As the art world grew and became ever more global over the past decade, it was rocked by #MeToo allegations and accusations of unethical patronage, the formation of unions and calls for the destruction of artworks. What follows below is a survey of the decade’s biggest art controversies, presented chronologically. In different ways, each forced those in the industry to ask tough questions about their own power, and each alter the art ecosystem in ways that are still relevant today.
A removed David Wojnarowicz video reignites decades-old debates about censorship (2010)
The Culture Wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s reignited this decade, when David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished video A Fire in My Belly (1986–87) was removed from a show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The piece was included in the group exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” curated by Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward, which looked at queer portraiture. The Catholic League criticized the work’s inclusion in the exhibition, specifically taking issue with a shot of ants crawling over a crucifix. The video’s critics seemed to miss the point—or play into it. With the work, Wojnarowicz, who was himself no stranger to controversy during his lifetime, drew parallels between humans and ants (the only species of insects, according to the artist, “to keep pets, use tools, make war, and capture slaves”) and the ways in which humans zealously devote themselves to religion, often at the expense of other people. A series of protests worldwide were held against the removal, and numerous institutions screened the video. In Wojnarowicz’s 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, the piece appeared essentially without incident.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is called out for allegedly poor labor standards (2011)
In the early 2010s, all eyes were on Abu Dhabi, which was quickly becoming a major art center. But a fiery debate about one planned museum’s alleged labor practices briefly muted the excitement surrounding the city. In 2011, under the aegis of the leading figures in the Middle Eastern art world, including Lebanese artist Walid Raad, more than 130 artists announced that they would boycott the new Guggenheim museum under construction in Abu Dhabi. For these artists and art workers, the Guggenheim’s new institution needed to “address questions we had about labor standards,” as they wrote in an open letter; they said they refused to show at the institution, which is still not yet built. (Officials from the museum have reaffirmed their commitment to the workers and said that construction has not yet begun.) Inspired by boycotts at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, their group, the Gulf Labor Coalition, brought international attention to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report alleging a cycle of abuse on Saadiyat Island, where migrant workers reportedly left indebted and unable to leave their jobs. The $800 million Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, is the centerpiece of Saadiyat Island, a $27 billion art and culture project housing an outpost of the Louvre Museum and a national museum designed by Norman Foster. Negotiations between the Gulf Labor Coalition and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi abruptly ceased in 2016, though the Coalition released a statement this past April vowing to continue their pursuit of humane working conditions for migrants.
America’s oldest gallery shutters amid a string of lawsuits (2011)
It was a scandal that shocked the art world and spanned the full decade. Knoedler gallery president Ann Freedman actually exited her post right before the decade began, in October 2009, after the gallery was accused in a lawsuit of selling fake Robert Motherwells. Soon, more whispering would begin that the oldest gallery in America had been selling forged paintings attributed to postwar abstractionists for tens of millions of dollars. Knoedler shuttered in 2011, but the legal saga was just beginning. The FBI investigated and ended up charging a Long Island art dealer, Glafira Rosales, with orchestrating the scheme with her longtime partner, Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, and the painter Pei-Shen Qian, who allegedly made the fakes. Rosales pleaded guilty. The other two remained outside the country. Freedman was never accused of criminal wrongdoing and, along with other civil defendants, ended up settling a string of lawsuits from collectors, the last of which closed earlier this year. It reinforced an old adage for collectors: that even at the most august institutions, caveat emptor.
Ai Weiwei is arrested, leading to calls for freedom of expression (2011)
In 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested on suspicion of “economic crimes” at Beijing Capital International Airport, just moments before he was to catch a flight to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, some 20 police officers searched his studios. There was an instant backlash from the international arts community, with critics alleging that his detainment was retribution for his repeated calls for democracy in China. Ai had just been announced runner-up for the TIME magazine Person of the Year, and he was suddenly more visible than ever. The United States and European Union protested his detention, while demonstrations were held at arts institutions worldwide. “Release Ai Weiwei” was emblazoned on the side of Tate Modern, while 90,000 signed a petition organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the International Council of Museums demanding Ai’s release. In Hong Kong, artists created a series of street art protests against the disappearance, leading to further arrests. After 81 days in captivity, Ai was released. He didn’t give up his protests, however—in the intervening years, he has continually called for greater freedom for artists in China and far beyond.
A Canadian museum shifts a paradigm by acknowledging that it is situated on indigenous land (2013)
Back at the beginning of the decade, it was uncommon for museums to acknowledge that they were set on land that once belonged to Indigenous peoples. Now, however, institutions in North America and Australia are starting to take up that practice. One Canadian museum led the way. The 2013 exhibition “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art” in Ottawa, curated by Candice Hopkins, Greg Hill, and Christine Lalonde, brought together a global group of some 80 Indigenous artists from the United States and Canada to Australia and New Zealand to Taiwan and Finland and beyond. When the exhibition went on view at the National Gallery of Canada, the museum’s director, Marc Mayer, acknowledged that the museum was on the unceded traditional lands of the Algonquin people. At the time, the country was in the middle of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an initiative launched in 2008 through which Indigenous peoples from throughout Canada spoke out about troubling histories of abuse by officials who tried to Westernize them. (The commission wouldn’t deliver its final report until two years later, in 2015, deeming the longstanding practice of separating Indigenous children from their parents “cultural genocide.”) Following the National Gallery’s precedent, many other institutions have followed suit, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney and the Toronto Biennial of Art.
A controversial plan nearly forces the Detroit Institute of Arts to sell its collection (2013)
The 2008 financial crisis hit the United States hard, though perhaps no city was hit harder than Detroit, which found itself in serious debt. To buoy itself, the city proposed something radical: sell the museum’s holdings, and gain as low as $800 million in the process. Immediately, a crisis ensued, and people in Detroit and far beyond it were forced to ask a difficult question: Should a museum such as the DIA, which holds one of the greatest collections in America, part with such holdings in the name of financial solvency? Numerous commentators, including some from national publications, urged the city to hold on to the works. In the end, the DIA wasn’t forced to bring any of its art to auction—foundations, private donors, and the state of Michigan worked together to raise the $800 million, to take the museum out of the hands of the city and place it in a trust. The debate surrounding the potential sale launched a conversation about the deaccessioning of artworks that’s still being waged today.
Tania Bruguera is arrested, spurring a conversation about artistic liberties in Cuba (2014)
Tania Bruguera’s performances have gotten in her in trouble on many occasions—they’ve dealt head-on with abuses of power in home country, Cuba, and they’ve been censored by authorities because of it. But no work proved more controversial than a re-staged version of her 2009 piece Tatlin’s Whisper #6, which was set to appear in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución in 2014 and which led to her arrest. For the updated piece, which was meant as a commentary on the Obama administration’s improved relationship with Cuba after 50 years of American hostility, Bruguera set up a podium and a microphone where anyone can speak their mind without worry of being censored. Before she even arrived at the site of the performance, she was detained. The arrest would be the first of several for Bruguera, and it brought to the attention of many in the art world the difficult political situation for artists in Cuba, who often face censorship. Such conversations were renewed in 2018, after the Cuban government passed Decree 349, which allows officials to decide what art is and who can be an artist in the country.
Artists drop out of Biennale of Sydney as protest against “unethical” funding (2014)
In the run-up to its 2014 edition, the Biennale of Sydney received a major donation from Transfield Services, an offshoot of a similarly named Australian company that had previously won a contract to manage refugee-detention centers in Papua New Guinea. Activists and artists called on the biennial to drop Transfield as a sponsor, but its board stood by the funding. Then, just a month before it opened, nine artists dropped out as a protest; some said in an open letter that taking funds from Transfield was “unethical.” Several weeks later, the Biennale officially cut ties with Transfield, and the exhibition’s chairman resigned. What may have seemed a footnote in art history wound up having a ripple effect—in a 2019 Artforum essay, Juliana Engberg, the 2014 Biennale of Sydney artistic director, said that the artists’ withdrawals effectively paved the way for later widespread protests against certain sources of philanthropy at museums.
A Whitney Biennial withdrawal initiates a conversation about race (2014)
The decade’s Whitney Biennials sparked a number of debates about race and representation—the most notable perhaps centering on Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket in the 2017 edition. But the 2014 show—the last one staged in the Whitney’s former home in Uptown Manhattan—set the stage for those later events, with a group of Black artists known as the Yams Collective pulling out of the show in protest. The issue for the group, which was appearing under the name HOWDOYOUSAYYAMEINAFRICAN?, was the presence in the exhibition of Joe Scanlan, a white male artist who was presenting work that he billed as being by Donelle Woolford, a fictitious artist who was an African-American woman played in performances by actors. “We felt that the representation of an established academic white man posing as a privileged African-American woman is problematic, even if he tries to hide it in an avatar’s mystique,” Maureen Catbagan, one of the group’s members, told Hyperallergic. Scanlan, for his part, said that the efforts involved in the project had been “some of the most intellectually challenging and humanly rewarding experiences of my life, largely because it has required me to confront what I don’t know, come to grips with those limits, and work at pushing them, expanding them.”