“The Whitney isn’t racist. I’m not racist. I did things for black people in the 60s”

Network (1976)

BD: Obviously, the Whitney has a history of not being very representative. That was part of the discussion for you going in from the start?

SS: Yes, it was why our collective was formed. I disagree with participating in the Whitney; it’s tokenism, it’s “diversity,” and all of that bullshit. Every Whitney Biennial I have ever been to, you can barely count the number of black artists in the show on one hand. I didn’t want to be a part of that. There are so many amazing artists of color that I have known in the past 12 years in New York that are essentially overlooked. But I just felt it was time for an intervention.

AS: The Whitney Museum promotes this idea that it is the voice of American art and speaks for the nation when it comes to what contemporary art is. But it’s completely not diverse, and so it misrepresents the direction where art is going. I feel it’s lost touch with what art is today.

BD: Was participating controversial within the group? The participation in the event itself?

SS: When Michelle Grabner looked at the movie, it wasn’t finished. We were already working on it. So, I figured, participating doesn’t really matter either way in terms of our art. What did matter was actually opening our mouths and voicing our concerns and changing this system. That was what was important.

CHRISTA BELL: One of the ways that we have discussed framing our participation—even before it started—was as a protest. Our participation inside of this white supremacist institution is a protest in itself. Of course we were aware of the politics of exclusion, the politics of white supremacy that make up the institution of the Whitney. I think a great way to consider this is that the entire participation was a protest, and the withdrawal was part of the protest.

SS: Exactly. Saying “yes” was the first step to protest.

BD: But there was a specific flashpoint. Were you aware of Joe Scanlan’s work going into it?

SS: Not until the list came out. I mean, we were aware of Scanlan’s work. But that wasn’t even the flashpoint. There were so many other flashpoints.

CB: I want to clarify. This is not about Joe Scanlan. We are not protesting Joe Scanlan, or Michelle Grabner. We are protesting institutional white supremacy and how it plays out. A main part of our message is that we want to move the idea of white supremacy away from caricatures of white supremacy: neo-Nazis, KKK members, crazy kids who live in the mountains of Arkansas. White supremacy is embodied in these institutions that tokenize us, that invite us into spaces where they have absolutely no interest in ceding power. That’s the most important thing to get about this. This is not about Joe Scanlan. He’s this mediocre artist, he’s part of the Ivy League, institutional collective of Yale and Princeton and the Whitney. And it’s the larger part of his collective that we are concerned with.

BD: The Scanlan issue was the last straw that led to you leaving—I don’t know if I am characterizing that right.

SS: There were a lot of straws.

Read More | “The Yams, On the Whitney and White Supremacy” | Andre Springer, Sienna Shields, and Christa Bell of HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? with Ben Davis | ArtNet