The Whitney Museum of American Art on Tuesday canceled an upcoming exhibition after artists of color objected to the institution’s having obtained their work through discounted sales largely meant to benefit racial justice charities. They have accused the museum of trying to capitalize on their work without properly compensating them.
The exhibition, called “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions in a Time of Change,” was intended to feature work by artists who participated in projects responding to the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
On Tuesday morning, there was an outpouring of criticism on social media after artists received emails saying that their work would be included in the exhibition, which was to feature about 80 artists and debut on Sept. 17, two weeks after the Whitney plans to reopen.
The notice from Farris Wahbeh, the Whitney’s director of research resources, landed in the photographer Dana Scruggs’ inbox on Monday night, reading: “I’m writing to let you know that I have acquired your work.”
Ms. Scruggs learned in the email that the museum had obtained an untitled print that she had made available to See in Black, a coalition of Black photographers that sold artists’ work at the reduced rate of $100 per print to benefit Black communities. Normally, a print of hers would sell for thousands of dollars, but this time, the sales went to charitable causes. To Ms. Scruggs, the intention behind donating her work was to put art in the hands of people who weren’t typically able to afford it.
The Whitney, Ms. Scruggs reasoned, was able to afford it.
Ms. Scruggs wrote back, “Not that you even deigned to ask me, but NO you cannot exhibit my work without my permission.”
The form of compensation that the museum offered in the email was particularly frustrating to some of the artists on the receiving end of it: a lifetime pass granting them free entry to the museum. The process also seemed unreasonable to some because many artists are in tough financial straits during the pandemic and need the paid work now more than ever.
“If you actually took me and any of the other photographers you ‘acquired’ seriously as artists,” Ms. Scruggs wrote in the email to Mr. Wahbeh, “you would never have pulled something as manipulative, offensive, and cheap as what you’re trying to do.”
Several other artists who donated their work to the See in Black sale — which was raising money for organizations such as the National Black Justice Coalition and the Bail Project — were also informed that their work would be on view in the exhibition.
Another source of the art planned for the Whitney exhibition was a fund-raiser called Poetry for Persistence. Each poster could be purchased for $40, and proceeds would go toward groups like Baltimore Action Legal Team’s Community Bail Fund.
Hours after the uproar began, the museum had made the decision to cancel the exhibition, and a museum spokesman said that Mr. Wahbeh had sent another email to the artists apologizing for the “anger and frustration the exhibition has caused.”
The works in the exhibition were collected as part of the museum’s special collections, he wrote, which house objects like posters, prints, books and zines that “document how artists distribute published materials as a form of practice.” His intention behind this particular collection was to “build on a historical record of how artists directly engage the important issues of their time.”
But to Ms. Scruggs, whose work has appeared in publications including Rolling Stone, GQ and The New York Times, canceling the exhibition did not seem like the right response from the museum.
“Instead of canceling, they should actually pay us for the full price of our work and hold the exhibition instead of cowering in the face of everyone calling them out,” she said in an interview.
A spokesman for the museum said that it is considering next steps with regard to what it plans to do with the works, which were obtained through online projects whose sale benefited social justice causes. The museum paid the price that was established by the project; some pieces were free digital downloads.
During its almost 90-year history, the Whitney Museum has at times become a lightning rod for issues of diversity in American art and museums.
In 1971, for example, 15 artists withdrew from the show “Contemporary Black Artists in America” in protest after the institution did not appoint a Black curator to organize the survey. More recently, during the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the museum faced a backlash for its display of the white artist Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” which depicted the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a Black teenager who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.
And last year, the museum faced months of protest by the activist group Decolonize This Place, which ultimately led to the resignation of a veteran board member, Warren B. Kanders, whose company, the Safariland Group, sells law enforcement and military supplies including tear gas.