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.