Occupy demonstration outside the Armory Show, Photo by Scotto Mycklebust
The peaceful, tree lined street that leads up to New York's iconic Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was sheltered with blooming cherry blossoms on a warm March evening. Passersby strolled in to view modern art marvels from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Alexander Calder. One step inside the sweeping structure and the resonance of protestors droned the quiet solitude of the museum setting.
Museums are not synonymous with protesting, but as of late with the ricochet of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, well-known New York museums have seemingly become the hub for protestors who are trying to create a more accessible art world that is not controlled by the "1 %."
Occupy demonstration outside the Armory Show, Photo by Scotto Mycklebust
OWS has had an intense ripple effect across America. The leaderless movement without an official set of demands echoed the enthusiastic days of protests in the 1960s and 70s that seemed long dissipated in an era of present day apathy. The OWS movement has been the catalyst in sparking an overwhelming passion in this generation, dispelling the ideology and myth that the youth of America are grounded in apathy, while connecting a nation together towards an idealistic goal. Starting in September 2011, Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park became OWS's home-base transforming the area into a tent city. Social and economic inequality, corruption, the influence of corporations on the government, greed and importantly, the overwhelming wealth and income disparity between America's richest 1% and the rest of the population were some of the issues at protest. The Movement's slogan of "we are the 99 %" is one that was heard across the American landscape and has now become household terminology. Some individuals, much like myself and my peers, who are unemployed, underemployed or underpaid despite massive school loans and graduate degrees, protested this wealth and income disparity that is taking over America and its confounded elitism.
The Occupy Museums movement is founded on many of the same goals as OWS and is a direct result of it. Unlike OWS, Occupy Museums is mainly a group of artists and equality believers fighting for an equal playing field in the art world. Their main target—museums. On March 30, a number of groups from various organizations were at MoMA to protest its affiliation with Sotheby's. Occupy Museums was one of the main organizers at the event and were joined by Sotheby's art handlers—who are part of the Union, Teamsters Local 814—to protest MoMA making millions at Sotheby's during the art handler lockout. Since August, stemming from a disagreement over their union contract, the high-end auction house has locked out unionized art handlers from their jobs.
Occupy demonstration at MoMA, Photo by Scotto Mycklebust
Similarly, Occupy Museums was present at the Whitney Biennial's opening reception on February 28 and called on the Whitney Museum of American Art to also cut ties with Sotheby's, which is one of the Biennial's sponsors.
ART FOR THE 99 PERCENT
The protests at MoMA and the Whitney Biennial are one of many that Occupy Museums has been organizing as of late, with their manifesto claiming: "We occupy museums to reclaim space for meaningful culture by and for the 99 %. We believe that art and culture are the soul of the commons. Art is not a luxury!"
The group's beliefs are founded on the idea that art should be accessible to everyone and that museums are controlled by the 1 %. As artists – that traditionally belong to the 99 %, they refuse to allow themselves to be "tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitist of elite." The movement is an ongoing protest that calls out corruption and injustice in institutions of art and culture, namely museums.
From the original OWS movement, Occupy Museums was initiated with the help of artist Noah Fischer whom the media has seemingly painted as their unofficial leader. The group now has over a dozen active members from different walks of the art world.
Jolanta Gora-Wita, an artist and active member of the group says, "The main goal is to stand in solidarity to protest injustice to arts and culture." She continued, "We find that by doing those actions we create a creative space for us and we open pockets of space up to dialog with the public and museum directors."
With these goals in mind, they have protested a number of large art events in New York, including The Whitney Biennial and the Armory Show amongst museums like MoMA and The New Museum. Upcoming protests include the Frieze Art Fair.
Though supported by some artists outside the group, they have, if not equally so, received criticism, from within their own niche art world. Independent Toronto-based artist and writer, Lorette C. Luzajic says, "The Occupy Movement in general is woefully misled by people who want a better world and believe that dismantling capitalism or holding the rich to account will solve the problems we have."
With a noble outlook on art and what they want transformed, the group is lacking in solutions to what they are so passionately fighting for. Rather than actual concrete resolutions they seem more founded on ideas and dialogue, with hopes to propel activism and education to the public. Even with education and dialogue, the group has a way to go when it comes to being clear about goals and solutions. The message is unclear to the museums they are protesting. At a past protest when MoMA asked Fischer what his demands were, he didn't give an answer.
He says, "At the beginning it seemed like the stroke of genius not to have demands. A lot of it was because it was impossible to agree on them because of our consensus process. Not having demands keeps the space of the protest open and inclusive, rather than narrowing it down to a particular struggle or situation."
Similar to OWS, the group has been the victim of criticism because of their disjointed and unclear position to what their demands are. Though it's clear that they are fighting for the 99 %, are museums really the right target as members of the art world? As a frequent museumgoer, art history fanatic and daughter of an artist, museums have always been an inspiration and escape for me. Though 25 dollars may seem like a hefty fee to enter and undoubtedly creates inaccessibility, I'm wholly willing to support a place such as MoMA. If I can't afford to go, their once a week free days are always an option, creating an accessible space for everyone. A part of me believes that they are directing their anger towards the wrong group of people. Wouldn't focusing on art galleries that are there for the sole purpose of selling and purchasing art be a more poignant statement? Though by protesting museums, the group does create dialogue, which is fundamentally important to any movement. The Sotheby's protest at MoMA is one that had a concrete goal that can actually be realized. Their other protests, however, are somewhat abstract and confusing. How can you protest something without being able to actually have concrete solutions to bring to the table?
Fischer notes that the recent MoMA protest with the Teamsters is certainly an example of an action where their group has actual demands in place. He says, "That's a concrete demand that we can hopefully win and will be the first of many wins."
Despite criticisms, members passionately believe in what it is they are protesting and think changes can be made starting with the wealthy who financially back these museums. "Big corporations and very rich people have incredible influence to what's in the museum because they can give huge chunks of money. That needs to be taken out of the equation," says Maria Byck, an Occupy Museum's group member.
Without these big corporations and rich people who have influence on these museums, would they even exist? Could taxpayer's money really be enough to support the likes of expansive spaces like MoMA and The Whitney and if you took that option away, would it be detrimental to the quality of these museums? Others in the art world believe that Occupy Museums is hypocritical and ironic with some cutting at Fischer himself, in part because of the expensive art he sells. Karen Archey, a New York based art critic and curator, said on artinfo.com, "Noah Fischer, why create art that is tailor-made to exist in a Chelsea gallery and sold to rich people? Is YOUR art for everyone? I think not."
Jim Costanzo, active member of Occupy Museums, Photo by Scotto Mycklebust
Fischer believes however that it was his involvement in the Chelsea gallery scene that was a catalyst for his involvement in the movement. "I did my MFA in Columbia in 2004 and got deeply into debt. The market was booming so I had the idea to enter into the public market and sell my work. My experiences with the private market are not very impressive, but I do have some experience none the less, and it has actually informed my angle in the protest. ," he says. "So through these experiences I've learned how little power artists have in the private market and how concentrated the economic and social power is in a few galleries. I see my own experiences as informative."
Though set up as a group, their beliefs are very much individualistic and exemplify a mixture of different viewpoints about how art should be looked at and consumed. Byck has trouble with the idea of commercializing art. She says, "I actually think it's problematic for it to be seen as a commercial product. Art is a part of culture, a part of a history of our ideas."
Dissimilar to Byck, Gora-Wita stated that she believes art is a source of income for many artists and she believes they have the right to sell their work and does not discredit artists for doing so.
Occupy Museum group member Jolanta Gora-Wita, Photo by Scotto Mycklebust
Artists like Luzajic think that commercialization is a necessary and important part of art and positive for artists. "How on earth does de-commercialization and de-individualizing of art help artists? Selling more helps artists. Like it or not, the more people buying twenty million dollar Van Goghs, the more art for more museums, galleries, collectors and associations," she says. "Occupy Museums should reassess their goals completely and come up with alternative ways of promoting artists, outside of the museum system, rather than dismantling."
As a creative individual, the commercialization of your craft is something that any professional has to face in order to make a living. As a writer, it's something that I deal with all the time if I am writing for anyone other than myself. My work gets edited for mass appeal, I write about what people want to read—there are occasions that I get to write about what I want, when I want, but it's not always the case. I believe, the same goes for artists. Warhol is a prime example of this commercialization and his famous quote, "Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art," hits to the core of art as an income. Perhaps he has a point. Other artists like Damien Hirst have been notoriously criticized as being a sell-out and only creating for mass appeal. Yet the reality is that he is successful. He has created a business out of what he loves to do. Isn't that the ultimate goal for most creatives?
In an ideal world you could create whatever art you wanted without thinking about the consumer, but that's not the reality of any craft. I don't think it's about selling out, I think it's about truly being able to support yourself and making a living doing what you love to do. In a sense the whole idea of buying and consuming art is a luxury. Occupy Museum doesn't believe it should be, but when Noah Fischer, or any other artist, sells at an expensive Chelsea art gallery for thousands of dollars, it's hard to believe that he or anyone else would dispute that art, at times, is absolutely a luxury item.