How We Can Hold Art Galleries Accountable

We shook the table with “Change the Museum” and “Oscars so White”, so why not “Cancel Art Galleries”? Why are horror stories of racism, sexism, and abuse in art galleries open secrets that remain unaddressed? The dominant agents of the commercial art world — galleries, auction houses, PR firms, and dealers — hold an obscene amount of power over images and their narratives. Yet, most art businesses are too niche to garner wider public notice and therefore are less subject to scrutiny. Employers are beholden to profit, and artists turn a blind eye. Employees fear retribution and lack lines of communication to critique their superiors. Art publications hesitate to speak ill of those supporting their ad revenue stream. Who then will hold this industry accountable?

This question is disheartening when we consider how old tactics like statistics that quantify the ethnic/gendered composition of a gallery roster are no longer sufficient in addressing the heart of our problems. As discrimination and exploitation becomes buried under meaningless words like “diversity”, the evil that is the generational wealth of white people remains intact. The hundreds of submissions to our anonymous form have made clear that the art world’s concessions made for representation politics have failed. The worst culprits of habitual abusive behavior are often the very same people claiming to uphold progressive imagery. Feminist! Subversive! Empowering! The optimistic adjectives used to describe artworks do not describe who peddles them. Galleries run oppressive operations that contradict the radical movements they purportedly support.

For example, Rachel Lehmann, in The Art Newspaper responded to our published accounts of David Maupin’s anti-Black aggressions by saying, “The gallery program speaks for itself.” This confirmed our suspicions that the gallery tokenizes their artists of color to dismiss the possibility of racism occurring within their workplace, which in and of itself is racist. Similarly, David Kordansky Gallery was praised in the New York Times as a white savior of Black artists, but the writer excluded the fact that its staff is so overwhelmingly white that their artist Lauren Halsey demanded the hiring of Black models in order to have Black people included in installation views of her work at the gallery. These kinds of heartfelt stories perpetuate the liberal myth that white people take initiative by their own conscience, rather than more radical and threatening interventions.

Although these art world ills have been apparent to many for a long time, few have proposed effective solutions; perhaps because a business that traffics in people like a plantation or auction house cannot be reformed but rather needs to be destroyed. Just listen to how the language used to refer to an artist cements their status as property. Colloquial speech refers to artists as “poached,” “stolen,” and “newly represented.” Black and Brown artists feel at the mercy of the worst galleries if they desire a dignified career. Leadership is inherited through bloodlines. Let’s be real: galleries are feudal systems for hoarding wealth, property, and people that cannot be reformed with momentary or incremental adjustments. If it were up to us, art galleries would be made obsolete alongside slavery, prisons, police, and capitalism more broadly.

Some for-profit art spaces have already begun intervening in the standard art gallery structure to help artists continue their practice in the twilight of late capitalism. Galleries run by people of color, such as Commonwealth and Council or Housing Gallery, are not only widely admired for their commitment to queer artists and artists of color but also for prioritizing their community over commercial success. Still many other protagonists making important shifts to reduce harm will not be seen in splashy news headlines because they realize this work is an obligation, not a PR opportunity. They are actively divesting from whiteness, listening to young people, decreasing the wage gap and social hierarchy between employees, turning down art fair participation, and refusing to advertise with nefarious art publications, investing in artworks that promote social good, showing solidarity with their lower income neighbors through committing to local politics, and prioritizing artists with good character over those with endless economic potential.

Galleries who fear for their reputation must ask themselves why their image matters more than justice, why the anger in our voice warrants more concern than our injuries, why their objects matter more than people who look after them. @Cancelartgalleries is abolitionist at heart and also does not desire to exist forever. Although we delight in exposing particularly toxic workplaces, we are ultimately also a platform that hopes to disappear one day. Only our irrelevance would truly signal progress.

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