In an open letter sent by email on Wednesday, W.A.G.E., a group that advocates for artists to be compensated for their labor, addressed participants in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, calling on them to “demand to be paid for the content they provide and withhold that content until the demands of Whitney staff are met.”
Those demands relate to an ongoing controversy surrounding Whitney vice chair Warren B. Kanders, whom a Hyperallergic report last year revealed was the owner of Safariland, a company that produces tear gas canisters and other products that have been used against asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. An internal letter signed by nearly 100 Whitney employees urged museum leadership to consider asking Kanders to resign. In a statement made following that letter, Whitney director Adam Weinberg made a plea for conversation, while Kanders said that he was “not the problem.”
The artist list for this year’s biennial, which opens at the Whitney Museum in New York in May, has not yet been announced, though W.A.G.E.’s letter, which can be read in full on the group’s website, aimed to reach the “more than 70 artists” that the museum will contract for the show.
W.A.G.E’s 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.
W.A.G.E. said that artists interested in withholding their work from the exhibition can contact the group to seek help in doing so. The group has placed its email on its website, along with a calculator to determine the proper fee for Whitney Biennial participants and a template for demanding proper payment from the museum.
A spokesperson for the Whitney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In December, the activist group Decolonize This Place led a protest against Kanders’s involvement in the Whitney in the museum’s lobby. The group will work with Chinatown Art Brigade to host a town hall this weekend about the Kanders debate at Cooper Union on Saturday.