STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Not for the first time, a showcase of modern art has become a showcase of politics. Eight artists are protesting the Whitney Biennial over a very wealthy donor to the Whitney Museum of American Art. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: First let's meet one of the artists.
NICHOLAS GALANIN: My name is Nicholas Galanin. I'm a multidisciplinary artist.
ULABY: Galanin has two pieces in the show. One's a prayer rug woven to look like static on television. He's also one of the defectors. Last week, Galanin and other artists informed the Whitney they want out from the Biennial show, which opened in May. They were protesting how the vice chair of the museum's board got his money. Warren B. Kanders owns military supply companies that sell tear gas and bullets. The artists believe they've been used against migrants on the U.S. southern border and unarmed civilian protesters in Gaza.
GALANIN: Yeah. It was a really easy decision.
ULABY: Galanin says he knew about Kanders when he first agreed to be in the show, but...
GALANIN: As a Native American or indigenous artist, I think it's really important that we show up in some of these spaces.
ULABY: And also, apparently, to disavow them. Galanin has been joined by a number of other artists who want their work removed from the show. Zachary Small writes for the arts news website Hyperallergic.
ZACHARY SMALL: We might just end up with a Biennial of empty rooms.
ULABY: Which would be a statement about who is funding culture, he says. That collective action might just be its own kind of art, says critic Blake Gopnik.
BLAKE GOPNIK: The artists who withdrew from the Biennial actually made the best work of art in the Biennial. This is an excellent work of political art.
ULABY: Other critics have pointed out these artists have benefited from the exposure and notoriety of yanking their work, and that they waited to do so until the show was almost over. The Biennial closes in September.
GOPNIK: But look, we're talking about these issues. It's raising our awareness of the contradictions involved and the subtleties and ambiguities, and that's what art is good at doing.
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ULABY: That's what it did with a couple of friends who visited the Whitney Biennial yesterday. Rachel Weber (ph) and Coral Bourgeois (ph) said you usually go to an art museum to be uplifted and inspired, not to think about how it may have been funded by tools of war.
RACHEL WEBER: This really...
CORAL BOURGEOIS: This is...
WEBER: ...Brought this...
BOURGEOIS: Yeah. Brought it home.
WEBER: Brought it home that this is what the Whitney is.
ULABY: In a statement, the Whitney's president said the museum is saddened by the artists' decision but supports their right to express themselves. None of the art has been taken down so far, and it's unclear what will happen with the artists' fees. Artist Nicholas Galanin told me he was paid $1,500 for his pieces in the show, but he said that did not even cover the costs of traveling from Alaska, where he lives, and putting himself up in New York for the opening. He says the Whitney did not cover those costs. He said he'll happily return his fee to the Whitney if the museum wants it in return for taking his work down. Neda Ulaby, NPR News, New York.
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