Some may deride the “art world” as a series of champagne events, trips to global destinations, absurd auctions, tax evasion schemes, and VIP everything (like we care). But we know that these things have nothing to do with the real world of art, and frankly, the tricks that appeal to the 1% are the worst parts for many of us art workers.
Hence, welcome to our annual list which highlights those who are rendered powerless in a system greatly influenced by the super wealthy and the commercial galleries and vanity museums that serve them.
Continuing our tradition of shining a light on those many would rather overlook — after a little hiatus last year — we present the 2019 Powerless 20.
Here’s hoping you’re not on it!
1. Adjunct Professors — Poverty wages, scarce benefits, job insecurity, and difficulty unionizing. Things keep getting worse for adjuncts, but the general public, including college students, appear to believe a career in academia can pay off. Our recent report about how much adjuncts actually make suggests otherwise.
2. Sexual Harassment Whistleblowers — Its been two years since #MeToo became a household term, but accusers often get nowhere near justice. A number of studies find that accusers face more issues after reporting incidents, so things aren’t as straightforward as many might think. Let’s not forget there’s an accused rapist and serial sexual harasser in the White House and that statistics show only six prominent individuals have been convicted since the #MeToo movement began. Is this only the tip of the iceberg, as some suggest? In the art community, neither Artforum or Knight Landesman have faced any serious consequences or offered a full accounting and detailed apology after the accusations put forward two years ago by over a dozen people. (Amanda ndrea Schmitt’s case is the only one that’s gone to court.) And judging by a recent ruling, which struck down Schmitt’s case against Landesman himself while upholding her suit against the magazine and reversing a lower court’s decision, Landesman probably never will. In India, Scene and Heard, an anonymous art-world-focused Instagram account, has faced censorship for publishing anonymous allegations of sexual assault and harrassment against powerful men, including artists Riyas Komu and Subodh Gupta. Let’s not forget that regardless of the bumps, #MeToo has had a great deal of positive impact on society. Still, the fight isn’t over.
3. Kyoto Animation Staff — Perhaps no arts tragedy this year matched the sheer horror or violent toll of the arson attack on Kyoto Animation, the progressive Japanese animation studio known for its trailblazing shows and films and championing women animators. The attack killed 33 employees, and left another 36 injured, after an arsonist set off a fire in the lobby. The fact that an international fan effort raised over $25 million to support the studio is a somewhat heartening uplifting coda, but hardly makes up for all the tragic deaths and lost work.
4. Bananas — This quotidian fruit had a bumpy year. First #bananagate emerged in Poland, when a museum took down the work of prominent feminist artists. Then this fall, Urs Fischer decided to suspend one from his new purse designs for Louis Vuitton. And most recently, Maurizio Cattelan taped one to the wall, and then David Datuna decided to eat it as a surprise performance. So what began the year as a protest gesture in support of feminist art ended the year putting money into the pocket of a 1% male artist before being eaten by another male artist desperate for attention. If that’s not 2019 in a nutshell, I don’t know what to tell you.
5. Oktay Ince — Imagine how you would feel if someone disappeared your last 20 years of work. That’s exactly what happened to Ince, a Turkish documentary filmmaker and video activist who is being investigated by local authorities on charges of “promoting the propaganda of terrorist organizations.” In May, Ince chained himself to a pole outside the offices of the General Film Directorate at the Ministry of Culture to protest the confiscation of his entire archive. He wore a vest emblazoned with the words “Free Journalism” and tied a sign to his wrist that said “I want my films, my writings, and my archive back. Free journalism, free cinema.” Over the past 20 years, he has been detained more than 40 times while documenting various demonstrations and protests. Now he says he is fighting the battle of his life.
6. Feminist Artists on Social Media — Women artists like Clarity Haynes, Betty Tomkins, Micol Hebron, and others have been the target victims of chronic censorship on social media. These artists, along with many others, use nudity in their work, and the social networks often ignore their own policies by removing such work, even though the art doesn’t violate their policies and demonstrates a clear gender bias towards policing images of women. In New York, both men and women are legally allowed to walk the streets topless, but on social media, even partial female nudity is still mostly verboten. In October, Instagram met with many of these artists, as well as censorship advocates, to discuss its nudity policies, but we aren’t sure if anything will change. In an age when social media is often acts as an artist’s best portfolio and networking tool, having an account deleted or censored by opaque corporations can present serious professional hurdles.
7. Families of the Ghost Ship Fire Victims — In December of 2016, a party at the Ghost Ship, a DIY art space in a warehouse in Oakland, California, ended in a horrific tragedy when a fire consumed the building and claimed the lives of 36 partygoers. Ghost Ship’s creative director, Max Harris, and the warehouse’s master tenant, Derick Almena, were accused of creating a firetrap that didn’t meet basic safety requirements. They each faced up to 39 years in prison on 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter. But in September, after a five-month trial, an Oakland jury acquitted Harris and remained hung in the case of Almena. The decision infuriated families of the victims, who wanted to see the two organizers face consequences for their alleged criminal negligence. “It’s not about retribution, revenge, being out for blood or any of that,” said Chris Allen, who lost his sister Amanda in the fire. “We’re here for accountability.”
8. People Still Waiting in Kusama Infinity Room Lines — This downtrodden group first appeared on our list of the most powerless in 2017. Two years later, Kusama’s works returned to New York and once again, thousands waited in long lines in the bitter cold to enter the 2019 showcase at David Zwirner to experience the artist’s famous Infinity Room. On the first day of the show, the gallery opened its doors to the public two hours before the exhibition’s scheduled opening and kept them open for almost an hour past the original closing time. But people still had to wait for up to four hours to enter the gallery. While they have our sympathy, let’s not forget that their suffering was totally self-inflicted. Maybe someone should tell them there are lots of Kusama rooms around the world with no lines.
9. Emma Lazarus — Lazarus may have penned one of the most inspirational lines of verse in US history, but that didn’t stop Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, from actively misinterpreting “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” to refer only to immigrants “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” The whole thing was disturbing.
10. Peter Schäfer — The former director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, a world-renowned Talmud scholar, was practically forced out of his job in June of 2019, although he eventually resigned. Schäfer faced intense backlash following a tweet posted on the museum’s page which linked to a petition in defense of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Critics of the museum — who were already upset over its 2017 exhibition Welcome to Jerusalem for balancing the Israeli narrative on Jerusalem with a Palestinian perspective — doubted whether it was still “appropriate” to call the museum “Jewish.” A group of 50 Talmud scholars signed a letter in support of Schäfer, expressing shock over claims that their respected colleague is not committed to Jewish causes and the fight against antisemitism.
11. The Term “Safe Space for Unsafe Ideas” — We heard this trotted out by Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg late last year, when he defended tear-gas-manufacturing board member Warren B. Kanders. Then this year, Yana Peel, chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries in London, used the same words to defend herself in the wake of media reports about investments by her husband. When you make other people’s lives unsafe by producing tear gas or surveillance technology used by autocratic regimes, you don’t get to cry foul when people try to take you to task. Let’s not even talk about the fact that the phrase was once the motto of the Palestinian Museum, before being coopted by Western elites who think they’re in the same boat as a museum on occupied land. Oh boy. This go-to phrase for troubled 1%-ers is laughable nowadays, so it’s time to retire it.
12. Former Marciano Foundation Employees — This whole situation is terrible. First, 60 employees of the private art foundation voted to unionize, then the foundation quickly said they would close indefinitely (the owners are notoriously anti-union). But the ex-employees didn’t give up, and staged numerous protests. It’s still unclear what will come out of this, but what is clear is that some private art foundations don’t have the public good in mind.
13. Artists Living in Iraq — It’s not just artists, but everyone still living in the shattered country, which has been invaded and plundered twice by the United States. To add insult to injury/murder, US authorities refused to grant Iraqi artists travel visas to attend the opening of a MoMA PS1 exhibition highlighting their work. This is particularly painful because the best choice available for an Iraqi artist today is starting to look like exile, as evidenced by the number of Iraqi expats in the exhibition.
14. Andrea Arnold — The new age of television is supposedly offering unprecedented creative agency to directors. Think of the ambitious season-long projects undertaken by the likes of Cary Joji Fukunaga with True Detective, or Jean-Marc Vallée with Big Little Lies. That was what was promised to Andrea Arnold when she came on to helm the second season of Big Little Lies, a limited series which Vallée initially denied would continue. But when her vision of the show proved too distinct from what Vallée had established in the first season (i.e. when she did exactly what she was hired for), the producers seized control of it in post-production. The resultant attempted “course correction” was instead a total editing mess. This wasn’t a terrific look for a series built on feminist bona fides.
15. Hung Liu — The life of an artist is hard enough, but then this Chinese-American artist’s exhibition was canceled after local authorities objected to some of her works and refused to issue import permits for others. What was the reason? We’re not sure, which is the frustrating part. “Maybe they felt like it was a comment on the current state of China,” the artist told the New York Times. “I was so sad and disappointed,” she continued. “Of course my work has political dimensions, but my focus is really the human faces, the human struggle, the epic journey.” Let’s hope this is not a sign of things to come in China.
16. Sixth-Graders at Del Paso Manor Elementary School — Imagine being in elementary school and having your artwork thrown away by a teacher simply because they didn’t like the content. On September 17, that appears to be exactly what happened to these students in Carmichael, California when a teacher allegedly discarded posters about the Black Lives Matter movement they made for an art class. According to the ACLU, the teacher threw away the posters and ordered the students to redo their work. Let’s hope the children are not intimidated by this incident, which is a reminder that our school system can often be part of the problem when it comes to advocating for free expression.
17. Female Animals in Museums — The gender disparity in the art community is well-known, but this year we learned how deep that bias actually goes. A Danish study revealed that animal specimens in a number of major natural history museums are largely male. So it appears females have trouble getting into museums regardless of their species. That gender bias impacts all fields — in different ways, of course. We’d recommend listening to this excellent episode of 99% Invisible, in which they talk to Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, about how women are most often left out by design.
18. Communities Directly Surrounding Public Monuments — 2019 has seen a deluge of conversations about monuments both old and new. Yet in most of these instances — from Jeff Koons’ monument in Paris to the replacement proposed for the J. Marion Sims statue in Harlem to the strange “feminist” work by Gaetano Pesce in Milan that angered many feminists — the communities directly surrounding them, who will walk by them on a regular basis and otherwise live with their impact, have had little to no input on the actual processes surrounding their design, installation, and, in some cases, cost to taxpayers. Can we agree that public art deserves healthy public input?
19. Artists and Art Lovers with Disabilities — The challenges facing people with disabilities are well known, but the art community has not yet figured out a way to address these crucial issues. From an art history library at Cornell University that was designed for the aestheticization of books over people’s needs to a giant public artwork (the Vessel) in Hudson Yards that was built without considering people with accessibility concerns, things need to change if we are going to ensure that all of those who love art will not face barriers to enjoying it. (And we haven’t even discussed the rampant accessibility issues in the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at London’s Tate Modern earlier this year.) There has been some progress, with disabled artists are creating their own festivals to grapple with some of these issues, or mounting their own drag shows (though not without controversy), but it’s clear there is so much more to be done.
20. Arts Journalists, especially critics of color — Amid the continued downsizing of media companies and the parallel rise of the freelance economy, journalism has been in a state of intense insecurity for many years now. A recent CNN report noted 1,000 layoffs across various media companies in a single week in January, and a Nieman Reports study by Mary Louise Schumacher which focused specifically on visual arts journalism further confirmed what many of us already know: The power of deciding what art is and isn’t worth seeing, talking, or writing about rests in the hands of a small group of mostly white men in New York, many of whom have worked at legacy publications for over a decade. While the tides are slowly shifting amid increased calls for championing the voices of critics of color, the struggle for visibility continues when writing as a person of color, and there’s plenty more work to be done by all of us in editorial rooms.
Unpaid Interns — I can’t believe we’re still here, but at least the Association of Art Museum Directors made a statement this year calling on museums to provide paid internships. That’s something, right?
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