Fine Art Photography

Artists’ Changing Relationship to Funding and Ethics

October 29, 2019

By Conor Risch

© Josué Rivas

Police mace water protectors. Cannon Ball, North Dakota. November, 2016. Indigenous photographer Josué Rivas, who published a book of photos of the Standing Rock Movement, withdrew from an awards jury to protest a sponsor, TD Bank Group, and their financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The year 2019 may be remembered as the year when artists decided to bite the hand that feeds them—or, at least, the hand that feeds the arts establishment. Artists have led a series of protests this year against corporate and individual arts patrons whose fortunes they consider ill-gotten. These protests have put museums and arts foundations in the awkward position of having to take a stand or acknowledge that much of their funding comes from patrons eager to clean up their public image through philanthropy.  

In July, a months-long campaign by activists and artists against former Whitney Museum trustee Warren B. Kanders, owner of a company that manufactures tear gas, ended in Kanders’ resignation. Protests against Kanders’ involvement began in late 2018, but he finally stepped down after a group of artists, in an open letter published in Artforum, asked to withdraw their work from the Whitney Biennial, which activist artists had dubbed “The Tear Gas Biennial.” 

Earlier that month, photographer Nan Goldin’s anti-opioid activist group, PAIN, was in France to protest the Louvre’s relationship with the Sackler family, which built a fortune pushing the prescription painkiller Oxycontin. A couple of weeks later, the Louvre took the Sackler’s name off its walls. (Goldin’s group had already caused several major museums, including the Metropolitan in New York City and the Tate in London, to distance themselves from the Sacklers.) 

© Josué Rivas
Police mace water protectors. Cannon Ball, North Dakota. November, 2016. © Josué Rivas

Earlier in the year, with much less fanfare but equal determination, three organizations representing minority photographers—Natives Photograph, Authority Collective and Women Photographpublished an open letter protesting the Magenta Foundation’s sponsorship deal with TD Bank Group. Magenta Foundation had announced they were planning a new award for indigenous photographers as part of their Flash Forward emerging photographer competition, and has asked indigenous photographer and Natives Photograph co-founder Josué Rivas to judge the competition. Rivas initially agreed, but when he learned that TD Bank Group invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline, which directly impacted indigenous communities, he withdrew from the judging. He also urged Magenta to address the sponsorship. Rivas had photographed the protests of the pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other indigenous people and their supporters, and had seen firsthand how law enforcement and private security had violently confronted protestors. “It was very personal,” he told PDN in March, when he decided to withdraw from the jury. “The most important part of it for me is that, as an indigenous person and as a photojournalist, my biggest debt in a way is towards the people who are in the photographs.”

Another photographer, Karine Laval, made the decision in May to pull out of an exhibition during Photo London because the hotel where the exhibition was to take place is owned by a company belonging to the Sultan of Brunei. In a message she published to her Instagram feed, Laval, who is gay, wrote that she made the decision “in protest of the atrocious ways gays and members of the LGBTQ community are treated in Brunei. I cannot in good conscience be associated in any way with this barbaric regime.” Laval also urged her followers to boycott the other hotel properties owned by the Sultan’s company.

Laval says the curators understood her decision to withdraw from the exhibition. “I received only support and positive feedback for my decision not to participate,” she told PDN via email. 

Months later, Rivas reflected on his experience, and described it as markedly different from Laval’s. In a short discussion with Rivas, Magenta Foundation accepted his decision but defended their years-long relationship with TD Bank Group. They did not respond to the open letter the three organizations published. Rivas thinks the Magenta Foundation probably felt the open letter was an attack, but that wasn’t the intention, he says. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s create a space to talk about it. You don’t have to change it right now, we understand that you need money, we all need money, but just check where the money is coming from.’” 

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s create a space to talk about it. You don’t have to change it right now, we understand that you need money . . . but just check where the money is coming from.” 

— Josué Rivas

Rivas said he also received “some pretty bad backlash where some photographers were telling me that I was shooting myself in the foot and it was all for attention.” He says the negativity was mostly from older photographers. “Younger people are more willing to have these conversations…. [They] are really getting active and taking action by listening to each other and talking with each other.” Older folks are, perhaps understandably, trying to preserve the existing structures from which they’ve benefitted, he says. “I feel like at this point, we have to make our own structure.”

Laval thinks the trend of artists looking closely at funding sources “will continue and hopefully grow even more. Even beyond the art world, we’ve seen more activism and people taking their responsibilities as citizens and members of society and communities more seriously” by protesting and changing their behavior. Laval says she has always paid attention to who is supporting the organizations she works with, but information is not always publicly available. “If I have a hint or a doubt about a space or exhibition organizer, I may do more research and decide to participate or not based on what I learn,” Laval says.

In a story about “The Tear Gas Biennial” in The New Yorker, arts editor Andrea K. Scott wrote, “For too long, patronage of the arts has come with patronizing attitudes toward artists—that they should be grateful for funding, no matter its source.” This may be the year when that relationship began to change for good. 

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