Members of Occupy Museums, including Imani Brown (center) and Noah Fischer (right) (photograph by Geraldine Visco for Hyperallergic)

Members of Occupy Museums, including Imani Brown (center) and Noah Fischer (right), protesting Frieze New York last year (photograph by Geraldine Visco for Hyperallergic)

Occupy Museums thinks the art fair model needs to be reworked. Occupy Wall Street’s art offshoot has announced a new initiative, DebtFair, which seeks to radically deconstruct the commercial art fair. After essentially sunning themselves in a distant corner of Frieze New York last May, distributing flyers for Un-Frieze and other protest literature, the activists have decided to go for a more radical overthrow of the heavily commodified fair model. Whether or not this alternative has legs remains to be seen.

April may be the cruelest month, but “springtime is for activists,” says Occupy Museum’s Kristian Nammack, DebtFair’s founding “facilitator,” as he calls himself. We caught up with Nammack today to gauge the mission and capabilities of this ambitious effort, which seeks to predicate compensation for artists’ work on their debt load, allowing patrons to make direct payments on their student loans or outstanding consumer credit. By correlating the value of an artwork with the fiscal situation of its producer, it’s an objection to capitalist exchange that posits a profound shift in the linkage not just of price and value, but also, possibly, of value and aesthetic strength.

DebtFair, a new initiative of Occupy Museums, is in the preliminary stages of planning a debt-payoff art "exchange" at This Is Not an Abandoned Building (pictured) in Miami Beach (photo via Google Street View)

DebtFair, a new initiative of Occupy Museums, is in the preliminary stages of planning a debt-payoff art “exchange” at This Is Not an Abandoned Building (pictured) in Miami (photo via Google Street View)

Drawing a direct parallel to the maturing focus of Occupy Wall Street, Nammack described DebtFair as a positive and explicit articulation of an alternative art exchange system, a “constructive gesture” that follows last year’s generalized refusal. Though DebtFair has yet to nail down any specific venues in New York, they expect to work with a “decentralized” network of nonprofit and sympathetic commercial spaces to facilitate the exchange process. They do, however, have a space lined up to coincide with this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, a 5,400 square foot warehouse at 702 NW 5th Avenue owned by the artist Skip Van Cel of Miami’s White Vinyl Space. The new building, called This Is Not An Abandoned Building, will be an “alternative alternative space” in the vein of White Vinyl, Skip Van Cel tells Hyperallergic, adding that the warehouse is “within a limousine ride of all the traditional festivities if anyone wants to trade some debt for art.”

The founding members of the DebtFair project include the artists Tal Beery, Imani Brown, and Noah Fischer — though Nammack repeatedly resisted the implied hierarchy of this distinction — and the goal is to radically reshape the commercial experience in favor of the artist. Describing the anti-corporate, anti-collector (“patron,” please) character of the DebtFair project, Nammack adds: “I don’t expect that Eli Broad will come, but I don’t suspect the artists would care to talk to him either.” The group plans to hand out information cards on Saturday and Sunday at the two entry sites for Frieze, the 34th Street Ferry Landing and the bus depot at 125th Street.

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

21 replies on “Is it Time to Blow Up the Art Fair Model?”

    1. Absolutely. And a short ride from the the sadly named PAMM, which will be opening on Art Basel weekend. Do come visit.

  1. Is not the purpose of art fairs to be egregiously commercial and tasteless? If so, what’s the problem?

    If artists plan to fight the good fight then they have to question just what do they want to get out of their endeavors. True artists seek more than most because their minds are of the stars and their call ancient of lore.

    What I see here is well-meaning people adopting the guises of activists so as to foil and shadow the monied establishment. But why even play by their rules which are moot and irrelevant to art to begin with?

    1. Agreed. We are calling it a “fair” rather in jest. It will be mostly decentralized, the agency will be with the artists (most of us are artists with debts too) and we simply facilitate.

  2. Innovative idea and I’d love to see it grow further. Just signed up my small Seattle gallery space as a host…I really hope you can bring some of that spirit to the west coast as well.

  3. I agree with Judy57.

    It seems that the art machine is imploding under its own fecund desire to be more entertaining and educational than it really is.

    If you want to combat the messiness of the art fairs then I suggest that Occupy Museums seeks to offer the public a better qualitative art experience all around while making the art affordable. This, of course, can only be achieved by making the event a more intimate affair one that would do well to work its way toward congealing into a legitimate cohesive fair as opposed to decentralized happenings which could convolute the event’s overall mission of deconstructing the manufacturing of art fairs at large.

    1. JD Siazon, it’s like you’re reading our minds. We are designing (and crowd-sourcing here) an experience of quality where there are face to face meetings between the makers- and the collectors. Both sides of the equation can come together to discuss art, and economic reality, so we are politicizing the exchange, and personalizing it. Plus with a wider range of prices, probably many artists will also be collecting (bailing people out) and vice versa. The fair is decentralized and by placing modules in many kinds of locations it crosses boundaries between institutional/public/political space, crossing class lines as well- which brings relevance to art that it often lacks in the white cube. In fact, I think there is a crisis of meaning in art now, which this is speaking to directly. Your fears about the “convoluting” nature of decentralized happenings are, I believe unfounded. No need to create a duality between cohesive and decentralized where there is none. Occupy was “decentralized” and it’s been a most deep and rewarding and cohesive cultural/political/social experience.

          1. JD, you’re on. We meet on Mondays, will send you the info. We are open-sourced and horizontal, your input will be most appreciated. Welcome. Solidarity!

  4. Judy57: sure, you can sell some art and then go pay your debts, but where can you meet a stranger speak about your debts and economic/artistic reality together, and have the transaction end with them writing a check to your loaning bank? We’re bringing together the political/artistic & economic.

    1. It’s not just about money for art. It’s about building communities, solidarity, human relations. Don’t you want to know who has your art? Many dealers won’t tell their artists, fear of being cut out of the deal!

  5. Judy57, I see elements both practical and poetic in the direct payment of debt. On the one hand, the exchange makes the elimination of debt concrete, instant, and quantifiable. DebtFair is held accountable to its claims. On the other hand, a new, radical (in this day) relationship is forged through this interaction between collector and artist. The collector literally invests in the artist and their economic reality– their life, struggles and dreams– rather than investing solely in a commodifiable object used for pleasure, fetish or speculation. For the artist, the veil of shame that surrounds debt is lowered and debt is seen in its true light– as a social construct and a collective disaster. An ancient problem with an equally ancient solution– a jubilee of sorts. As a nation, our money was used to directly bail out the banks, so why not do the same for our cultural workers? If I may use a contentious and reviled concept, the action is a reparation of a debt formed when one class gains at the expense of another. Mutual aid is the exchange rate of a sustainable future.

    1. Again, I will have to very strongly agree with Judy 57.

      No one wants to be conned into supporting an artist by being led on a guilt trip about debt.

      It’s simply a matter of semantics and tact that will get art sold while building the financial relationships that sustain creation and the group dynamic of progressive culture makers.

      For instance, beyond just debt, DebtFair could use such signaling phrases as “blue collar,” “working class,” or “artist with a family” to draw attention to the broader plight of creatives.

      Writing a check directly to an artist’s bank is one possible gimmick but I think emphasizing the humanity of the artist/collector exchange can be explored more so that DebtFair outshines all of the more stodgy commercial events in the qualitative experience it offers.

      The primary building block of this is of course the written word and correlating advertising.

      1. Or making the writing of a check by a collector to an artist’s bank a performance where the act could be more symbolic rather than literal.

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