Art Info: Why is Occupy Wall Street Protesting NYC Museums…



by: Karen Archey

If anyone figures out the answer, please let me know! In what may be the largest misstep of the Occupy Wall Street campaign, protestors are now “occupying” New York City museums. Starting today with a teach-in at Zuccotti Park at 3PM, protestors will next “occupy” the 4 train to occupy MoMA, the M3 Bus to occupy the Frick, and finally the 6 train to occupy the New Museum at around 7PM. The movement is organized by Claire Oliver-represented artist Noah Fischer, and publicized on Paddy Johnson’s Tumblr. According to their manifesto, Occupy Museums is dissatisfied with the general cultural elitism of the art world and pandering to rich trustees that museums often must go through in order to be given donations to make ends meet. They write:

The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves 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 elitest of elite. For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art. We recognize that art is for everyone*, across all classes and cultures and communities.

While rightfully expressing frustration with societal norms has been the forté of Occupy Wall Street since its inception, it seems obvious that “Occupy Museums” is wide off the mark in occupying museums rather than the galleries and art fairs propagated by multi-millionaires. Talk about a case of historical amnesia! Do we not remember that 2009 saw the closing of various museums around the country, including the Rose Art Museum, which Johnson herself covered with much diligence and candor? Why would you occupy a non-profit institution over a for-profit one in the same sector? And further, museums are exceedingly bureaucratic and held responsible for using tax payer dollars, albeit often the tax money they receive barely keeps the lights on. The museum world is one that I actually have a little bit of faith in–unless you’re a director of a handful of institutions across the US, employees of museums are generally underpaid cultural workers that in my opinion, should be supported in weaving art into our cultural fabric.

To be fair, frustrations with the art world and its elitism is a justified qualm. Art students around the country are paying over a $100,000 for an education they most likely will never use in an art world context. But are museums to blame for this? Should they be occupied because their curators and directors are arbiters of taste, or should someone else be held responsible for this financial injustice? (Mayhaps, bankers whose actions have dramatically increased the class divide of the last ten years?) And what distinguishes museums in our current moment from those in times past, which were always Enlightenment-era projects designed to usher transcendental experiences in for the already-learned and elite?

Rather than targeting museums, it seems more pertinent to take action through creation of art reacting to its market catering to rich and elite–or maybe even occupying super rich galleries and art fairs. How about the notably evil David Zwirner, anyone? And further, Noah Fischer, why create art (seen above) that is tailor-made to exist in a Chelsea gallery and sold to rich people? Is YOUR art for everyone? I think not. Rather than villainizing poor museums and distracting minds from the real problem, which is Wall Street, why not create projects in the name of art that instill new ways of viewing the economy–such as e-flux’s Time/Bank project–that may have some real impact in the culture at large? Or could it be possible that, even though the motivations and frustrations of OWS protestors are generally productive, this specific project is born out of misdirected bitterness toward an institution that has yet to accept you in the way that you want?

*Coincidentally, “Art for Everyone” is the same motto used by Jen Bekman of 20×200, who not only frequently sponsors Art Fag City but also was lauded by Johnson for raising almost a million dollars of venture capital for that business. So I’m a little confused, are exceedingly large amounts of money in the hands of people that control the art world bad or good? I guess it depends on the day.

Disclaimer: I “interned” at AFC in 2009.