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A masked likeness of David H. Koch argued with protestors outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Tuesday evening. It shouted: “Get away from me! I own you! I own this place! I own a great portion of the resources of the earth!”
A protestor countered: “He doesn’t own me, he doesn’t own you! He doesn’t own this plaza!”
The fiery exchange was one episode in a multipart action staged by Occupy Museums in protest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly renovated David H. Koch Plaza. Koch, a Met trustee and a donor to conservative causes, single-handedly donated the $65 million to redesign and renovate the plaza.
While the Met had originally stated that the plaza would not be named after Koch, his name is currently displayed on the side of the new fountains. Met director Thomas P. Campbell explained the decision to the New York Times: “ … the board reflected on the generosity and level of commitment that David’s gift represents, we thought it was the right thing to do.’’
Occupy Museums, which has previously staged and participated in protests at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and Lincoln Center, among other events and venues, envisioned Tuesday evening’s protest as a “ritual rebranding of the David H. Koch plaza on the day of its dedication.” A flyer explained Occupy Museums’ fervent opposition to the policies, business practices, and politics of Koch:
David H. Koch and his brothers are mega-billionaires who use their vast fortunes to deny climate change and buy elections. Koch Industries is the largest funder of climate science denying organizations in the world, outpacing even ExxonMobil. They have spent more than $67 million since 1997 to buy advertising, corporate media, talk show hosts, and lobbyists while legally bribing politicians to deny the catastrophic effects of climate change.
Yvonne Gougelet, who was protesting with Occupy Museums, elaborated on the climate-centered focus of the action: “Today is the beginning of many movements leading up to the Peoples’ Climate March, happening next Saturday … ” Another protestor explained his opposition to the Koch brothers’ politics: “They’re lobbying for Keystone, for pipelines … If you open up all of that kind of resource then you destroy the world.”
The protestors convened to read a statement of dissent in call-and-response form: “As the world prepares to converge on New York City in a mass call for climate justice, the Metropolitan Museum of Art honors David H. Koch — a four-star general in the dirty energy industry.” Occupy Museums was joined by members from the Big Apple Coffee Party, whose “Don’t do Koch” campaign seeks to educate the public about the range of products made by Koch Industries, including Vanity Fair paper napkins, Angel Soft toilet paper, and Dixie plates.
While preparations for the evening gala in honor of the plaza reopening continued inside, a young protester, head covered in a gold veil, dipped her fingers in one of the brand-new fountains, repeatedly undulating her body in a theatrical display of cleansing. Behind her, a woman dressed in white swung incense while a man beat on a drum. Tourists looked on with a mix of curiosity and support as they were handed flyers.
A young woman voiced her agreement with the protestors: “There should be more people here. I’m visiting from Italy. This is a symbol for something else; it’s great they’re protesting the change of name. But it’s the same in Italy: wash your hands of it; close your eyes. I follow Occupy New York [sic] on Facebook. It’s great the way they’re protesting.”
The police kept a watchful eye on the small group of protestors, and within an hour moved demonstrators to a cordoned area across the street from the museum — an obvious overreaction to the small, peaceful, performative expression of dissent. Occasionally, Fifth Avenue passersby would voice their displeasure. One man chided, “Shame on you. This man’s given millions of dollars to revitalize the square!”
Occupy Museums countered the symbolism of naming the plaza after Koch with the symbolic gesture of renaming the plaza — a clever use of the intangibility, yet undeniable significance, in a name. Protest attendees brainstormed and voted on a new plaza title; the winning choice was “Art for the Planet Plaza.” I asked Yvonne Gougelet why Occupy Museums used performance as their method of protest. “A core group, three or four of us, that started in Occupy Wall Street … we did performance art down there — political street theatre — and years later we’re still together, doing events, doing protests, doing performance pieces, to raise awareness,” she said.
The protest quieted as the sun set and the last of the gala attendees trickled in. I found myself in conversation with three men who happened to be extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of fountains. They told me about the computer systems used during the design and programming process, and the incredible intricacy of a fountain pump room.
“Do you think those fountains are art?” one of the men asked me. I answered yes — certainly they were objects of design.
I’d been so focused on thinking about the fountains as representations of the politics and complications inherent in a museum’s funding structure; this technical explanation brought a new perspective — an example of a more benign underlying structure, in this case one of great beauty. There’s no easy way to intellectually reconcile the politics behind the creation of objects with their appearance in the world, which, at least in a public plaza, is egalitarian. Fortunately, the two perspectives need not be mutually exclusive.