99% creative: examining occupy museums

Like many of you, I am following Occupy Wall Street (OWS) with great interest.  Finding “fair and balanced” coverage has been challenging (unless somebody’s wilding out), and the desire to compare this happening to protests of the past is somewhat reflexive, with much literal and virtual ink dedicated to what Occupy Wall Street wants.  The answer, from its website: “We are our demands. #OWS is conversation, organization, and action focused on ending the tyranny of the 1%.”  This leaderless movement/protest/uprising that began as a rebuke of the miniscule portion of the United States population that controls 40% of its wealth has now branched out to encompass a multitude of issues including immigration, education and housing reform.

protest as art form

Art has played a central role since the beginning.  Protest signs double as reactionary artwork and artists continually contribute both personal (pictured above) and physical testimony, although this has not been without controversy.  OWS’ Art and Culture Group meets weekly to discuss art issues related to the protests, and recently actions include supporting Sotheby’s art handlers’ increasingly tense negotiations with the art auction powerhouse.

However, I raised an eyebrow this week when the OWS Arts and Culture Group backed newly formed Occupy Museums‘  manifesto:

The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest [sic] of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities. We believe that the Occupy Wall Street Movement will awaken a consciousness that art can bring people together rather than divide them apart as the art world does in our current time…

what does it all mean?

A lot of this makes sense.  Museums are not viewed as snobby, self-appointed culture guardians by accident and much has been said about this perception.  There is definitely room for discussion about how museums are structured, staffed and funded (nationalization, anyone?) and kudos to Occupy Museums for taking advantage of this moment in time to jumpstart the conversation.  But focusing solely on museums (specifically, for now, the Museum of Modern Art, the Frick Collection and the New Museum) raised a few issues for me:

  • A portion of museum boards, trustees and benefactors may be among the 1%, but their staffs are most certainly not.  The group should carefully avoid the perception that it wants to dismantle or weaken staffers’ places of employment.
  • The majority of museums operate as nonprofit organizations (many offering free admission) and rely heavily on donations, loans, taxes and foundation support.  As much as it pains some to admit, the 1% plays a large role in that process and the off-shoot movement provides no framework for covering those contributions if eliminated.
  • Museums increasingly serve as community centers, demystifying art with innovative programs that bridge the gap between historians and novices.  How will their efforts   to provide “art for everyone” be supported?

This offshoot movement should flex its burgeoning political muscle against other factors that drive the art market, such as Christie’s who recently unloaded 60 million dollars worth of contemporary art.  Is Occupy Museums making the case that museums are solely responsible for inflating the art market rather than prominent dealers and auction houses? Perhaps Occupy Museums could springboard from the OWS Art and Culture Group’s support of the Sotheby’s art handlers to address the unionization efforts of museum employees who are routinely denied workers protection and/or find themselves squeezed out of the industry due to lack of professional development and a living wage. Such action falls directly in line with its parent movement and would be well-received.

suffering not required, but let’s keep it real

I support artists being paid what they are worth (or their perceived worth) and do not  believe that you have to live in poverty in order to produce “great” art.  However, it must be noted that Occupy Museums’ chief architect, Noah Fischer, is a highly educated artist with an accomplished list of what I assume are hard-earned awards, publications, solo/group exhibitions and curations.  His prominence as Occupy Museum’s spokesperson is perplexing as OWS has relied heavily on a successful widely distributed leadership model.  To an outsider looking in, he appears to be a rising visual art star who will ultimately need  a little help from his friends .  But since he has put himself out there, I have to ask: Is Mr. Fischer willing to give up the accolades and perks that come with ascending the creative ladder for the sake of the movement?  If Occupy Museums wants to be taken seriously, the next action should be held at the Claire Oliver Gallery where Mr. Fischer’s 2008 work, Perfect Lantern, can be had for the rock-bottom price of $5,000 – $10,000.  I have to wonder if it’s possible to be “victims of the intense commercialization” while simultaneously reaping its benefits.

Despite what some claim, artists want recognition for their work and supporting themselves solely through its creation is the stuff of fevered dreams. Like it or not, any artist who sells at auction, is commissioned for work or is represented by a gallery becomes a cog in the art world machine.  Will artists in this new paradigm be forced to sacrifice compensation for their work? Who will decide how much, if anything, works should cost? Where will this work be created? If I donate money to an artist’s Kickstarter campaign, does that make me part of the ruling class?

If the aforementioned issues can be addressed and its focus well-defined, Occupy Museums has great potential.  There are many great conversations about this effort and I look forward to learning more.

What do you think? Is Occupy Museums right on time or missing the mark? 

One thought on “99% creative: examining occupy museums

  1. Pingback: On the Occupy Museums Movement | for art and artists

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