Reactor

Is Occupying Museums Misguided?

by Hrag Vartanian on October 19, 2011

This Occupy Museum effort is the most peculiar Occupy Wall Street/art-related thing I’ve heard about yet. A protest is slated for tomorrow and intends to “occupy” the Frick Museum, MoMA and the New Museum.

How is occupying the Frick Museum constructive? They don’t even show contemporary art but historic work that isn’t exactly driving the art market.

And the MoMA? Well, they started as the play thing of the rich, so why would they change? Though protesting their exorbitant admission fee might be an achievable focus. $25!?!? Insane.

And the New Museum? Well, that’s been discussed quite a bit and yes, they have a track record of showcasing private collections and insider issues but why not occupy art galleries or present alternatives? Why not boycott exhibitions that are vanity shows … I for one had no interest in seeing that institution’s Skin Fruit. This protest seems to be all over the place.

If we’re going to change the way museums do things than we have to find them an alternate mode of funding. If rich patrons aren’t going to fund them then they’ll need a more grassroots approach (Kickstarter?) or maybe public money, but neither of those seem likely at the moment. Maybe protest City Hall for more arts funding?

The announcement says, “voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money” but have they really? We actually hear these protests all the time but there has been no effective alternative. Those who go the DIY approach often get ignored by others, not because of conspiracy (unless you’re paranoid) but because of the acceptance so much of the art world wants from those higher up on the art world food chain.

The other irony of contemporary art is that it is an elitest venture. Contemporary art people like to think that they create art for the masses but in effect will laugh at work that is populist or appeals to a mass audience in the way of a Thomas Kinkade or Peter Max. You can dismiss mass opinions as potentially uninformed or uneducated but that’s, well, elitist. Who gets to decide what goes into a museum of the 99%? That’s a bigger question I’d love to know the answer to.

I think Occupy Wall Street hits on the bigger issue that impacts not only the art world but every other facet of society, namely access to money and power. Where were these protesters yesterday during the Sotheby’s art handlers protest? Since August 1, members of the 99% (i.e. art handlers) have been locked out by Sotheby’s, and they continue to need help standing up to the art market’s disregard of workers who make the system run. Yes, some members of Occupy Wall Street have been helping the art handlers with small actions but a settlement between the art handlers and the auction giant has not yet been achieved. It will be interesting to see if established artists, curators or dealers join this protest tomorrow, otherwise it will look like sour grapes. Even the Guerrilla Girls, who complained about the art establishment, were at the end of the day consumed by the system that now celebrated by them.

In my opinion, the bigger question is how will we fund a museum of the 99% and who gets to decide what is shown?

*   *   *

UPDATE: This interesting comment from the Twitterverse:

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  • http://twitter.com/janachristy jana christy

    I’m not at all sure how I feel about Occupy Museums, although I’m completely behind OWS. However this statement jumped out at me, “The other irony of contemporary art is that it is an elitest venture.” Really? I live in North Adams, MA, home of one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world, MASS MoCA. The artists who have installations at MoCA are incredibly generous with their time and most do lots of outreach to the local working class, fairly poor community in schools, workshops and other projects to help bridge the gap between art and life. So… Occupy Museums? Not so sure, but please don’t paint all contemporary artists as scoffing elitists.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Hi Jana, I don’t want to give you the wrong impression and yes, I’m behind OWS too. The issue is who gets to decide and when we get into that question than it does get elitist, I’m talking about that value judgment that results.

    • Anonymous

      Nobody is painting “all contemporary artists” as elitist. MASS MoCA had a lot more credibility before it installed the Sol LeWitt shrine….

  • Bethany Corriveau

    The museum of the 99%: Artprize? http://www.artprize.org/

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      That’s certainly an alternative but that’s funded by a rich foundation, so how does that fit in? That’s a big question that the 99% is going to have to confront.

  • Lyra K

    Your article raises good questions. If any industry is entirely dependent on the 1% it’s the arts! From collectors to donors to philanthropists, take away that 1% and galleries, museums, residency programs, and public art commissions would wither away. In a nation without state funding for the arts, the art industry desperately needs that 1%. 

    Obviously, art would still be made even if the 1% was eradicated, but the landscape would look a lot different. Maybe it would look better. 

    Occupy Museums seems pretty silly though….people are losing their houses and their livelihoods and they want to blame the Frick? OWS is about financial corruption and a government system that enables it. Sure, perhaps the same corruption led to the building of the Frick itself, but that was a long time ago and those rich founders are long dead.

    If people don’t like how dependent the arts are on BIG money, then they shouldn’t pursue making a living as an artist. Be an amateur (i.e. for the love of) artist, not a professional. Make your own exhibits, make your own publications, make your own residencies. Otherwise, you are in the 1%’s pocket, no matter how anti-establishment your work might be.

    • Anonymous

      Occupy Museums succeeded in taking the OWS to a new venue and reaching people it might not have otherwise reached. I was there. It really happened. AND, its not up to you to decide who should “pursue making a living as an artist”. Paying your bills via art doesn’t make one an artist. Making art does. MOST of the world’s artists don’t “make a living” at it AND NEVER WILL. More than a few of MoMA’s enshrined geniuses died virtually peniless and never saw the fortunes now attached to their works by the likes of Sotheby’s et al. Nobody is putting “blame on the Frick”….

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        Some times it’s good for the art world to look outside its bubble, check out some of the comments on Gothamist’s posts: http://gothamist.com/2011/10/20/occupy_wall_streets_art_and_culture.php

        Also, you’re starting to get spammy on this post. Glad you’re passionate, but don’t harass the commenters.

        • Anonymous

          Um, well, clearly we have different definitions of “harassment” and “spam”….that said, the comments on Gothamist post seem to mainly fall into the “mean spirited/ill-informed” category. Generally seeming to miss the point. You might want to weigh in heavier, as you in fact are attempting to participate in an informed debate/discussion. Much appreciated, by the way….

      • Anonymous

        Being an “amateur” is still being an artist–that’s the point.

  • Anonymous

    I laugh at Kinkade because his paintings are awful and he is yet another hypocritical Christian scam-artist.

  • Anonymous

    Peter Max is well….Peter Max. Not funny at all.

  • http://twitter.com/peterdobey Peter Dobey

    Yes- this group of “protesters” are at the end of the day, opportunists, using the (atleast attempted) grievances of the “occupy” protesters concerning problems of a large scale, in order to make up for and complain about a lack of recognition. The elite institutions of Art in America, which are overwhelmingly private organizations, in contrast to the elite establishments of Europe, embody such a small portion of problems and privileged individuals (essentially the art world and its corporate funders) as to reveal that these complaints are essentially just self-adulation. It is a flaccid gesture. 

    • Anonymous

      the “opportunists” slam is flaccid critique

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        That’s a flaccid comment … LOL … couldn’t resist.

  • http://twitter.com/BrianSherwinArt Brian Sherwin

    The 99% should not have to fund a museum of their own when we are already helping to fund most museums in general. Personally, I think most museums fail to live up to their mission due to the fact that what ends up exhibited, specifically in regard to artwork by living artists, tends to appear more investment focused than on preserving our visual heritage.

    There are so many problems — such as museum directors who are former art dealers…. who appear to use their new position to champion the same art they sold in the past. In some cases they are doing that on our dollar. After all, most museum do receive some form of assistance from tax dollars. In that sense, a wide range of art and ideas expressed should be presented — but that is simply not the case.

    In order for the public to have more of a say there would need to be massive reform — people would have to contact politicians and press museums to change the way they operate. In my opinion, museums should be expected to place a little more focus on regional artists in order to continue receiving public funding. After all, that would truly preserve our visual heritage — would it not?

    Instead it often seems that the impact of an artist is decided by how much money he or she has made in the global art market. Meanwhile the public at large may have no clue who that artist is — so how can said artist be of great significance to culture — enough to be exhibited at a museum — when hardly anyone know who he or she is? I never understood that.

    Oddly enough — I’ve ranted for years about museum reform and for more public say in museums in general.I think the general public would have more interest in art if they had more say in what art defines our times.  I’ve been laughed at — called a threat… and all that wonderful jazz. With Occupy it appears that some of those past naysayers are suddenly changing their view.

    Hell, look at ArtPrize — almost every art blogger I know of scoffed at the concept when it first launched… I’m not going to point fingers… but I will say that I know that some of them have since deleted their old posts which mocked the idea of the public at large making decisions about art.  

  • Anonymous

    The Frick is all non-profit and receives no government funding. They have plenty of free events as well as being open “pay as you wish”  on Sunday. Sure, they accept donations from the wealthier members of society, but they no longer really acquire art. What’s the point that OWS is trying to make here? Seems totally misguided.

    • Anonymous

       ”We are occupying the Frick to remember ‘The Worst CEO in American
      History’ infamous for literally murdering striking workers. Look it up. A
      beautiful collection of precious objects on the Upper East Side will
      not let us forget this legacy.” -Noah Fischer

      • Anonymous

        Whats the point? Frick has been dead for almost 100 years. What do you hope to accomplish other than “remembering” him? Close the museum? Deter people from going to enjoy the collection? Sure he was an asshole. No argument here. It just seems like the CEOs of oil companies or bank CEOs would actually be a lot more poignant. Still seems totally misguided. Don’t get me wrong. I fully support OWS, but seems like they need to pick their battles if they want to continue to be taken seriously. 

        • http://twitter.com/NYCartgirl NYC art girl

          The Frick occupation seems more symbolic as this museum’s donors set a historical precedent for arts funding. 

  • Chanice Hughes-Greenberg

    What about the people who work in the museums–the security guards, the people in the cafes, the people who you buy tickets from and the people in the store? Those people aren’t part of the 1%. What about the people who are the front line staff of the museum, who get yelled at everyday by visitors? Think twice before you Occupy a Museum.

    • http://twitter.com/NYCartgirl NYC art girl

      Fronthouse museum staff receives the brunt of public disturbance, but they also receive low salaries and little opportunities for advancement. I’d say they could use the occupiers to shake things up a bit. 

    • Anonymous

      the aforementioned workers should all be better treated BY THE MUSEUM….this critique is misguided (and ill-informed….)

  • Noah Fischer

    People have been wondering why we are occupying these institutions.  We know everyone loves art, but it’s time to also love people all 100%! We are occupying the MoMA to call out that most of elite of New York institutions- the Modern temple itself, which is full of Wall Street money on its board, closely related to Sotheby’s, and charges $25 for admission.  We are occupying the Frick to remember “The Worst CEO in American History” infamous for literally murdering striking workers. Look it up. A beautiful collection of precious objects on the Upper East Side will not let us forget this legacy. Let art not be used for endless PR campaigns!  We are Occupying the New Museum because of the ridiculous levels of corruption concerning board members and what has been shown in the museum- as if noone was awake. But we are awake, and tomorrow we are occupying! Wall Street is where we are occupying but I feel it’s myopic to ignore everything else. Our whole society is organized around the 1%: from finance to culture. It’s time to change that….

    • http://twitter.com/NYCartgirl NYC art girl

      I think it’s most important that you bring these issues to visitor’s attention through clear literature… and to the nay sayers, why exclude art museums from the occupier’s attention? This is an industry that deserves attention and reform like every other… 

    • Anonymous

      It’s dangerous to dilute the cause. Once you start focusing on elite culture, you alienate a huge portion of the 99%. Stick with banks and politicians–that affects ALL of us.

    • kara walker

      Hi all, I am really disturbed about the language of “elitism” that has been bandied about lately, only because of its use by Jesse Helms and all during the late 80′s culture wars, the war that killed the National Endowment for the Arts, which in turn increased the need and demand for private investors in culture.   I think when it comes to museums it might serve everyone better to have a discussion about what the desired goal is, if it is less entanglement in Wall St. and ego driven collectors  then where should the funding come from to keep the art on the walls, and the guards, the staff, employed?  I understand that it is a mess, and artists are much more deeply entangled with the 1% than not, myself among them.  
      Activism, especially among artists, can be radically conversational, sensitive and result oriented… the Old New Museum took that model, but  lost its way

  • Anonymous

    outside the tv or movie industry, i don’t think that many contemporary artists really have the fantasy that they’re creating for the masses, that idea bit the dust long ago. the paradox is, museum attendance is higher than ever. 

  • http://twitter.com/reddflagg xxx

    Um, is anyone here actually in the art business? The art market has become a safe place for vast amounts of money laundering and rampant corruption within most institutions. If you still think it’s about higher ideals, you’re drinking their kool-aid. Occupy MoCA anyone?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      1. We all agree about the art market being a problem.
      2. We’re talking about museums.
      3. Leaving general anonymous comments means you’re part of the problem. Point fingers and be specific if you want to change the art system.

  • Laura Burkhalter

    I am a curator at a contemporary art museum in Des Moines, Iowa. Up to this point I have been a supporter of the 99%, but watching them stand in front of these museums absolutely broke my heart. Yes, the art market is problematic – price fixing, people collecting for profit, etc. But almost every museum I know, even those big guns in NY, is a non-profit whose endowment has taken hit after hit from the markets crashes. Museum jobs have been cut everywhere. And while I’ll concede I’m one of those people who “decides” what goes on display, I do so after years of hard work and study, as well as professional passion that has nothing to do with the monetary worth of the objects I work with. Myself, as well as many of my colleagues around the world, fight every day to get families and individuals to believe art, even the difficult contemporary stuff, is accessible to anyone willing to spare the time and attention. Most of us are as far from the 1% as you can get.  

    • Anonymous

      Occupy Museums is not taking aim at you. You seem to be missing the larger picture (as does most of the criticism permeating the blogosphere….) Two senior MoMA curators engaged the protest’s organizers (as well as myself) in thoughtful, polite, and sympathetic dialogue as the group dispersed. The message was by all appearances, mostly well-received. Without being there, you wouldn’t know that, and neither would the rest of the nay-sayers.

  • esteban chavez

    art is above and beyond everything.  fascists love to collect picasso and now that lucien freud is with picasso he is a collectible for the 1%.  i do not think one has to worry about art. great art will always be either in the past or in the future. the elitists control the museums. i personally love the met in nyc, i just pay 10 cents cause they do not care.  i think it is good to harass art institutions they are mirrors of the society we live in.  the koch bros made the tea party and at the same time own part of the kennedy center in nyc.  well the gave but i feel they would choose to influence it. the OWS is about the rule of law for everyone. and a general restructuring of the basic premises of what civil society is.  art is the spiritual blood of humanity good or bad.  heh occupy ART FORUM just another sacred cow.

  • Davina Kuh

    I think they’re going after the wrong people. Most cultural institutions are non-profit and privately funded. If you want to see a decrease in cost of tickets, pressure the government to increase their funding for the arts! I’m down with OWS, but these people should do their research before blaming the institution (http://www.aam-us.org/pubs/mn/MN_JF07_cost-free.cfm). The costs of running a museum and properly caring for collections are astronomical, and ticket prices often make up of under 15% of how much it’s actually costing the institution to let each visitor through. Here’s some visual representation to give you a better idea of how much revenue is actually being generated by ticket sales http://awesome.good.is/transparency/010/trans010museumtickets.html

  • http://twitter.com/charleskaufman Charles Kaufman

    If it was up to the 99% I am afraid all that would be shown is Thomas “the painter of light” Kinkade art plus lots of “Hello Kitty” and Star Wars art retrospectives.

    • Anonymous

      What does THAT mean?

  • Paul McLean

    This article/comment discussion is revealing. Why protest the Frick? Frick was Carnegie’s right hand man. Robber Barons. Ever hear of the Homestead Strike? The current system is returning to that model, which has yet to be democratically displaced. Why MoMA? Rockefeller. Standard Oil/Chase Bank. Robber Baron/responsible for Depression 3.0. Eli Broad. AIG. His name is over the info/reception desk in the lobby. The New Museum. Dakis Joannou. Shipping Magnate. While the people of Greece were fighting austerity in the streets, DJ was having his art party 300 on his private island nearby. His yacht is called “Guilty.” … So am I to understand (based on comments) that an artist shouldn’t protest, unless he obtains 1% status like Chuck Close – that repetitive-art churn factory mouthpiece for the super-class status quo? To express one’s experience/ideas/proposals of/for the system’s reform requires not being an artist with any actual contact with the 1% art world? Pure dark matter hermits are the only valid voices for dissent…? That’s bullshit. So all of us can leave it up to the chattering defenders of their own and their friends’ “successful/serious” to produce fair and balanced analysis here? Obviously, judging from the smug, self-indulgent and anti-democratic hate spewed above, a shitty alternative.. It’s remarkable how similar those anti-artist memes are here to the ones propagated by paid (by Koch bros, probably) political operatives, hacking the comments section of the Washington Post with rolling DoS to prevent any real discussion there, with the tacit approval of that paper, that target OWS in general.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Your hate is misplaced and confusing. Have you been involved with the Occupy Sotheby’s movement? Have you been picketing that? This is a discussion of the right tactics, all our goals are the same. Anti-democratic is thinking people are not allowed to have opinions that disagree with yours.

      • Paul McLean

        My “hate?” Which “hate?” & how is it misplaced or confusing…I haven’t directly been involved with Sotheby’s yet, but will. I absolutely advocate for it. Is this a personal critique of my occupant time-management? I didn’t say a thing about not allowing others’ opinions. The economic topology of the art-complex is exposed. Sarah Thornton, Don Thompson, Greg Sholette and many others have done so. Pretending that Eli Broad’s systemic intervention in LA/NYC, his (and others’) successful installation of Dietch at MoCA, and other such top-down occupations of public space is a foregone conclusion is optional. To say that’s its not corrupt is not just an opinion, is it? There is plenty of analysis to assess changes in the institutional art environment. The Handbook on the Economics of Art and Culture is one. Is it OK for BofA to curate a show at Brooklyn Museum? What is the role of democracy in the organizational/support structure of important art institutions? Anyone familiar with the laws governing for-profit>non-profit symbiosis in relation to federal funding must be aware that the re-shaping of art-orgs over the past 30 years is an intended outcome. The starvation of democratic art in America to turn major institutions into exhibit/message wings for major corps and Robber Baron money laundering, you’re right, is hardly new. Is it acceptable?

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          We’re been criticizing Eli Broad and the control of museums by plutocrats for years. I simply think museums and the art world are a symptom of a larger problem and we need to target labor issues (and the lack of labor rights and justice) and the close relationship between financial interests and politicians first. In my opinion, returning museums to the “people” without funding isn’t a solution.

          • Paul McLean

            I realize that Hrag, which is why Hyperallergic and your column are always regular stops on my bloghops. & I completely agree that they are symptoms of a greater malaise. Artists/art workers can start with museums, everybody else can start with their industries. I’m absolutely in tandem with you on labor issues. My mother was a Mother Jones historian. I’m raised on that and it’s more valid than ever across the board. That board includes the art world. I also think “targeting” is one part, or “protesting.” I see this occupation phenom as a moment of recall that we can also peaceably assemble to redress grievances. There are legitimate beefs. I propose a tiered system of democratic public support from local to federal that takes robber baron/corp csr charity completely out of the picture. Let ^them^ eat cake with the hoi polloi if they want to support art. Initially tax the 1% at 90% to pay. End wars that drain the economy of treasure. Clawback trillions from banksters. Tax corps and hedge funds etc fairly. There’s plenty of money for this. The only way this system as it stands will change is if we the people (the 99%) insist.

  • Anonymous

    You asked:  ”In my opinion, the bigger question is how will we fund a museum of the 99% and who gets to decide what is shown?”

    Answer:  Start your own.

  • Noah Fischer

    I think it would be helpful to offer a definition of “occupy.” occupy does not mean the default definition of “protest.” Occupy Wall Street is not a hate-filled group of angry people. It is much more like a free university- an information and inspiration sharing system in physical and cyber space. If you have not been there, you must go see it in person- take some time to soak it in. Yes, we are protesting economic injustice. But we have come to realize, the occupation itself is the beginning of the solution. This makes it unique in our times- much different from the Iraq war protests for example.  

    Does occupy museums mean that we hate museums?  No.  We think that an occupation is the insistence on opening up a conversation about the very structure of our world (money) which until now has hardly seemed possible, as pressing as the matter was. Thats how messed up things have been in this country. Kara, above you make a good point about the use of the word “elite.” This text was a provocation, words have history…the open-editing process continues.  But I do not agree with your call to basically make demands- “desired goals”-where should the funding come from to keep the guards employed, etc.?  I think that we have to unlearn lots of assumptions in our brains before it’s appropriate to even begin to answer these questions.  Our heads are filled with decades of conditioning from a system defined by economic injustice. So we are not ready to reform museums.  First, we must occupy them.

    • Anonymous

      Noah, you can open up a conversation anytime and anywhere you wish, all without occupying anything, and — most importantly — without the accompanying coercion and intimidation, which are guaranteed to end a conversation, no matter how they are underplayed. The “conversation” becomes “re-education”, and people run the other way, especially when they hear “I think we have to unlearn lots of assumptions in our brains…” What’s next?  Special education camps for museum lovers?

      • Anonymous

        As a witness/participant to the inaugural occupation at MoMA last week I can assure, few passersby appeared ‘intimidated’ or ‘coerced’. Most smiled. Many laughed, asked for more information, some even joined the group, and a handful spoke. All (w/ the exception of the agressive, camera-wielding heckler-perennial NY art-world attention-seeker Loren “James Kalm” Munk….) in support/sympathy with the broader cause of OWS and specifically the museum ‘action’.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          I don’t think it’s fair to characterize Loren as an attention-seeker, he has devoted more time to helping others than almost anyone. You simply don’t agree with his take.

          • Anonymous

            more than Mother Theresa even? ….have you watched his inspiring #ows coverage? specifically the video where he bullies a young artist/student debt activist? A real class act…

          • Anonymous

            and no, I don’t agree w/ his ‘take’, but my quarrel is not w/ his take, but rather his tactics. His ows “coverage” is a hatchet-job on par with the Breitbart Pimp and Hooker seek an Abortion PP video, etc. He is a self-described provocateur, i.e. “attention seeker”.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I know that Loren isn’t soft and cuddly, that I’m very aware of, and I disagree with many of his takes on politics and I don’t agree with his coverage but I have an issue with the “attention seeker” part. I simply feel he’s earned the right to stir the spot because he’s an engaged member of the community.

          • Anonymous

            The right to ‘stir the pot’ is a constitutional guarantee….it need not be ‘earned’….

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            True but some people do it to destroy, others to strengthen. If he has an anti-art zealot I would probably feel differently about it.

          • Anonymous

            In this case, he was attempting to disrupt others who were organizing their voices. In those terms seems more like ‘destroy’ than ‘strengthen’….

          • Anonymous

            I have no issue w/ anyone’s right to do so. I have never made a claim (here or otherwise) to that effect. But I think the OWS issue is one fundamentally of this right. Munk is a reactionary, and as such, is highly suspect in my book. The NY art community at large should be aware of his politics, he clearly makes no secret of them. And, as a supposed ‘critical voice’, that he resorts to the “Hitler was democratically elected” line displays his knee-jerk stupidity on this issue.

        • Anonymous

          Well, I guess that resolves it then.  Ain’t that grand about self-serving, anecdotal observations? 

          • Anonymous

            I wouldn’t say anything is resolved. Just weighing in on what actually happened. I’d love to see the documentation of coercive intimidation if its out there. Self-serving? uh sure OK. Baseless accusations from afar are way more compelling than first-hand ‘anecdotal observations’. Totally.

  • Bernard Klevickas

    Occupy Artist Space? Interesting, and just after a Christopher D’Arcangelo show and before a forthcoming “Identity” exhibition: http://www.galleristny.com/2011/10/group-occupies-artists-space-in-soho/

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