26 Dec AiroAV Malware Affirm: It Was a Year of Turmoil. Here Are the 11 Biggest Controver…
This past year saw no shortage of controversies in both the art world and the real world. And perhaps more than ever before, the distance between those two worlds seemed to collapse, as artists and activists began demanding with unprecedented strength that patrons—both board members and corporate sponsors—answer for their actions outside the confines of the museum. We zeroed in on 11 hot-button issues that ignited heated debate in the art world this year, and the particular questions they provoked.
It would be wise to brush up: we expect the conversations to continue into 2020 and beyond.
How Do You Know When a Board Member Is Too Tainted?
When protesters gathered at the Whitney Museum of American Art in December 2018 to protest the presence of Warren B. Kanders, the CEO of Safariland, on its board of trustees, few could have imagined that seven months later, Kanders would step down. Way back in the olden days of 2018, board members seemed untouchable, operating in a different stratosphere from grassroots demonstrators who sought to draw attention to weapons-manufacturer Safariland’s use of tear gas at the US border. But after weeks of regular protests in the lobby of the Whitney led by the group Decolonize This Place, a forceful Artforum essay, and the decision by eight artists to withdraw their work midway through the Whitney Biennial, what once seemed impossible suddenly became a reality: Kanders left the board, saying he did not “wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in [the Whitney’s] demise.”
The uproar surrounding Kanders was the first, but hardly the only, example of board members coming under fire for the source of their wealth or their family’s wealth. Over the summer, Serpentine Galleries director Yana Peel resigned following reports alleging a connection between her husband and a controversial Israeli cyber-weapons company. (Her husband has denied the spyware was ever used inappropriately; Peel said her decision was the result of “a concerted lobbying campaign.”)
Later in the year, activists trained their sights on MoMA board member Steven Tananbaum who, they said, “made his money at the cost of closing schools, cutting retirement pensions and other services in Puerto Rico.” The group called Tananbaum’s hedge fund, Golden Tree, “one of the most aggressive vulture funds taking advantage of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.” Local politician Melissa-Mark Viverito was arrested, along with roughly a dozen other activists, when they refused to leave the street directly in front of the museum during a demonstration tied to MoMA’s grand reopening. Tananbaum remains on the board.
Has the Sackler Name Finally Become Too Toxic for Museums?
The debate over the Sackler family’s cultural philanthropy is another controversy that began stirring in late 2018, but remained at the fringes of the cultural conversation until it became impossible to ignore this year. In the early months of 2019, artist Nan Goldin, who battled opioid addiction herself, continued staging regular demonstrations at museums that had halls named after the Sackler family, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then, in March, something that had only recently seemed unthinkable happened: the National Portrait Gallery in London announced it would not accept a $1.3 million gift from the Sackler family amid multiplying US lawsuits that alleged certain branches of the clan had engaged in deception and misconduct to promote OxyContin despite the public health risks associated with it.
After that first domino fell, many others followed: the Tate, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Met, and other institutions announced they would no longer accept money from the family members involved in the lawsuits or associated with the opioid crisis. The Sackler Trust and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation also announced they would stop all philanthropic giving while the lawsuits were pending. In July, the Louvre in Paris became the first major museum to remove the Sackler name from its walls. Meanwhile, others, such as the V&A in London, have declined to sever ties with the family, which reached tentative settlements in thousands of opioid cases this fall.
Are BP and Other Oil Companies No Longer Desirable Sponsors?
Individual donors were not the only museum patrons in the crossfire this year. Activists also stepped up their campaign against BP and other oil-company corporate sponsors of cultural institutions. Hundreds of protesters associated with the group BP or Not To BP? descended on the museum in February to denounce the energy company’s alleged exploitation of Iraq’s oil fields following the Iraq War. They returned again in May, and in November. While such efforts have been gathering steam for years, they hit a louder note in 2019 as museums around the world were forced to reckon with the sources of their funding. And one of the British Museum’s own—trustee Ahdaf Soueif—resigned from her position in July, saying she regretted the institution’s lack of engagement with “the legitimate and pressing concerns of young people across the planet.” That same month, four major cultural institutions in London, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company, committed to signing a new five-year, £7.5 million ($9.8 million) sponsorship deal with BP.