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Whitney Biennial co-curator worked as dealer this month, not last in 2005 as NYT reports

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Just-announced Whitney Biennial co-curator Jay Sanders worked as an art dealer at Chelsea’s Greene Naftali until the beginning of this month, significantly more recently than the New York Times reported on its website on Thursday and in Friday’s newspaper. The Whitney announced the curators of the 2012 biennial in Carol Vogel’s weekly New York Times notebook. Vogel erroneously reported that Sanders (at right) was a director at Greene Naftali “until 2005.”

According to Vogel, Sanders has undertaken “more curatorial endeavors,” since 2005, including a 2008 exhibition at New York’s White Columns, a non-profit kunsthalle. In a press release posted on its website, the Whitney describes Sanders as having been a director at Greene Naftali “from 2005 until recently.” Sanders will co-curate the exhibition with the Whitney’s Elisabeth Sussman.

Numerous online sources indicate that Sanders worked at Greene Naftali this year: Greene Naftali’s listings at last month’s Frieze Art Fair and at this year’s forthcoming Art Basel Miami Beach fair both identify Sanders as being affiliated with the gallery. Updated, 11:05am EST: Greene Naftali director Alexandra Tuttle tells me that Sanders left the gallery at the beginning of November. The beginning of this post and its headline have been updated with this information.

“Working in a gallery was only one chapter in his life,” Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo told the Times. “He is also known as an independent curator.” It is not clear how “independent” an independent curator can be when he is working as a dealer, representing a specific stable of artists.

Sanders’ immediately recent affiliation with Greene Naftali raises serious questions about the coziness between the Whitney Biennial and New York’s commercial art world — and Greene Naftali in particular — as well as questions about the independence of the exhibition and its curators. The Whitney’s selection of Sanders also raises questions about how artists who have had a commercial relationship with Sanders and his gallery will be treated vis-a-vis those who have not.

Museums, particularly museums that show contemporary art, derive much of their credibility from their independence, their ability to show work that they think is important regardless of its commercial viability. No matter whether curators are organizing biennials, survey shows or retrospectives, art museums typically expect curators to have backgrounds as scholars, critics or academics. For decades, museums have typically preferred that curators be free of commercial entanglements that could influence or impact their curatorial decisions.

The Whitney is not the only New York museum to have work with curators who have roots in New York’s commercial art world. Last November the New York Times’ Deborah Sontag reported on a “dizzyingly insular circle” of curatorial-commercial connections at the New Museum.

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  1. NigelGreenwood says:

    What’s with Vogel? Will she ever learn how to copy+paste a press release without screwing it up?

  2. Christopher says:

    An interesting quote from the unpaginated catalogue for the 1968 Whitney Museum Annual, that year for sculpture: “Most of the works in the exhibition are for sale. Prices are available at the Information Desk.”

  3. David Ross says:

    The issue is not with Vogel, who has a history of screwing up simple press release-based announcements, as she has actually gotten better at her craft over the years. The issue is, why the continuing obsession with Watergate-style gotcha journalism when it comes to art museums and the notion of conflict of interest. It has nearly replaced serious consideration of art, and the often subtle and purposefully contentious decisions made by curators in order to spur thoughtful consideration on the part of museum visitors – a purpose that should be supported by equally thoughtful critics and journalists. I’m not saying that issues of conflicting interests are never important, but the way it is reported these days makes one think it is the only issue in need of attention.

    Does it really matter when a curator worked in a commercial gallery —last week or last year— if he or she is now embarking on a new chapter in his or her career? I’d say the proof will be in the pudding, and it is an insult to all involved (curators and readers alike) to assume that somehow having worked for a gallery constitutes some kind of sin.

    Personally, I’m thrilled to see that Sussman will again be involved in a Biennial. (I guess that would be obvious, given our shared history.) And the fact that she will have as her partner a younger curator who has worked at two quite serious NY galleries, and has curated and written about an interesting range of artists, makes me happy that De Salvo and Weinberg have chosen this team. I look forward to seeing what they turn up.

  4. Todd Levin says:

    “…Does it really matter when a curator worked in a commercial gallery —last week or last year— if he or she is now embarking on a new chapter in his or her career?…” Jesus, David! What the hell? I expect more smarts and integrity from you.

    Yes – it DOES matter – a great deal.

    Saunder’s rent, health insurance, the clothing on his back, his meals, and his travel have all been paid by Greene Naftali gallery for the past years. His fiduciary responsibility as Carole’s Director has been to those artists the GALLERY represents first and foremost up until two weeks ago. And now, suddenly, he’s creating a supposedly “unbiased” review of the very exact same type of contemporary art (biased in his likes/dislikes to be expected, but supposedly absolutely unbiased by commercial market issues) – and you see no conflict?

    I wonder how Carole Greene would have reacted if another gallery had THEIR longtime current director named as a curator of the Whitney Biennial? Respectfully, if you can’t see the clear difference between the two, maybe you’d also agree that a gallery director from Gagosian, or Simon de Pury from the auction house, or an art advisor should curate the next Whitney Biennial.

    The whole thing could have been avoided by simply choosing a worthy candidate who didn’t have these inherent conflicts. Was Jay, and nice as he is, the only qualified candidate? I think not. Secondly, the museum, clearly knowing what they did was questionable chose to lie about his situation to the NY Times. Thirdly, the Museum then backtracked ONLY after the situation was reported and blogged about. Fourth, Saunders himself didn’t have/hasn’t had the decency to come forward and deal with the issue directly – he’s left that to the museum. Finally, the other curators of the show ARE/IS the Museum itself (I believe), so now the question of conflict CAN’T be avoided as you suggest.

    At the very least, the Greene Naftali artists should be disqualified from inclusion in the Whitney Biennial to avoid any conflict of interest (many are European, but the inclusion for Whitney broadens every year) –

    Julie Becker | Bernadette Corporation | Paul Chan | Tony Conrad | Guy de Cointet | Jim Drain | Harun Farocki | Michael Fullerton | Gelitin | Daan van Golden | Lucy Gunning | Guyton\Walker | Rachel Harrison | Richard Hawkins | Sophie von Hellermann | Jacqueline Humphries | Joachim Koester | Michael Krebber | Michaela Meise | Bjarne Melgaard | Daniel Pflumm | Daniela Rossell | Allen Ruppersberg | Paul Sharits | Gedi Sibony | Josef Strau | Katharina Wulff | Amelie von Wulffen

    The artists are not accountable for this situation, but the museum, the gallery, and the curator are. I feel bad about saying it, and it brings me no pleasure. But it is a CLEAR conflict, and unless Jay steps down (which to my mind is the appropriate action), then the he should have to ‘pass the buck’ to the GN gallery artists, and they should be disallowed. If Jay really cares about the gallery artists so much and that they ‘not being held liable’ on his account, Jay should simply improve HIS behavior.

    They all knew what they were doing, and simply thought no one would call them on it, that’s all. Either Jay should step away or those artists should be disallowed. And you need to stop using sloppy rationale to your “notion of conflict of interest.”

  5. Tyler Green says:

    I don’t believe the museum lied to the NYT. There’s a link to the Whitney’s press release in the post. The Whitney describes Sanders as having worked at the gallery “until recently.” It’s not the Whitney’s fault that Vogel didn’t tease that out.

  6. k says:

    The Whitney Biennial is an inherently commercial venue, as Christopher points out. The work is still usually for sale–gallerists and curators reserve work from the show, it’s like an art fair (though I don’t think Whitney is not financially involved! Though it does buy work from the Biennial for its collection.) What I would like to know is, what important or interesting shows and writings has Jay Sanders contributed that make him a significant choice?

  7. Karen Archey says:

    I stopped by Greene Naftali on Wednesday, November 10th and Sanders was still there. I thought it odd hearing the announcement of his new position at the Whitney, and further, that the museum only specified that he worked at GN “until recently.” Not sure why more red flags aren’t going up for people.

  8. greg.org says:

    Whoops, I meant to add that while I also don’t agree with some of Tyler’s imputations, I think the factual errors in the Times’ announcement are non-trivial enough to warrant the attention, if only to hold Vogel’s feet to the fact-checking fire.

  9. Christopher says:

    If anyone wants to dive into some hardcore investigative journalism to uncover actual conflicts of interest–instead of perceived conflicts of interest–read Sanders’s biography at http://www.whitney.org/2012BiennialCurators and start connecting the dots between Greene Naftali and his extragallery work. Maybe something salicious is there; maybe not. Knee-jerk reactions and simply seeing someone at his or her former place of employment (“Spotted!”) fail to transcend hearsay and gossip. As Ross wrote, the proof is in the pudding.

    Green’s initial post is interesting because he writes that the appointment raises questions–it should. He also carefully shaped his language: “museums typically expect curators to have backgrounds as scholars, critics or academics” and “museums have typically preferred that curators be free of commercial entanglements….” The words “typically” and “preferred” are key. Sanders’s appointment is clearly an atypical situation. What’s not clear are actual mistrustful entanglements. But by no means should he be disqualified from the curatorial position, or resign from it, based on unfounded objections. I do agree with Levin that Greene Naftali artists who are from or based in the United States should be excluded from the exhibition, which is unfortunate for them.

    I find it admirable the Whitney is continuing to pair an established curator with someone up and coming for its signature exhibition. It’s also pleasing that the museum has welcomed a younger curator who is more in the trenches, so to speak, than a Whitney staffer at his or her desk.

  10. double d says:

    The other thing to think about when reading articles like this, is to keep in mind that there is nobody regulating this activity- between the museums, galleries and auction houses, its a cesspool of insider trading (the rich get richer kind of scenario).

    These same people who operate and prosper financially in the “art world” are the same people who call themselves “liberals” (theyre not) preaching that there needs to be government regulation on wall street and health care (which I believe in, but also in art)- Yet they believe they can do whatever they want?? — highly contradictory.

  11. […] has been a kerfuffle over the choice of the gallerist, with Modern Art Notes‘ Tyler Green pointing out that Sanders did not leave Greene Naftali in 2005, as Carol Vogel erroneously reported in breaking […]

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