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Reporting from the Front Lines at Wednesday’s Sotheby’s Protest

by Liza Eliano on November 10, 2011

Barricades section of protesters who rallied in front of the Sotheby's auction house Wednesday night during a high profile Contemporary Art sale (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the huge protest by the Local 814 art handlers in front of Sotheby’s this Wednesday, the divide between the 1% and the 99% in the art world could not have been clearer. While protesters chanted, whistled and booed from the heavily barricaded picket lines, wealthy auction attendees were rushed into the building by security. Wednesday marked the second of two major contemporary art sales at the auction house that included million dollar masterpieces by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, de Kooning and Gerhard Richter to name a few. This high profile sale was the most opportune time for the art handlers to make their voices heard and let Sotheby’s know that will not accept no for an answer on a better contract agreement.

Before heading to Sotheby’s I met with members of Occupy Museums at Zuccotti Park who have taken on the struggle of the locked-out art handlers and have joined them in protests against Sotheby’s. After searching through the maze of tents that have recently sprung up in the park, I finally found Blithe Riley holding a mini General Assembly to get participants ready for the evening’s action: Occupy Sotheby’s. Riley, who is a member of Occupy Museums and the newly formed Arts and Labor Group, told the small crowd, “Occupy Wall Street stands with organized labor.”

Blithe Riley of Occupy Museums addresses a small crowd of Occupiers at Zuccotti Park before heading to Sotheby's

Say what you will about Occupy Museums, but both the group and Occupy Wall Street at large have been instrumental in galvanizing the fight against Sotheby’s by raising awareness and also taking some risky actions. Occupiers have disrupted several Sotheby’s sales so far, standing up in the middle of auctions and declaring Sotheby’s unfair treatment of their workers. While this has led to arrests, including four at the rally last Wednesday, arrests are what keep these issues in the news and people privy to the cause.

At the Occupy Museums meet-up one member assured me that this Wednesday’s protest would be no different. Occcupiers who had taken the necessary precautions to get past Sotheby’s tight security were probably already making their way into the contemporary sale. The member then handed me a set of ear plugs and told me “You’ll definitely need these.”

The group of us made our way to Hunter College on 68th Street and Lexington Avenue where Occupy Museums was scheduled to meet up with students before marching to Sotheby’s. We “occupied” the 6 train and handed out Occupy Wall Street fliers to anyone who would take them. One businessman quietly asked, “Where are you going?” Blithe announced it to the entire subway car: “WE HAVE A QUESTION! WHERE ARE WE GOING?” “TO SOTHEBY’S AUCTION HOUSE!” we all responded. The businessman looked uncomfortable.

Once at Hunter College, I spoke with several students who have been organizing events at the school around Occupy Wall Street. Many of them stressed the similarities between the student and labor movements and hope to create more of  dialogue about worker’s rights at Hunter. Hunter student Marthya Starosha, who has planned several actions under the banner Occupy Hunter, noted that students involved or supportive of Occupy Wall Street are still a minority. “Many students here come from working class families and are just focusing on surviving,” she noted. “They don’t have the time to get involved.” Starosh has also created a video, The Time for Action is Now (Occupy CUNY) that shows students using the methods of OWS to address issues at CUNY schools.

After our group expanded it was time to take to the streets. We marched to Sotheby’s with two Teamsters leading the line and a couple of police cars that appeared out of no where trailing next to us. Upper East Siders poked their head out of their townhouses as protesters chanted, “NO CONTRACT, SHUT IT DOWN, NEW YORK IS A UNION TOWN.”

The crowded picket lines infront of Sotheby's. Most of these protesters were from Occupy Wall Street or Hunter students

At Sotheby’s the sound of whistles and shouting were almost deafening. Two protest camps were set up on either side of the entrance: one where Occupy Museums filed in and another for the Teamsters. I asked George Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16 in New York, how he felt about Occupy Wall Street’s support. “They’re waking up the conscience for everybody about the erosion of the middle classes,” he said. “We’ve [the unions] have been arguing about that forever.”

Bernadette F. McCulloch, the Campaign Coordinator of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was baffled by Sotheby’s continued refusal to negotiate with the art handlers. “In negotiations no one from Sotheby’s even speaks. I’ve never seen something so silly and I’ve been doing this for 18 years.”

Police surround arrested protesters, blocking the view of two protesters hand cuffed and lying down with handcuffs

Within an hour several protesters had been violently pulled out of Sotheby’s and cuffed by police on the sidewalk. A scuffle also broke out as protesters tried to storm the barricades to stop the arrests and police lifted the barricades up and pushed back, causing the crowd to almost fall over. All the while, protesters shouted “SHAME, SHAME” to anyone walking in or out of the auction house.

As Art Fag City’s Will Brand noted on Twitter, possibly the most interesting part of Wednesday night was watching the results of the Contemporary auction come in over the Twitterverse as the protest waged on. Art Market Monitor (@artmarket) tweeted, “No problem cranking first Clyfford Still over $40m and still going @Sothebys,” while another feed, @theartmarket, chirped “Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale in NY last night makes $315.8m, the 3rd highest sale total ever achieved by its contemporary art dept.” It’s a point we’ve heard many times before: Sotheby’s continues to win, while the art handlers, who should be some of the auction house’s most valued employees, are left out in the cold.

Below is a brief video I took of the action at the rally and of protesters confronting those attending the Contemporary Art auction:

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  • Anonymous

    Correction. Blithe Riley is also a member of the Arts and Labor Group.  A newly formed group out of the OWS Arts & Culture committee (although we are in touch with OWS Labor/Outreach.) Arts and Labor meets every Tuesday in the Atrium at 60 Wall Street at 7:30. Join us!

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