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Agreeing to Disagree: My Q&A with Panetta & Hockley, Curatorial Odd Couple of the Split Whitney

Professional colleagues with sharp political and philosophical differences would do well to learn about the virtues of civility and respectful disagreement from Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, co-curators of the controversy-plagued Whitney Biennial. They deftly double-teamed me during my brief, probing interview (see below), which occurred during the show’s May 13 press preview.

As they again did in their June 6 public conversation about their collaboration, they took turns answering questions, in a complicated verbal choreography so smoothly executed that it seemed Balanchinian.

L to R: Rujeko Hockley & Jane Panetta, speaking at the Whitney Biennial’s press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But wait a minute! We interrupt this blog post with some breaking news from the Whitney Museum:

The Whitney Museum of American Art announced today that two of the Museum’s curators are receiving promotions and taking on new roles, effective mid-October. David Breslin will become the Museum’s first Director of Curatorial Initiatives and Jane Panetta will succeed him as Director of the Collection.

That’s a big bump for Panetta, who had been an associate (not full) curator. Hockley, who has been a fast-rising curatorial star, evidently remains as assistant curator, notwithstanding her heroic work on the Biennial: By her own account, she and Jane jointly trekked through “over 300 studio visits, throughout the United States, to 25 cities and locations…a total of 14 weeks on the road.” This daunting task must have been rendered more arduous by her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter during the lead-up to the show.

“We felt strongly,” Hockley said in opening remarks at the press preview, “that we needed to work as a team and that it was really important for us see a work together, to see artists together, to go to these places together, so that when it came to making these critical decisions about what you see here, we would be on the same page and have a similar experience to draw upon.”

It’s conceivable that Hockley’s progress at the Whitney may have been hampered by her having been one of about 95 signatories to a letter in which Whitney staffers requested that the museum’s leadership “consider asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation” from the museum’s board, rethinking the policies regarding “trustee participation.” (Kanders’ company, Safariland, manufactures tear gas grenades that were allegedly used against migrants at the Mexican border.)

By contrast, Panetta (a protégé of the recently departed veteran curator/deputy director, Donna De Salvo) declined to sign, in concert with most of the Whitney’s more senior curatorial staff. (One veteran staffer who did sign the letter was film-and-video curator Chrissie Iles, whose Whitney tenure goes back to Max Anderson‘s directorship in the 1990s. UPDATE: David Ross informs me that Iles arrived at the Whitney during his directorship, which predated Max’s.)

Despite being on opposites sides of the museum’s divide over the Kanders controversy (and the related differences over trustee ethics), Jane and Ru came across in conversation as warmly congenial. In her opening remarks to the press, Hockley had immediately put to rest any notion we might have (in light of the publicity about their differences) that they had been incompatible co-curators:

“I have to say it’s been a true honor and a pleasure to work with Jane on this,” the junior curator said of her more seasoned colleague, who had been closely involved in the museum’s inaugural installation in its downtown facility.

Panetta joined the Whitney in 2010. Hockley came to the Whitney in March 2017, after a short stint at the Brooklyn Museum. But she was already an old hand at organizing shows on hot-button topics:

We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, which she worked on under senior curator Catherine Morris at the Brooklyn Museum. (Hockley had already left her Brooklyn assistant curatorship when that show opened.)

L to R: Catherine Morris & Rujeko Hockley at the Brooklyn Museum press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

An Incomplete History of Protest at the Whitney, which she worked on under David Breslin. That show opened only four months after the opening of Brooklyn’s “Black Radical Women”:

Hockley at the Whitney’s “Protest” preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What Jane and Ru discussed with me during our brief conversation (about which I haven’t previously written) seems increasingly pertinent now, in light of Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney’s board and the subsequent fallout.

Here’s a edited transcript:

ROSENBAUM: What was the impact, if any, of the Kanders controversy and all of the issues raised by protesters? What has been the effect on the Biennial, on what’s there and on the artists?

HOCKLEY: We invited most of the artists before all this started happening. But it’s obviously true that we’ve been continuing to work on it in this context. I think it really has underlined how strong the Whitney’s commitment is to artists and to the integrity of artists’ work and of their vision, and also how strong our bosses’ commitment to us as curators of this Biennial. There has been at no point any: “What’s this Biennial going to be? What are you guys doing? We need to make a change.” We have continued to make the Biennial that we were making and that we would have made, regardless.

ROSENBAUM: Were there any guidelines passed down to you from the administration about lines that shouldn’t be crossed in terms of this?

PANETTA: Not at all. In fact, the only guideline was that we were maintaining the integrity of the work that artists wanted to show, above all.

ROSENBAUM: But has this situation affected the content of what we’re seeing today. Some artists may have rethought works in light of what’s happened. How is what we’re seeing affected by this controversy, if at all.

PANETTA: In terms of what’s actually in the galleries, I would say, modestly. There’s been a modest impact, physically and visually, on what’s in the space of the galleries.

ROSENBAUM: Can you give me an example?

HOCKLEY: Yes. There are several artists who have made work that either very explicitly looks at the Kanders situation—Forensic Architecture, most specifically. And there are a few works by other artists in the show in which there are oblique references.

ROSENBAUM: Going forward, do you have no problem with being here, although you disagree with what some of…

HOCKLEY: I think we should keep it about the exhibition.

ROSENBAUM: You’ve said that you went around for 14 weeks on the road. But when I looked at the list of artists, it seemed that the preponderance of people came from Brooklyn and New York City. [By my unofficial count of the artists on this list, some 79 artists or collectives were represented in the Biennial, of whom 23 reside in Brooklyn and 17 live in the rest of New York City.] How and why did that happen, since you were trying to do a national survey?

HOCKLEY: I think the reality is that New York has historically been and continues to be a center for artists, so the concentration of artists here is just unparalleled—unmatched probably anywhere around the world—so I think, inevitably, it skews that way. For us, it was really important that we go places and that we talk to artists and also talk to people in the field in other places. So our thinking was informed by what’s happening in other places, even if sometimes an artist from that city is not necessarily in the show.

ROSENBAUM: Is it unusually skewed this way this year? Is this more New York-centric than any other Whitney Biennials that you’re aware of?

PANETTA: I don’t know that it is. I think, versus last time, we have more Brooklyn-based artists. But if you look back to the Biennials of the ‘80s, it’s very New York-centric. I think that moving out of the space of New York has been a thing that’s happened more in the past decade.

Getting back to the above-mentioned “breaking news,” a Whitney spokesperson couldn’t give me any specifics about what types of “curatorial initiatives” David Breslin will be “director” of, beyond what’s in the above-linked press release:

Breslin will direct key curatorial initiatives that further the Whitney’s broader artistic vision, such as the Museum’s Indigenous Artists Working Group [who knew?] on which he is the curatorial lead. He will continue to curate exhibitions, make acquisitions, and will remain a member of the senior management team charged with strategic planning for the institution.

Here he is at the June press preview for the Whitney’s new permanent-collection display, which he organized:

David Breslin discussing Jacob Lawrence’s “War Series,” 1946-47
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Doing a search for “Indigenous Artists Working Group” on the museum’s website, I found only this passage from the Whitney’s Form 990 tax filing for Fiscal 2018 (pp. 51-52 of the .pdf):

THE MUSEUM CONTINUES TO DEVELOP INNOVATIVE PROGRAMMING THAT USES ART AND ARTISTS AS A CRITICAL LENS THROUGH WHICH TO RAISE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS AND PROVIDE IN-DEPTH PERSPECTIVES ON THE CURRENT POLITICAL AND SOCIAL CLIMATE. A FOCUS THIS YEAR WAS TO LEARN ABOUT THE FIELD OF NATIVE AMERICAN STUDIES AND TO THINK CRITICALLY AND COLLECTIVELY ABOUT THE PLACE OF INDIGENOUS ART IN THE WHITNEY’S COLLECTION AND PROGRAM NOW AND IN THE FUTURE.

THE WHITNEY’S INDIGENOUS ARTISTS WORKING GROUP, COMPRISED OF MEMBERS OF THE CURATORIAL AND EDUCATION STAFF, WAS ESTABLISHED TO DEVELOP PROGRAMMING, PURSUE OUTREACH TO NATIVE AMERICAN ARTISTS AND AUDIENCES, LEARN AND FURTHER DEVELOP APPROPRIATE TERMINOLOGY FOR INTERPRETATION, AND TO IDENTIFY POSSIBLE ARTISTS FOR MUSEUM PROGRAMMING AND WORKS TO ACQUIRE.

Does Nicholas Galanin, the Native American artist who withdrew in protest from the Biennial, and then withdrew his withdrawal after Kanders’ resignation, know about this initiative? Is Jeffrey Gibson, another Native American prominently represented in the Biennial, in the loop?

Jeffrey Gibson, “Stand Your Ground,” 2019, Collection of the Artist
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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