It’s been a rough year, but some people had it tougher than others.
Every year we create this list to highlight those who are rendered powerless in a system impacted by the outsized influence of the super wealthy, not to mention the commercial galleries and vanity museums that serve them. We call it the Powerless 20.
The individuals, communities, and other items on this list represent powerful ideas and heroic struggles for freedom and equality that one day will prevail over this unjust system. In keeping with our tradition, we allowed ourselves a tinge of humor, which we believe is integral to resilience.
And as we always say, here’s to hoping you’re not on it.
1. Osage Nation and Sale of Ancient Cave Art — In a society where everything is for sale for the highest bid, we got used to seeing prized cultural assets being moved carelessly to private hands. But a new bottom was reached when a historic Missouri cave containing Native American art from over 1,000 years ago was auctioned off to an unnamed buyer for $2.2 million in September. What’s also unsettling is that the cave was sold by a three-generation family whose members originally purchased the 43-acre property from private ownership in 1953 and used it mainly for hunting. In the words of the Osage Nation, which was outbid in the auction, this sale was “truly heartbreaking.”
2. Laid off workers from Arts orgs — In news that surprised no one, the country’s largest cultural institutions received over $1 billion combined in forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but were quick to lay off workers at the first opportunity. A report by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) found that out of $1.6 billion given to about 7,500 cultural institutions that qualified for PPP loans, nearly half of the money ($771 million) went to just 228 recipients. These same 288 institutions collectively laid off more than 14,400 employees, or at least 28% of their workforce. Most affected were low-paid staff working in frontline services, education, maintenance, and security who never got their jobs back.
3. Metaverse — It was cool, and had promise, until Mark Zuckerberg came and ruined it for everyone.
4. Danish Siddiqui — Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was one of the leading voices documenting the frontlines of a war that raged for two decades, the longest war in US history. Sadly, during the ill-planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer, he was caught in the middle of a clash between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters near a border crossing with Pakistan and died doing his job. Siddiqui was part of the Reuters photography team that was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography as a result of their work documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar. He leaves behind a rich archive of images and his death is a reminder that journalists and photographers of all stripes face serious challenges when doing their job. He will not be forgotten.
5. Artsakh Heritage Sites — The 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire that handed the region of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) to Azerbaijan did nothing but encourage its regime to continue and expand its decades-long methodical erasure of Armenian heritage sites. Over a dozen Armenian churches, cemeteries, sacred cross-stones (Khachkars), and other cultural properties have either been destroyed, damaged, or threatened by Azerbaijan since the armed conflict ended, according to a report by the Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW). What’s more, Azerbaijan’s new shtick is to label Armenian heritage properties as “Caucasian Albanian” or deny that they had ever existed as part of its attempts to rewrite the history of the region. With nothing more than feeble statements, world governments and international bodies are allowing this cultural genocide to continue uninterrupted. Early this month, the International Court of Justice indicated provisional measures in a case, ordering that Azerbaijan must “[t]ake all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage, including but not limited to churches and other places of worship, monuments, landmarks, cemeteries and artefacts.” I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
6. The Sacklers’ Reputation — The Sacklers, the Oxycontin mogul family, had an unprecedentedly bad year. New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe published Empire of Pain in April, an instant bestseller that has definitively put a nail in the coffin for the family’s reputation and legacy. Then, following months of discussions between the Sacklers and Met Museum leaders and a forceful letter signed by over 70 artists urging the museum to do so, the Met wiped the Sackler name off seven of its galleries. The worst and final blow was delivered by a district judge who ruled in mid-December that the $4.5 billion settlement protecting the Sacklers from liability reached in September was invalid — opening the floodgates to lawsuits (so far 860 have been filed). Good.
7. Efforts to Democratize the Art World — Another year, and another attempt to scam, we mean promote, your way into the media and trumpet your efforts to “democratize” the art community. This time it was the NFT’ers, their PR machine, and the people who swallowed the lie hook, line, and sinker. The reality is nothing close to a “democratization,” as a recent study demonstrated; not only are 75% of NFTs selling for $15 (only 1% of NFTs sell for over $1,594), but a few collectors are amassing the majority of valuable NFTs and the whole NFT ecosystem has simply adapted to the establish commercial art world system to become largely indecipherable from it. Congrats to the borg of the art world, you did it! Assimilation complete.
8. Polish LGBT Rights Activists — Driven by hate, homophobia, and prejudice, over 100 Polish local governments that declared themselves as “free from LGBT ideology” in 2020 continue to harass and intimidate LGBTQ+ citizens and activists. In 2021, a few of them have also waged a legal vendetta against four Polish artist-activists — Kuba Gawron, Kamil Maczuga, Paulina Pająk, and Paweł Preneta — who created the 2020 Atlas of Hate, an interactive map charting the country’s anti-gay zones. The ludicrous lawsuits, filed by six counties, charged the artists with slander and demanded that they publish apologies to local officials on the project’s website and also read them publicly in press conferences on the steps of the European Parliament in Brussels and at the Polish Press Agency. If convicted, the artists would stand liable for at least 165,000 PLN (~$40,600), including expenses related to holding the requested apology tour.
9. Afghan Artists at risk — After two decades of American occupation, Afghan artists were left to the mercy of the regressive Taliban regime, with some facing immediate danger to their lives. Afghani groups in the diaspora and their allies have continuously pleaded with the US to open its borders to artists, performers, writers, filmmakers, photographers, visual journalists, and other cultural workers at risk. Sadly, hundreds were denied entry to the US, and many more are still left behind.
10. Freedom of speech in Hong Kong — It’s been a terrible year for the residents of Hong Kong, who are watching their long-cherished freedom of speech, press, and expression being stamped out by the Chinese central government. Not only has Hong Kong’s only memorial to the Tiananmen massacre been removed, but this week a major pro-democracy media source, Stand News, was shuttered after Chinese authorities arrested six of their journalists. This is very disturbing.
11. Masterpieces That Were Turned into Porn — Imagine being painted by the likes of François Boucher or Titian only to end up on Pornhub a couple of centuries later. That’s precisely what happened to Jan Gossaert’s “Adam and Eve” (the “O.G. amateur couple”), Edgar Degas’s “Male Nude,” and many other classic masterpieces when the free porn provider recreated the subtly sexy scenes in full-blown, X-rated reality featuring actual people actually doing it. It may have been a liberating moment for these paintings’ protagonists, hitherto repressed by their oil and canvas chastity belts, but some of the museums that own the works didn’t find it very amusing: the Uffizi Gallery in Italy objected to what they claimed was Pornhub’s unauthorized commercial use of their content, and even threatened legal action.
12. Gaza Artists and Dar Jacir — Israel’s senseless pummeling of Gaza for 11 consecutive days in May inflicted more death and suffering on an already besieged community of local artists. The Israeli air raids also destroyed the city’s only art supplies store, Pens & Pins, which has since been restored. In the West Bank, Israeli forces raided and ransacked an art center co-founded by artist Emily Jacir in the city of Bethlehem. But this year has also seen unprecedented displays of support for Palestinian rights within the art community. Hundreds of artists, critics, and scholars signed a letter condemning the ties between some board members at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Israel’s violent attacks against Palestinians. The letter was released by the Strike MoMA group, which later launched the campaign “Globalize the Intifada.” Thousands of others signed a “Letter Against Apartheid” released by a group of Palestinian artists, and supporters of Jacir’s center raised more than $30,000 for its restoration. The tide of public opinion has started to shift, but the balance of power on the ground still hasn’t.
13. Cuban Artists and Activists, Again — The group makes the list for the second year in a row as the Cuban government only tightened its crackdown on creatives in 2021. Food and medicine shortages and poor living conditions made worse by the pandemic led to the largest protests on the island in nearly three decades, and many of those who participated were arbitrarily detained and persecuted. Emblematic cases involve artist and vocal dissident Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was detained on his way to the demonstrations and later transferred to the Guanajay maximum security prison, where he remains five months later; and Hamlet Lavastida, imprisoned in Havana for three months, who was forcibly exiled along with writer Katherine Bisquet. As the Havana Biennial neared, artist Tania Bruguera called for a boycott, and many curators, artists, and writers withdrew from the show. But hundreds of peaceful activists, among them youth under 18, still remain behind bars and facing prison sentences simply for thinking differently.
14. Osman Kavala — The travesty of arts philanthropist Osman Kavala’s imprisonment continues, and even with threats of being ejected from the Council of Europe, Turkey is still not budging. Add to this the strange detention of university students in Istanbul for their LGBTQ+ poster, and you can see a trend that has been going on for years now and suggests the country is quickly slipping away from the liberal and democratic promise it once had and becoming increasingly authoritarian.
15. Artists Whose Work Is Stolen on the Internet — Earlier this year, we reported on the truly bizarre story of an image taken by photographer Kyle Cassidy. He generously released it into the public domain, available free of charge on Wikimedia Commons — only to discover someone named “Aldwin Sturdivant” was claiming it as his own and using it in a wacky affiliate links scam. Cassidy is just one of many artists whose work has been seized by scammers, bots, and other fraudulent actors as art theft moves online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue is plaguing the non-fungible token (NFT) space: users on the popular art community DeviantArt say their works are being stolen and minted as NFTs on marketplaces such as OpenSea. As the technology gains steam, buyers are increasingly aware of these so-called “copy-mints” but the sheer volume of infringements has raised concerns about safeguarding authenticity and provenance, issues the blockchain was supposed to fix. Turns out it’s a lot like the traditional art market, thieves and all.
16. Bob Ross’s Relatives — It is difficult to believe that anyone could do wrong to a human as pure and benevolent as Bob Ross, landscape painting extraordinaire, de facto TV therapist, and #HairGoals icon. Yet that is precisely what the Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed (2021) uncovered: after the artist’s death, his longtime business partners Walt and Annette Kowalski allegedly used intimidation and aggressive legal maneuvering to seize the rights to Ross’s name and likeness from Steve Ross, his son and heir. The film’s revelations prompted calls for a boycott of merchandise printed with Ross’s ultra-recognizable face, all licensed through Bob Ross, Inc. (BRI), which the Kowalskis own and control while Steve Ross sees not a penny of his late father’s profitable legacy. “Happy little trees”? More like ruthless little capitalists.
17. Beloved Artworks Being Sold By Museums — It’s becoming a scary trend at major public US museums, namely the selling of what art lovers often call “masterpieces” that are favorite artworks visitors love seeing again and again. This year’s decision by the Newark Museum to sell Thomas Cole’s “The Arch of Nero” (1846), a stunning painting by one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century, was the latest to be sold, though the Brooklyn Museum had its own ridiculous firesale last year and sold wonderful works by Lucas Cranach the Elder (which was bequeathed to its collection in 1921), Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet, Camille Corot, and others. They also sold a large Francis Bacon back in 2019. Even the Met Museum, which has an endowment of $3.3 billion, sold off some works. While art historians, critics, and art lovers may decry these sales, which look like just another way for the super wealthy and their courtiers to financialize museums and their assets, the real loss is for the public, who are not given a voice in deciding if a beloved Monet will be sold off to some superwealthy collector who can hide it away from public view.
18. Blue Pigments — Supply chain problems and personnel shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with climate disasters worldwide, have brought severe shortages in artist paint. Notably, popular pigments like Indanthrone Blue and Ultramarine Blue have become especially harder and more expensive to find. Materials essential to make these pigments and others are in low supply, partially because of climate events like the freeze in Texas, which slowed the production of petroleum, and the wildfires in Canada, which decimated linseed crops. The spike in paint prices is expected to continue into 2022. Doesn’t it make you feel blue?
19. Fans of Judy Chicago — The American artist Judy Chicago is not exactly powerless — she’s represented by a well-known New York gallery, for instance, and her 1979 installation “The Dinner Party” is a textbook work of feminist art. But it certainly hasn’t been a good year for her fans: one of Chicago’s smoke-based pieces in San Francisco turned into “an evil smelling, enveloping orange-green tarnish cloud,” causing moments of panic among some audience members; and a wildlife habitat in Palm Desert withdrew its participation from a similar smoke work over environmental concerns. As second-wave feminism fades into obsolescence, it seems, so do Chicago’s so-called “air sculptures.” Smoke inhalation is so pre-pandemic.
20. New York Chinatown Community and Activists — For years, Chinatown-based grassroots groups have fought against the rapid gentrification of their neighborhood, in which art galleries play a damning role. For the last year, residents have directed their ire at the Museum of Chinese in America’s (MOCA) for accepting a $35 million concession from the city as part of a jail expansion plan that would rehaul and expand an existing 15-story detention complex in the neighborhood. The dispute between MOCA and the protesters has escalated to calls to boycott the museum and remove its president, Nancy Yao Maasbach, from her job. The artist duo Colin Chin and Nicholas Liem and the collective Godzilla withdrew their works from exhibitions at the museum in solidarity with the protesters, who are mostly students and working-class residents. Local groups have also been rallying against MOCA’s co-chair and real-estate developer Johnathan Chu, who is accused of evicting the decades-old restaurant Jing Fong at the height of the pandemic. Many call this a class war between the neighborhood’s poor and dispossessed, and its wealthy, apathetic elites.
People Who Didn’t Randomly Find Art When They Renovate — I mean, doesn’t everyone find a Haring mural or Tudor painting behind a wall when they renovate? Well, it appears some of us don’t, and that just proves how powerless we truly are.
Film Heritage — Two major fires (one in Cape Town and the other in São Paulo) at film archives prove how fragile the artifacts of film history actually are. Both fires also demonstrate how global inequality makes cultural heritage in less wealthy countries more susceptible to disasters such as these. What was lost this year can never be regained.
The Environment, As Crypto Picks Up — If 2021 was the year of the NFT, then it was also the year of questioning the embarrassing carbon footprint of the entire crypto space. As if the traditional art world didn’t already do its part to contribute to climate change, with its unnecessarily proliferating art fairs and jet-setting collectors, many NFTs are being minted on the Ethereum blockchain, known for using large networks of processing machines that emit CO2. Alternatives and methods to mitigate the impact are in the works, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t include our already beleaguered planet on this list.