Articles

The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World: 2016 Edition

Some people care about money, fame, and power; we prefer to look elsewhere.

You can keep your celebrities, oligarchs, and socialites; we prefer to expand our world beyond luxury baubles and games of status. Welcome to our annual look at those who are rendered powerless by a system that continues to impact all of our lives.

Here’s hoping you’re not on it!

A view of the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, which was a 19th-century victory for white supremacy in New Orleans. (via Wikipedia)

1. The citizens of New Orleans are attempting to remove four prominent Confederate monuments from their city, but their democratic decision (through elected representatives) has been met by a backlash of death threats and intimidation. The city council voted to remove the monuments that celebrate white supremacy, but the Monumental Task Committee, an organization advocating for their preservation, won an injunction in court to stop anyone from taking them down. A federal appeals court is currently deliberating the matter, and its decision will decide the fate of all the monuments. The same thing has happened in Memphis, where city officials are having trouble removing a monument to the first grand wizard of the KKK. The will of the people be damned?

2. Picasso Look-Alikes: Nobody cares! It was all about Vincent van Gogh look-alikes in 2016.

A view of the carcass of the “Ghost Ship” building after the fire on December 2, 2016. Memorials, like the ones seen here, have popped up around the site. (photo credit Dina Boyer, and used with permission)

3. Artists in DIY Space: Since the advent of the modern age — and probably before — artists in the West have been forced to live in largely undesirable areas of cities, particularly places where rents are cheap (though let’s not forget that this is all part of a larger process of gentrification). Then a December 2 fire killed 36 people at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, and a new wave of fears spread among those with unconventional living and working arrangements, particularly people in DIY spaces. Add to this a string of far-right attacks on “left-leaning” artists in the form of police complaints (see reports in Brokelyn and Thump) and crackdowns from city officials across the country, including in Baltimore, and things just got a lot more difficult for artists on the margins.

4. Adjuncts are screwed. They can’t catch a break. And neither can the graduate students who often teach classes too. Even at the supposedly progressive Columbia University, the school is challenging a recent vote by grad students to form a union. Ugh.

Illma Gore, “Make America Great Again” (2016) (image courtesy the artist)

5. Anti-Trump artists thought they were having fun with the least qualified US presidential candidate in history, but then he won the electoral college and, well, things are getting scary. Soon after the victory, the Red Dot art fair in Miami pulled its invitation to an artist duo and their anti-Trump project. And let’s not forget the LGBTQ activists who were beaten while leaving Artists Space. There were signs that this could be the case before the election, like the time the artist who drew Trump with a micropenis got punched by a Trump supporter.

6. Fabrice Hergott and Jean de Loisy: Neither the director of the Palais de Tokyo nor of the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, respectively, was consulted about the giant and unsightly Jeff Koons bouquet sculpture that’s about to be planted between the entrances to their museums.

7. Poor people, because:

8. Annie Pootoogook was a Canadian Inuk artist best known for her crayon and ink drawings that explore the dark side of contemporary life, particularly for indigenous communities. Then she was identified as the woman whose body was found in Ottawa’s Rideau River in September. She grew up in a family of artists (her parents, Napachie and Eegyvudlu Pootoogook, and her grandmother Pitseolak Ashoona were all artists), and her work is in the collections of major museums — she was even in Documenta 12. Pootoogook had problems with alcohol, and that may have contributed to her early death (no one has been charged). But one of the most troubling aspects of her case was the reaction, including the words of a newspaper commenter who presented himself as an Ottawa police sergeant and suggested that an investigation would be a waste of time, adding: “Typically many aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not.” The prejudice against indigenous people in the Americas runs deep, and it impacts every aspect of society, including the art world.

9. David Hammons is one of the most prominent artists in the US, not to mention the highest-selling black contemporary artist at auction. But now he finds himself stuck with a gallery (Mnuchin) that’s directly connected to a racist and xenophobic politician (Trump’s campaign finance chairman and his pick for Treasury Secretary is the gallery owner’s son, Steve Mnuchin). For an artist who’s spent his career dismantling visual and cultural systems, this is one system he seemingly can’t escape. It certainly impacts the way his work is seen.

10. Mid-Range Art Fairs: For the last few years, there’s been much talk about the middle of the art market dropping out, with mid-range galleries either scaling up operations or shuttering, and now art fairs seem to be feeling a similar pinch. At the beginning of the year, the French fairs Paris Photo and FIAC both scuttled their Los Angeles franchises, and recently the perennial Armory Week satellite fair Pulse announced that it was ending its New York City edition. This may not be such a bad thing, though. After years of proliferation, it’s about time the art fair field contracted — look for more mid-range fairs to scale back, merge, or get bought up by Art Basel in 2017.

11. Curators Without Trust Funds: This is getting serious, but there are few solutions at the moment. Almost all the curators at New York’s big museums are wealthy and white, and, when they were emerging, were able to sustain themselves on little to no pay. What can be done?

12. Artists on Vine had a flurry of attention a few years ago, but then Twitter came alone and shut the social media service down — well, mostly. This problem isn’t unique, but it should cause alarm for those of us who live online. Reputations are made (and disappear) because of social media, and most of us have no control over any of it. Don’t forget to backup everything!

13. Art Journalists: There’s a lot of talk about “fake news” nowadays, but the art world has been plagued by it forever. Sales prices at art fairs? No way to verify them. A sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard making 17 FBI agents sick? People and art publications were happy to parrot the claim, but the FBI didn’t actually provide any evidence. We know you want to be outraged and share the story, but maybe check the source first.

The ziggurat of Nimrud seen in the upper left-hand corner of satellite images from late August, early October, mid October, and early November (gif by the author from photos courtesy American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives, DigitalGlobe, via Facebook)

14. The indigenous peoples of Western Asia are in the midst of a dark period in their history. Whether they’re Assyrians, Yezidis, Kurds, or Palestinians, their lands and monuments continue to be confiscated, destroyed, and erased. Foreign terrorists (including ISIS) have contributed greatly to this mess, but local governments (whether Turkish, Arab, Israeli … ) are often the biggest culprits.

15. Boyle Heights Residents and Activists are trying hard to stop the steamroller of gentrification from homogenizing their neighborhood. A local coalition told newly arrived art galleries to stop being part of the problem, and then protests escalated the matter, until someone spray-painted “FUCK WHITE ART” on a grate and — this is the really messed-up part — the LAPD decided that constitutes a hate crime. Against white people. The battle for Boyle Heights isn’t over, but signs are that the system is working to silence those fighting gentrification.

The gunman who assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an Ankara art exhibition (via @MicahGrimes)

16. Turkish Art World: The tumultuous reign of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had a chilling impact on the once carefree scene. The craziest thing to happen was the assassination of the Russian ambassador at a photo exhibition in Ankara, but there was also — and this is only a small sample — the attack by some zealots who didn’t like Istanbul gallerygoers consuming alcohol, the cancellation of the Post-Peace exhibition at Akbank Sanat, and the continuing prosecution of artists Pinar Öğrenci and Atalay Yeni for their role in a peace march last year.

17. Guggenheim Helsinki Supporters: There have got to be at least two or three bummed Helsinkians right now who were hoping and lobbying for an outpost of the Guggenheim on their waterfront; and then held out hope after initial plans were shot down and an inoffensive new design was chosen to mollify the naysayers; and who stubbornly thought that still, maybe, somehow it would get built, even after the municipal government refused to chip in. The only people more powerless than those miserable few Finns are the citizens of the next place the Gugg targets for expansion.

18. All Living Artists: Your art could sell for millions on the secondary market, but alas, you won’t see a penny of it. Sure, people claim your future work will sell better once auction prices go up (as if they never go down), but there’s no guarantee — and dealers, flippers, and collectors are getting rich off of you in the meantime. Let’s hope politicians come to their senses and put a reasonable and enforceable resale royalty law into place sooner rather than later.

19. Architects and Designers Who’ve Worked on Trump Buildings and the Trump Brand: From Der Scutt, the architecture firm behind the “White House North” — aka NYC’s Trump Tower — to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which designed the megalithic Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, what once may have seemed like a harmless contract with a buffoonish businessman is now a charged record of working with the most divisive political figure in recent memory — one whom huge swaths of the design field have repudiated. Advice to past Trump designers: purge him from your portfolio.

20. Andrew Hall: Admittedly, no Wall Street trader who earned a $100 million bonus in one year is totally powerless, but the fact that Hall fell for a mother-son team’s fake Leon Golub paintings and bought 24 of them seems like a nice bit of poetic justice. LOL!

Honorable Mention

Arboreal antics in Portland, Maine (GIF by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic via @TVTEDDY/Twitter)

Asher Woodworth: He just wanted to wake Mainers from their daily drudgery, but his innocuous — and coniferous — performance as a tree trotting across the street got him arrested.

comments (0)