Last Friday, January 27, an otherwise uneventful evening of art-gazing was interrupted when Occupy Museums, a subgroup of Occupy Wall Street, made its way to midtown Manhattan to give MoMA visitors a lot more to see than they paid for when the movement infiltrated the institution’s atrium. In an effort to ascertain the museum’s stand on the Sotheby’s lockout, Occupy returned to the MoMA to demand a decision as to whether it would retain or relinquish the symbolic banner that the museum had removed during the previous protest. The members of Occupy Museums had fashioned the black banner with white, yellow and red lettering in solidarity with the 43 art handlers locked out of the multi-million-dollar auction house.
According to the protest group, if MoMA kept the banner, it would symbolize the museum’s support of the art handlers’ struggle for a fair contract. However, if the banner was returned, the museum’s actions would be considered an expression of its ongoing partnership with Sotheby’s, despite the firm’s refusal to negotiate a new contract with Teamsters Local 814 since this past summer.
After their conditions were reviewed in unison — informing those who cared to listen — an anonymous MoMA staffer appeared, banner in hand. He returned the banner to the Occupiers without answering any questions or elucidating MoMA’s stance on the lockout. However, the answers and elucidations were unnecessary. MoMA’s message to the Occupiers was clear. Occupiers and Teamsters alike (along with a generous amount of rubberneckers and tourists) exited the museum, where police awaited them. The demonstration that followed was peaceful, albeit noisy and impassioned. The Occupiers did what they did best to draw attention to the unfair treatment of plight of the 99%, magnifying the auction house’s disregard for the welfare of its laborers through noise and occupation. In front of the doors of MoMA, Occupy Museums lay down the banner and painted a new red-colored message on their battered banner, “Not For Sale.”
Making a scene has served the movement well so far, maintaining public awareness of issues otherwise brushed under the rug of mass media and pop culture, but for how long can these precariously peaceful assemblies last? With the recent outbreak of violence in Oakland serving as a stark representation of rising tensions between the police force and Occupiers everywhere, only time will tell.
Outside the MoMA, many Occupiers heckled police officers, requesting they take a picture with the banner. Fortunately for them, these officers appeared to be resigned — not the least bit amused but not the least bit inclined to do more than stand aside. Although Occupy deserves the respect it receives for its fearless defense of the 99%, the movement needs to protect its neck. Words are weapons and they are to be used wisely.
Although the Occupiers were disappointed with the silent return of their banner, the movement’s determination to stand by the Teamsters and demand their right to a fair contract was reaffirmed as members of Local 814 marched with Occupy down West 53rd and out of sight, red paint dripping down the street as the banner dragged behind them, freshly decorated with the handprints of Teamsters and Occupiers side-by-side.
I asked Paul E. Talbot, whose self-professed mission is to document the movement with video and photography and “tell a horizontal story of what happened with no viewpoint or judgement,” what the goal of last Friday’s action was. He replied:
“The purpose of the event was to collect the banner from MoMA. The goal was for MoMA to keep the banner and stand in solidarity with Occupy Museums and the teamsters by telling Sotheby’s to end the lockout. MoMA didn’t address our demands and in turn returned the banner. This meant that they supported the lockout and would continue to support the 1% and Sotheby’s.”
It’s not yet clear what Occupy Museums will do next.
The following is the online video created by Occupy Museums regarding their most recent MoMA action.