1. Bad Money
The most radical museum events of 2019 were the many individual protests aimed at questionable sources of art patronage. Nan Goldin called for institutions to cut ties with the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin; Decolonize This Place demanded the ouster of the Whitney board’s vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, whose company, Safariland, manufactures tear gas; the Guerrilla Girls went after the Museum of Modern Art trustees Leon Black and Glenn Dubin for their business relationships with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; several activist groups targeted a third MoMA trustee, Larry Fink, over his company’s investment in the private prison industry. But, goes an old argument, hasn’t art always been bankrolled by bad money? Sure, goes the new thinking, but why should that be O.K.?
2. A Historic Biennial
The 2019 Whitney Biennial made history: Of its 75 artists, a majority were nonwhite, and half were women. That the art chosen by the curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, complicated identities, rather than narrowing them down, added to the show’s politics of resistance.
3. A Museum Under Revision
On the occasion of its reopening, after a $450 million, 47,000-square-foot expansion, MoMA took steps, cautious but significant, toward rethinking the obsolete white, male, nationalist version of Modernism that has long been its brand. The obvious difference now is the presence of “difference” itself in the form of art — a lot recently acquired — from Africa, Asia, South America and African America, and an unprecedented amount of work by women. Is the rethinking foundation-shaking or skin-deep? Time will tell. The museum promises a complete rehanging of the permanent-collection galleries every 18 months, and all eyes will be on the first rotation. With much to admire and much to argue with, the general direction feels right.
4. A Plus
Exhibitions celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the budding gay liberation movement were widespread last summer. There were several in New York, and, as commemorations tend to do, they felt simultaneously resurrecting and entombing. The exception was the very lively “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” at the Brooklyn Museum. About to close (it is on view through Dec. 8), it’s a survey of new art that carries the story of liberation forward into the L.G.B.T.Q.+ present and into realms of gender fluidity that sometimes found a chilly reception within the gay movement itself in the L.G.B.-only days of 1969.
5. Breaking News From the Past
The most innovative historical show I saw last season was “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It took the classic ancient-art-survey model, with its chronological lineup of archaeological treasures, and filtered it through 21st-century realities. Several of the sites considered — Palmyra and Dura-Europos in Syria, Hatra in Iraq — have in recent years been subject to campaigns of ideology-driven destruction, disasters that the show addressed directly and throughout.
6. True Monuments
Contemporary public sculpture has an iffy track record, but we got sterling examples this year. Simone Leigh’s “Brick House,” a 16-foot-tall bronze figure of a black woman merging with an African architectural form sits commandingly on the spur of the High Line that bridges 10th Avenue. Four luminous bronze female figures by Wangechi Mutu fill the once empty sculptural niches on the Met’s Fifth Avenue facade. And, in an extension of Siah Armajani’s traveling survey at the Met Breuer, the Public Art Fund installed that artist’s ineffably poetic “Bridge Over Tree” on the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.