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The Whitney Museum of American Art’s pay-what-you-wish Fridays are typically busy. For two-and-a-half hours out of the 53 the museum is open each week, visitors can enter without paying the usual $25 admission fee, a brief and temporary, but recurrent, leveling of the playing field for art lovers.
Last Friday, however, might have been a bit busier than usual. For starters, May 5 marked the just-over-halfway point of this year’s Whitney Biennial, an art survey that always draws large crowds. This year’s iteration has been especially charged due to works that have sparked contentious questions and conversations about race, identity, and artistic agency, and, attendance has been steady, with lines reported to snake around the block with frequency.
But there is another reason why the crowd might have been a bit larger than usual: people had been invited to attend a commencement ceremony on the fifth floor. Informed by email, social media, and word of mouth, they were instructed to show up at 7:30pm to listen to members of the “Class of 2017” offer addresses in front of a biennial art installation called “Debtfair,” a multimedia infographic that was created by the collective Occupy Museums.
“Debtfair” is an official part of the biennial. “An Evening of Counter-Commencement,” also organized by Occupy Museums, was not. Both, however, were intended to draw attention to “speculative investment in art and culture and the privatization of both municipal and cultural institutions,” as well as the fact that “art and artists have become vehicles of growth for the wealthiest of the 1% — whether we share in the profits or not,” artist and Occupy Museums member Kenneth Pietrobono told Hyperallergic via email.
The counter-commencement featured some 40 “students,” some in traditional graduation caps and gowns who would later reveal their naked bodies covered with green, black, and white paint, and stuck with fake $100 bills. Museum staff did not intervene, as they permitted the participating artists to hold the floor as 21 of them gave speeches for 90 minutes without interruption. Carmelo Cintrón, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, addressed the Puerto Rican economic crisis, providing context and explaining how students and artists are impacted. Occupy Museums member Noah Fischer gave a longer commencement address that reached back to the 2008 economic crisis and concluded, “We are already leveraging the rest of your life…. Congratulations!” The evening concluded with all participants throwing money in the air.
The event was timed precisely not only to the biennial and to graduation season, but also to the first day of the Frieze art fair, which Occupy Museums described in the commencement program as “the pop-up luxury enclave on Randall’s Island that is [former mayor] Bloomberg’s vision for New York come-to-life as a million dollar minute of the city’s cultural clock.”
If that sounds dense, it was. Fischer noted in a statement to Hyperallergic that several issues — “student debt, medical debt, and the current Puerto Rican Promesa crisis” — were raised by artists speaking at the counter-commencement. He added, “I think these aren’t issues that people are used to encountering directly from artists in the flesh, in the museum.” All of these issues are related and comprise what Fischer referred to as the “debt and economic reality of being an American artist.” Whether the action and the collective will ultimately help to contest that reality and refashion it remains the bigger, more complicated question.
But, Fischer says, that’s not necessarily the collective’s objective, not immediately, at least. “Our goal at this point is to bring together a community of artist-debtors who are willing to break the silence around how a debt-based system negatively impacts the lives of less privileged people in the arts. Occupy Museum’s Debtfair project in the biennial basically presents this US-wide community of artist-debtors as a challenge to the current privilege-based system of visibility that benefits the ultra rich.” Fischer sees the counter-commencement as “a step in the direction” of talking about these issues. The question now, of course, is “What’s next?”
The objective of the counter-commencement was, in a way, to illustrate how seemingly disparate or wide-ranging problems are connected: school loan debt; art market dynamics that favor gallerists, museums, and collectors over artists; artists’ difficulty accessing medical insurance and health care; corporate patronage of museums; and the continued neoliberalism and neocolonialism that exoticize the art of Puerto Rico and other countries beyond US borders, especially non-Western countries. The group has been particularly dedicated to calling out the corporate patronage of museums. Via email, Pietrobono pointed out how CEOs and corporations “support arts and citizens in general while they extract enormous profits from displacement, reckless nationalism, ecological destruction and the financial ruin of the majority of working people.”
Turning back to one of the earlier controversies of this year’s Biennial — Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting and subsequent protest actions that occurred in front of and around it — one sees that the museum has been tolerant of active, verbal dissent in this Biennial. Following protests about Schutz’s painting, biennial co-curator Christopher Lew said the goal this year was to include artists who engaged in public concerns head-on. “We were interested in this idea of how artists were addressing a lack of social infrastructure, or civic-ness, within a specific place or community at a time when governments are no longer fulfilling these roles. These conditions, both good and bad, were markers of our current times in the US,” Lew said in an interview with artnet. Hyperallergic reached out to the Whitney for further comment on the counter-commencement but received no response.
Lew’s comments and Occupy Museums’ protests make you wonder whether it’s possible for a museum to be a genuine space for open public dialogue when it has corporate underwriters. Put differently, museums make for interesting sites of protest, particularly when viewed through the lens of performance art. But might Occupy’s protests be more effective if taken to other spaces — specifically, the ones about which they are protesting — where the disruption they cause would be felt and read differently? It’s a question that would be worth considering as Occupy Museums considers future actions around the issue of money in the arts. “For artists, high finance has entered our lives whether we chose it or not,” Pietrobono said to Hyperallergic. “We must imagine and demand alternatives that are truly public and vested in justice, equality and the undoing of colonial extraction.” The counter-commencement action was just a start in the efforts to do that.
“An Evening of Counter-Commencement,” organized by Occupy Museums, took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) on Friday, May 5.