My painting teacher in college used to say that you could tell the entire history of the world through art. Her words resonated with me as I compiled this list of Hyperallergic’s most important news stories of 2022. From the war in Ukraine to the fight for abortion rights in the United States and the scourge of climate change, any current event can be explored — and sometimes better understood — through the lens of art, visual culture, and the work of creative people. Below are highlights from our independent journalism of this past year, much of it illuminating the experiences of artists and cultural workers outside the market-obsessed mainstream.
I’d like to express my gratitude to Staff Writer Elaine Velie for her relentless reporting; Staff Writer Rhea Nayyar, who joined us just a few months ago and already shines; former Staff Writer Jasmine Liu; and regular contributors Billy Anania, Sarah Rose Sharp, and Matt Stromberg. A special thanks to Senior Editor Hakim Bishara, who not only wrote some fantastic stories but also kept the opinion pieces flowing, adding nuance and perspective to the news. And of course, thank you to Hyperallergic Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian, who supports our team day in and day out.
Iranian Artists Call for Justice
On September 16, Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, a woman from Iran’s Kurdistan region, died in the custody of the so-called “morality police” days after being detained in Tehran for wearing her hijab incorrectly. Her death sparked widespread protests for women’s rights across Iran, which continue to this day despite the Islamic Republic’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators: More than 500 people have been killed and over 18,000 detained, among them poets, artists, filmmakers, and journalists. In this critical moment, Iranian and Kurdish artists, many in the diaspora, are responding with a new visual language to convey their solidarity and strife, from murals and digital posters to performances and tribute artworks to activists murdered by the regime.
Iranian women are asking themselves whether certain images adequately represent their struggle. Following displays of Shirin Neshat’s famous black-and-white photographs of women wearing the hijab, some rejected the works as “distant” and “distorted.” The image of a woman cutting her hair, meanwhile, has surfaced as a symbol of autonomy and rebellion, as has the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” — the originally Kurdish chant that has become a rallying cry for demonstrators, printed on everything from protest placards to banners unfurled in an anonymous action at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
Read: The Artists Amplifying the Voices of Iran’s Protesters by Isabella Segalovich
Art and Resistance in Ukraine
It’s difficult to believe that we are nearing the one-year anniversary of Russia’s senseless and cruel invasion of Ukraine. But the war rages on, displacing millions and killing tens of thousands by some estimates, destroying entire cities, and ravaging Ukraine’s cultural heritage. In February, 25 paintings by Ukrainian artist Maria Pryimachenko were reportedly lost in a fire at the Ivankiv Local History Museum in Kyiv. Weeks later, Russian forces bombed a theater and an art school in Mariupol sheltering hundreds of Ukrainians. As Russian President Vladimir Putin advances a nationalistic campaign to deny Ukraine of its statehood, these and other devastating attacks on artistic patrimony reveal the ways in which cultural identity and sovereignty are inextricably entwined. It’s a crucial moment to spotlight Ukrainian artists — whose work has often been subsumed under the category of “Russian art” and neglected for decades. At the 59th Venice Biennale, an improvised open-air exhibition set up just days before the event’s opening highlighted artworks by Ukrainian artists ingeniously printed on wheatpaste posters.
Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, museums came under scrutiny for their connections to Russian oligarchs and Kremlin associates — whose reputation they helped launder by “artwashing” their connections to an authoritarian regime.
The stories we published also paint a picture of Ukrainian hope, resilience, and even humor. Read about the artists who transformed an old metalwork studio in Lviv into a workshop to build anti-tank obstacles, or about the curators at the Maidan Museum in Kyiv who sift through the rubble to salvage objects left behind, telling a more personal story of war and displacement.
Read: How Ukrainian Folk Art Became a Tool of Resistance Against Russia by Katya Zabelski
The Climate Emergency
For better or for worse, one of the most enduring visuals of 2022 will probably be the image of Just Stop Oil protesters splashing tomato soup on Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888) at London’s National Gallery. Monet’s “Grainstacks” (1890) got a mashed potato facial and activists glued themselves to Botticelli’s “Primavera” (c. 1480) — all under the banner of denouncing climate change inaction. The strategy proved divisive but attention-grabbing (see: Lil Nas X’s viral meme “avenging” Van Gogh), and though the paintings targeted were protected by glass, some institutions responded with out-of-touch statements and heightened security measures.
While museum directors were busy overreacting to peaceful protests, the world was getting hotter. Heat waves in Europe shuttered museums, floods in Pakistan wreaked havoc on cultural heritage sites, and a cyclone contributed to the postponement of India’s Kochi Biennale. Some institutions are cutting ties with fossil fuel producers — such as London’s National Portrait Gallery, which finally ended its BP sponsorship — and pressure is mounting for those that haven’t, like the British Museum, to do the same.
Read: The Van Gogh Is Fine; You Won’t Be by Rebecca Zorach; Museum Directors, Do You Need a Hug? by Hakim Bishara
Filthy Rich People Do Awful Things
In 2022, big museums, rich collectors, and blue-chip galleries continued to exert their outsized influence on the art world to the detriment of cultural workers, emerging artists, and anyone who actually pays their taxes. But like always, we were watching — and reporting. Let’s start with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), whose board of trustees is a who’s who of robber barons starring none other than Leon Black, a former buddy of Jeffrey Epstein who was accused of rape again this year. And speaking of MoMA, a Hyperallergic report revealed the museum cruelly forced workers to choose between foregoing pay raises or losing their jobs during the pandemic. This spring, MoMA also renewed its contract with the NYPD — which workers had fought to end during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests — after a stabbing incident left two employees wounded.
No ranking of the wealthy’s abuses would be complete without a mention of former art dealer Inigo Philbrick, who defrauded his clients of $86 million in a Ponzi-like scheme involving works by Basquiat, Kusama, and more. (He’s in jail now.) Or to the Sackler family, architects of the opioid crisis, whose name several museums including the Guggenheim and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum finally removed from their spaces. Or to the authoritarian monarchy of Qatar, where thousands of migrant workers died in substandard labor conditions while building the stadiums and infrastructure for the FIFA Men’s World Cup (and while we’re at it, a dishonorable mention for the architects who turned a blind eye).
Read: MoMA’s Cruel Offer to Unionized Workers During the Pandemic by Hakim Bishara
Major Wins for Unionized Arts Workers
In 2022, we saw one of the longest and most consequential museum labor strikes in recent history. After nearly two years of union negotiations that failed to yield a contract, workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced their decision to strike indefinitely. They refused to cross the picket line for 19 days, ultimately securing higher minimum wages, pay raises, and improved family leave and healthcare policies.
Similar struggles — and victories — spread across museums in the United States. Workers at the Jewish Museum, MASS MoCA, the Wexner Center, the MFA Boston, Dia Art Foundation, and Film Forum unionized, announced their intent to unionize, or signed their first contracts. And who could forget the Whitney Museum of American Art union crashing the VIP preview of the Biennial? Or Baltimore Museum of Art’s security guards protesting at the opening of Guarding the Art, an exhibition they curated? At a Brooklyn Museum union demonstration, an age-old slogan rang especially true: “You can’t eat prestige.”
Outside of museums, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the strike led by New School part-time professors, who comprise a whopping 87% of the New York institution’s faculty. After three weeks on the picket line, they achieved gains in compensation, healthcare, and job security. It is said to be the longest adjunct professor strike in US history.
Read: I’m a Philadelphia Museum of Art Worker and This Is Why We’re Striking by Emily Rice
Looted Art and Repatriation
News of the Smithsonian Institution’s plans to return most of its Benin bronzes, a group of objects violently looted from present-day Nigeria by British troops in 1897, set the stage for a mixed bag of a year in the world of repatriation. On the one hand, the Pope returned the Vatican’s Parthenon Marbles to Greece; on the other, he referred to it as a “donation,” and most of the marbles are still stuck at the unyielding British Museum.
Indian art dealer Subhash Kapoor and five of his accomplices were sentenced to 10 years in prison for the theft and illegal export of antique religious idols, and Paris’s Louvre Museum saw its former president Jean-Luc Martinez charged and several advisors detained for their alleged role in the acquisition of trafficked Egyptian artifacts. In the US, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office kept busy restituting artifacts seized from the collections of disgraced billionaire Michael Steinhardt ($70 million in looted art) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which claims it fell victim to an international crime ring.
Read: The Ongoing Looting of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Heritage by Emiline Smith
Feel-Good Stories and New Beginnings
When we’re caught in the unremitting and often distressing news cycle, it’s easy to overlook all that’s good and heartwarming happening in the world. In June, the US government signed a historic agreement to co-manage Bears Ears National Monument in Utah with leaders representing the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe. It was hailed as a win by the five tribes, who have long fought to protect the sacred landscape.
In 2022, institutions made progress toward a more accessible art world. In San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum launched digital tours in American Sign Language with the help of Linda Bove, the first Deaf actor to be part of Sesame Street’s recurring cast, and institutions including the Dallas Museum of Art started offering free color blindness alleviation lenses for visitors with red-green deficiencies. And in London, a museum finally closed a long-running exhibition, admitting it had promoted “racist, sexist, and ableist theories and language.”
As the new year draws near, let’s raise a glass to the art spaces that opened their doors in the last 12 months, including a new home for experimental cinema in Santa Fe, a center for Black photographers in Culver City, Cheech Marin’s long-anticipated museum of Chicano art, and a slew of art nonprofits and galleries.
Read: Your Soundtrack to Lula’s Historic Defeat of Bolsonaro by Sage Behr
Protests and Boycotts, From Roe v. Wade to Documenta
Artists and activists inundated the streets of New York and other US cities after a leaked Supreme Court draft threatened to overturn Roe v. Wade, and in June, the court officially reversed nearly 50 years of precedent guaranteeing the Constitutional right to abortion. Through public artwork, poster campaigns, and even sculptural protest rattles, artists across America made their voices heard.
In advance of this year’s midterm elections, we asked artists in battleground states about the most urgent concerns driving them to the ballots, and many cited the deadly toll of gun violence. One of the most poignant protest-performances of the year was organized not by artists in the traditional sense, but by the parents of a teen killed in the 2018 Parkland shooting. For their “NRA Children’s Museum,” they sent a mile-long convoy of empty school buses to the home of Republican Senator Ted Cruz.
Other forms of protest were quieter but no less impactful, taking the form of strikes, boycotts, and petitions. Artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl withdrew from Documenta 15, citing the show organizers’ mishandling of antisemitism allegations (read our extensive reporting on the Documenta saga here). Artists continued to call out art collector Poju Zabludowicz’s ties to Israeli defense contracting and lobbying, this time striking Finland’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, which Zabludowicz supports. Across Chile, artists painted murals in support of a more progressive constitution. And following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the curators of the Venice Biennale’s Russian Pavilion stepped down in defiance, leaving a deserted structure where the country’s exhibition would have been.
Read: Three Arrested in Protest at New York’s Asia Society by Valentina Di Liscia
Reckoning With Ugly Histories
The equestrian bronze of Theodore Roosevelt that stood outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History for more than 80 years was finally removed earlier this year. But concerns over its planned relocation to a library built on seized Indigenous land in North Dakota epitomize the long road ahead for institutions seeking to rewrite their past.
This year, Harvard University acknowledged having enslaved more than 70 people between 1636 and 1783 and reaping the profits of slavery in other ways, and the school’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology disclosed its holdings of hair samples from 700 Native American students who attended residential schools in the early 20th century. Despite a $100 million commitment to study its legacy of slavery, Harvard still holds the daguerreotypes of Tamara Lanier’s enslaved ancestors, though a milestone court decision this year ruled that Lanier can sue the school for “emotional distress.”
Controversy also shrouded the Montpelier estate in Virginia, the former home of America’s fourth president James Madison, whose leaders were accused of firing workers who advocated for descendants of the people Madison enslaved. And in September, following the unveiling of Michael Heizer’s new installation City in Nevada, Hyperallergic spoke to Native artists about the work. Their important reflections reveal how the American Land Art movement has contributed to Indigenous erasure.
Read: Harvard Is Paying a Small Price for Laundering Its Past by Franco Paz
New York, New York!
Did you know subway graffiti is on the rise in New York — and that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) spends over $1 million each year to clean it up? Now that I have your attention, the city saw a lot of action in the cultural sector this year. Mayor Eric Adams took office and appointed a new cultural commissioner, former council member Laurie Cumbo, whose track record includes making derogatory comments about NYC’s immigrant communities and comparing calls to defund the police to “colonization.” In the summer, Adams slashed school funding by over $200 million, a move felt deeply by visual art and music teachers whose departments were already under-resourced. Also at the intersection of art and politics, billionaire collector Ronald S. Lauder, who co-founded Manhattan’s Neue Galerie, was revealed to have shelled out over $11 million in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin.
In better news, the city implemented a new salary transparency law that requires businesses with four or more employees to disclose pay in their job postings, but our analysis of recent art world listings confirmed what we already knew: the industry’s salaries are egregiously low. Gagosian Gallery, can you please pay your front desk associates a living wage?
Read: As NYC Slashes School Budgets, Art Teachers Are Feeling the Squeeze by Elaine Velie
Archeological Findings That Blew Our Minds
Every year, I think archaeologists couldn’t possibly find yet another gorgeous, stunningly preserved Roman mosaic beneath an unassuming city street, and every year I am proven wrong. Did you hear about the oldest ochre workshop in East Asia, discovered at the Xiamabei site in northeastern China? The mural fragment unearthed in Guatemala that may be the earliest evidence of the Mayan calendar? Or this absurdly massive marble bust of Hercules pulled from the seafloor at the site of a Roman-era shipwreck, or the Byzantine mosaics a Palestinian farmer found under the soil of his olive tree orchard? If not, it’s a good time to take note of all that 2022 dug up.
Read: How Hallucinogens Were Used as an Ancient Political Tactic by Sarah Rose Sharp
Artists at Risk and Culture Under Siege
“In every push for liberation, there is always a necessity for art,” said Iranian-American artist Darya Kharabi in an interview with Hyperallergic Staff Writer Rhea Nayyar. Her words remind us of the critical role artists play in the struggle for justice — and the price they pay for it. Cuba’s five-year prison sentence for dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and a life sentence for the Turkish arts philanthropist Osman Kavala were among the most egregious transgressions of artistic freedom and human rights by oppressive regimes.
Israel continued to deploy ruthlessly excessive force against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist for Al Jazeera, was murdered while reporting in the city of Jenin; just months later, Duniyana Al-Amour, a 22-year-old artist and college student from the city of Khan Yunis, was killed by Israeli forces.
Priceless cultural patrimony was also targeted. Hyperallergic‘s reporting documented Azerbaijan’s escalating attacks on Armenian heritage; Israel’s destruction of a Palestinian archaeological site, and the repeated vandalism of petroglyphs that hold sacred value to Indigenous communities around the world.
Read: Warring Gangs Wreak Terror on Haiti Artists’ Village by Billy Anania
WTF Happened to NFTs?
The overrated enthusiasm that NFTs (non-fungible tokens) first garnered seems to be deflating, like a sad balloon after a birthday party that was suspiciously exciting and suspiciously short. As the so-called “crypto winter” continues, significant price drops have been reported, affecting even top-selling tokens like the Bored Ape NFTs (which are now at the center of a class-action lawsuit). That’s despite the fact that the Ethereum blockchain’s long-awaited transition to a more energy-efficient system finally took place in September. The space was also plagued by scams, hacks, and shady uncategorizable activities no one asked for, like when a collector claimed to burn a Frida Kahlo work and mint it as an NFT. Maybe these adorable yet terrifying little goblins can save the NFT market. But probably not.
Read: Relative of Hilma af Klint Condemns NFTs of Artist’s Paintings by Jasmine Liu
In closing, I’d like to offer a tribute to the artists and cultural workers we lost in 2022. Billy Al-Bengston, Lee Bontecou, Brian O’Doherty, Caroline Caroompas, Virginia Dwan, Rodney Graham, Sam Gilliam, Jean-Luc Godard, Lourdes Grobet, Carmen Herrera, Claes Oldenburg, Silke Otto-Knapp, Philip Pearlstein, Paula Rego, Peter Schjeldahl, and Pierre Soulages are among the many creative individuals who left an indelible mark on our world.