The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World: 2017 Edition

Powerless in 2017 (via Google)

Some people think the art world is a series of champagne lunches, private jet trips, highly publicized auctions, art freeports, and VIP lounges, but that part of the scene doesn’t interest us — frankly, it’s boring.

Welcome to the latest edition of our annual list compiling those who are rendered powerless in a system created for the affluent and well-connected — and let’s just say 2017 was a more serious year than most.

Here’s hoping you’re not on it!

Who’s my daddy? (via Wikipedia)

1. Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio: Though 2017 could’ve been his best year yet — “Hurray, Boltraffio’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ is a star!” — sadly it was not meant to be for this 15th-century Milanese painter. At least one major Renaissance scholar (Carmen Bambach, curator of Italian drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) thinks Boltraffio, and not Leonardo, may be responsible for the most expensive artwork ever. Alas, Boltraffio now has to endure the irritation of being elbowed out of the art market by someone more famous than him. Unfortunately, it fits the trend of many collectors buying artist brands rather than artworks.

2. Adjunct Professors: If there were serfdom in academia, it would resemble the itinerant lives of adjunct professors. And if you missed it, the Guardian had a harrowing piece about adjuncts who are sleeping in cars or turning to sex work to make ends meet. Many of us know these scenarios are far too familiar, since every adjunct we’ve ever met is expected to perform miracles for a few thousand dollars. It’s not a sustainable system.

Ahmed Rabbani, “Untitled (Binoculars Pointing at the Moon)” (2016) is one of the works by present and former Guantanamo detainees that could be impacted. (image courtesy Art from Guantánsmo Bay exhibition)

3. Guantánamo Inmates: We can’t imagine a more awful position for someone to be in, but the US government is adding to the humiliation of indefinite detentions without trial by deciding that Guantanamo inmates no longer own the art they create, and they will probably destroy it. Hard to see what good could come of this.

4. Gaudêncio Fidelis: Brazilian curator Gaudêncio Fidelis was summoned by an investigative committee of the Brazilian Congress to deliver a convocation before the senate under the pretext that he had organized an exhibition to incite pedophilia, bestiality, and the abuse of children — he had simply organized a queer art show. The parliamentary mandate stipulated that the federal police must take Fidelis to the senate by force if he refused. This is not a joke; it’s a frightening  precedent that we will continue to monitor.

5. Female Artists: Most of the stories were anecdotal before, but now studies are reinforcing what we knew already, namely that art made by women sells for almost half their male counterparts. Analyzing auction data and experiments with thousands of respondents, researchers found that the perception of an artist’s gender consistently affects how their work is valued. Now that we have the data, how do we remedy this?

Flooding in the home of Houston artist Keliy Anderson-Staley (courtesy the artist)

6. Arts Communities Threatened by Natural Disasters and Climate Change: Between Houston, Miami, California, and the island of Puerto Rico, this has been an especially bad year for natural disasters in North America, from flooding to wildfires. And while warmer climes are often the most heavily impacted — as a study showing that rising sea levels threaten over 13,000 archaeological sites reinforced — the memory of Hurricane Sandy will remind New Yorkers and other people further north that they are certainly not impervious to the impact. Indeed, parts of northern California were devastated by major wildfires this fall — including artists and at least one art center — while Los Angeles museums fared far better when fires sprang up earlier this month.

7. Arts & Local Journalists: We work in a fragile ecology, so when DNAinfo and Gothamist shuttered unexpectedly in New York, we all felt it. They’re part of an ecosystem that helps arts journalism in general. Even if some media outlets, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, have slowly started to hire arts journalists again, they’ve been hiring mostly white men. Isn’t that odd for publications that are already disproportionately white and male? Let’s just say we’re noticing.

Possessions belonging to evicted residents (photo provided by artist who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation)

8. Artists in Precarious Housing: From Beijing to Brooklyn, artists are feeling the crunch. In Beijing, authorities used a tragic fire (just like they did in the Bay Area with the Ghost Ship building) as a pretext to crack down on illegal structures, which often means places where people on the margins of society — including many artists — live or work. The only thing that may change this continuing crisis is grassroots activism followed by regulation. Are we there yet? Probably not, but there are signs that activists may be getting smarter at tackling the problem.

9. Mikes Poppe: This Belgian artist couldn’t free himself from a block of marble. That’s just sad. It’s not exactly a metaphor, but it’s also kinda funny, like a drunk bet gone awry. Our favorite part was that it was part of an exhibition titled The Raft. Art is (not) Lonely, and we have no idea why it is titled that way other than to be pretentious. We honestly can’t believe this isn’t a Portlandia sketch. Bravo, Poppe!

Protesters opposing Sotheby’s planned sale of works from the Berkshire Museum collection (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

10. Thomas, Jarvis, and Peter Rockwell: The three sons of Norman Rockwell spent much of the year fighting the Berkshire Museum’s scheme to sell off their father’s painting “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” (1950) — which Sotheby’s estimated would fetch between $20 and 30 million at auction — as part of a contentious plan to revamp the institution. Though the battle is still playing out in the courts, the museum’s controversial deaccessioning of a work that was a gift from Rockwell himself is shocking.

11. Derek Grinnell and Ernest Lee: These two artists don’t know each other, but many will relate to their fates. Grinnell had his car stolen, and with it all his art. “I feel terrible, I mean, my life’s gone, my life’s work and a lot of my life’s achievements are all gone,” he told KCRW. Then Lee had his mobile art studio stolen. They may not be well known artists with national name recognition, but it’s important to acknowledge that artists everywhere constantly face setbacks like this. Thankfully, people are starting to support artists in their communities, and Lee received over $7,000 in donations. Then again, we all know money will never replace lost art and journals.

B&H warehouse workers protest outside the B&H’s Manhattan store on May Day 2017. (photo by Claire Voon/Hyperallergic)

12. B&H Warehouse Workers: B&H Photo Video may have agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by the Department of Labor, charging the retailer with implementing unfair hiring, compensation, and promotion practices at its warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but the workers didn’t do so well. The company will still be moving its warehouse out of the city, which will result in many workers losing their jobs.

13. Karan Vafadari and Afarin Nayssari: The Iranian-American gallerists are still being detained for allegedly trying to overthrow the Iranian government. The co-founders of Aun Gallery, Vafadari and Nayssari are being charged with some serious crimes, but their case is becoming all too familiar as governments from Turkey to Brazil are cracking down on artistic expression.

14. David Slater: He may have finally settled with PETA, which sued him over ownership of the infamous “monkey selfie,” and he did agree to donate a quarter of any revenue from the viral image to charities working to preserve the crested macaque’s habitat in Indonesia, but we still feel for Slater because the economics of being a photographer are hard enough. Having to go to court over one viral shot seems like a frustrating experience for any creative, but also a reality people in the field will continue to face.

This was the mob, we mean line, outside Zwirner’s 2014 Kusama exhibition, which had 4+ hour waits. (via Dylan Schenker’s Twitter)

15. People Waiting in Kusama Mirror Room Lines: What the hell is happening? This year, galleries and museums in three cities (Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and New York) had epic queues for Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms. Surely there’s a better way to do this — maybe Tokyo’s new Kusama Museum is onto something — but in the Instagram-crazed culture we live in, Kusama fever isn’t dying down anytime soon.

16. People Calling for the Restitution of Artifacts from Western Museums: Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for the restitution of cultural heritage to Africa, it remained very difficult to get objects repatriated from museums in Europe and North America in 2017. In New York, at least, the creation of a new Antiquities Trafficking Unit suggests the situation will hopefully get better in 2018.

A representative of MNAC (National Museum of Art of Catalonia, pictued here), told Hyperallergic that “as a museum we don’t have a position on issues that are not strictly historical and artistic.” (photo by Derek Winterburn via Flickr)

17. Catalan Cultural Institutions: There are drawbacks to government funding, and we saw one of them this year during the Catalan independence vote. Powerless to participate in the debate over independence for fear of Madrid withholding funding, the position of Catalan museums was a scary reminder that government support can be used against artists and arts organizations to maintain their silence on important issues. And if only to prove their power, the Spanish central government even relocated some artifacts from a Catalonian museum using the might of law enforcement officials.

You probably have no idea what this is.

18. The Suspension Railway Emoji: We know it’s not a person, but we couldn’t help but give some love to the least used emoji on Twitter. According to Emojitracker, this emoji comes dead last in their rankings, probably because it’s not exactly the most common mode of transportation. We just want it to know that we noticed. Awww.

19. Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich: The Russian performance artist scored a viral hit when he crashed the Met Gala by arriving nude in a clear plexiglass box, but that also made him much easier to haul away and arrest, which is exactly what the NYPD did. Not exactly a stellar red carpet debut.

Artist Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich arrives at the 2017 Met Gala (screenshot by the author via Vimeo)

20. Twitter Users: The bots and hate continue to accelerate one tweet at a time, but the reality is that we’re all being barraged under piles of hateful notes from people we’ve often never even met. At the top of that hate pyramid is Donald Trump, who showers down unhinged 140 280-character missives on the masses. FML

Honorable Mentions

Vito Schnabel: We couldn’t resist having some fun with Schnabel’s arrest for shrooms at Burning Man. That’s like someone getting arrested for drinking in public on Bourbon Street. What a story. We hope it becomes a movie, and we hear he knows people who know people that could make that happen. Fingers crossed.

Collectors: There’s always someone richer and more connected than you — and can buy whatever they want — and that must sting. Ouch. OK, they aren’t that powerless, but we couldn’t resist.

Powerless No More

Sexual Harassment Whistleblowers: We had to mention the impact of the #MeToo movement on art communities, as survivors of sexual harassment and assault are now more likely to have their allegations taken seriously than ever. They are not as powerless as they once were, but we’re also discovering that the road to justice isn’t always smooth. We hope groups like #NotSurprised can help formulate the next steps on what is sure to be a long journey to ensure that no one is ever powerless on this topic in the future.

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