store owner curate a MOCA show:

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2012/03/moca-questionable-guest-curator.html

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