ArtfagCity: The Deal with Occupy Museums



By: Paddy Johnson

Last week Internet commenters took to counting the reasons why Occupy Museums is so ill-conceived. A splinter faction of The Occupy Wall Street movement, the group announced its plans Wednesday to travel from the Frick to The New Museum in protest of economic disparity in the museum world. The original call to action outlined their schedule for the next day and describes an “absolute equation of art with capital” and museum shows “meant to inflate these markets”, each of which are “pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism.” This Thursday they will continue their protest.

Since the announcement’s posting it’s been all clamor: MoMA’s always been a play thing for the rich, how’s this gonna change it? Have “voices of dissent” actually been silenced by BIG money? And my favorite: Why aren’t they targeting something else? (Libraries were tabled atGothamistChelsea galleries and Sotheby’s everywhere else).

These are all reasonable questions, but they respond to a single artist’s work — Noah Fischer’scall to action — and not the occupation itself, which is defined by many voices and included poetry, manifestos, and even the General Assembly as proposed works of art. That one artist’s name should be so prominent in a leaderless protest is an obvious flaw in the call to action, which should not only be understood as secondary to the protest itself, but reflective of the artist’s practice. Fischer has a long history of engaging rhetoric and the language of protest in his work, a background I am more familiar with than most because of our friendship [<—– disclaimer here]. The call, as I see it, is essentially a work of pastiche.

When I asked Occupy Museums protestor James Rose what he thought of the criticism lodged thus far, his response was simple. “I love museums,” he told me. “They’ve been my source of inspiration and by no means am I anti-museum.”  According to Rose, Occupy Museums is the process of self education in public forum. “I was shocked when I found out how much corporate money plays a role in what gets shown.”

Rose is not an artist, but to some the movement still smacks of sour grapes. “Art is not a career” one friend told me over email. Like many, she believes the pursuit is elective and not every artist deserves to be in a museum. I’d wager that only a small percentage of protesters involved in the movement want a completely democratic museums, though. “We’re not naive” Blithe Riley told me in an interview last week. Like Rose, Riley also mentioned the process of self education in the GA, which she describes as an “exciting extension of a lot of the consciousness raising groups that have happened in the past which had a very valid, tangible outcome.”

While, at this point, the group hasn’t gone so far so as to identify specific financial relationships they find unsatisfactory, there’s certainly no shortage of problems to discuss. This fall, Andrew Russeth wrote a great piece for the Observer that charts the ever-growing flow of money into the art world and its distribution, which is more lopsided than ever. Large museums and non-profits with social cache for collectors pick up all the cash, while smaller organizations struggle. In another article, written this fall for the L Magazine, I tie the absence of large collectives shown in American museums relative to those in Europe to the dominance of the art market. Collaborative practices are increasingly common amongst artists, but the fact remains that works made by a group of twenty-odd individuals, many of whom are completely unknown, simply don’t have a developed market or even a public face. It’s hard to sell exhibitions like that to the public,  let alone the collectors on museum boards. As a result, they simply aren’t shown.

Given the volume of problems Occupy Museums seems to address, it’s perhaps not surprising that when I asked Noah Fischer and Blithe Riley to talk to these criticisms, their response wasn’t exactly media friendly.

“Understanding Occupy Museums is understanding what Occupy is,” Fischer told me. It’s a point that may have little meaning even to those who have spent time at Zuccotti Park. I myself have given up trying to explain to naysayers why anyone should care about a crowd with a DIY microphone, five hundred different opinions, and zero leadership; the only way to understand the movement is through extended participation. Fischer, a long time participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement, does a far better job on that front, describing its uniqueness as a kind of “social software” and a “physical embodiment of the Internet.”

“Little groups of people form, and they’re not closed like cliques, like in other social situations – it’s all about information sharing,” he told me over the phone. “There’s larger forums where we can communicate, too, and this kind of open identity and anonymity at the same time in the way that you interact with people. It just seems like you’re literally walking around in a kind of an Internet space.”

This is what is new and transformative about the movement and, ultimately, what Occupy Museums is about: using the open process of self-education as a means of self empowerment. It is a fight against passivity, and a demand that the people of all income stratas be given a voice.

While these demands aren’t new, the occupiers are probably right when they describe Occupy Wall Street as a new art form: the general assembly, people’s mic, and occupation as a whole, is a type of communication we haven’t seen before. Whether anything will come of it is another question. Certainly, I have my doubts that it will dilute the power of Occupy Wall Street; I’ve read a lot of grumbling about this over twitter, but seeing as how OWS is expanding everywhere, not just the art world, and I think it’s generally a sign of strength not weakness. However, getting museums to be open to this kind of conversation seems a larger hurdle. We’ve been talking about the problems caused through economic disparity for the last 40 years and plenty of protestors have hit brick walls.

For now though, participants seem cautiously optimistic. “It’s not like we’re saying that we know by having these series of actions that we’re going to entirely change the way the art market functions,” Riley told me over the phone. Fischer, who was part of the conference call, quickly followed this up, saying resolutely, “I think it will.”

Tagged as: Blithe RileyNoah Fischeroccupy museumssocial softwarethe internetZuccotti Park