Hyperallergic: Is Occupying Museums Misguided?



Is Occupying Museums Misguided?
by Hrag Vartanian on October 19, 2011

This Occupy Museum effort is the most peculiar Occupy Wall Street/art-related thing I’ve heard about yet. A protest is slated for tomorrow and intends to “occupy” the Frick Museum, MoMA and the New Museum.

How is occupying the Frick Museum constructive? They don’t even show contemporary art but historic work that isn’t exactly driving the art market.

And the MoMA? Well, they started as the play thing of the rich, so why would they change? Though protesting their exorbitant admission fee might be an achievable focus. $25!?!? Insane.

And the New Museum? Well, that’s been discussed quite a bit and yes, they have a track record of showcasing private collections and insider issues but why not occupy art galleries or present alternatives? Why not boycott exhibitions that are vanity shows … I for one had no interest in seeing that institution’s Skin Fruit. This protest seems to be all over the place.

If we’re going to change the way museums do things than we have to find them an alternate mode of funding. If rich patrons aren’t going to fund them then they’ll need a more grassroots approach (Kickstarter?) or maybe public money, but neither of those seem likely at the moment. Maybe protest City Hall for more arts funding?

The announcement says, “voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money” but have they really? We actually hear these protests all the time but there has been no effective alternative. Those who go the DIY approach often get ignored by others, not because of conspiracy (unless you’re paranoid) but because of the acceptance so much of the art world wants from those higher up on the art world food chain.

The other irony of contemporary art is that it is an elitest venture. Contemporary art people like to think that they create art for the masses but in effect will laugh at work that is populist or appeals to a mass audience in the way of a Thomas Kinkade or Peter Max. You can dismiss mass opinions as potentially uninformed or uneducated but that’s, well, elitist. Who gets to decide what goes into a museum of the 99%? That’s a bigger question I’d love to know the answer to.

I think Occupy Wall Street hits on the bigger issue that impacts not only the art world but every other facet of society, namely access to money and power. Where were these protesters yesterday during the Sotheby’s art handlers protest? Since August 1, members of the 99% (i.e. art handlers) have been locked out by Sotheby’s, and they continue to need help standing up to the art market’s disregard of workers who make the system run. Yes, some members of Occupy Wall Street have been helping the art handlers with small actions but a settlement between the art handlers and the auction giant has not yet been achieved. It will be interesting to see if established artists, curators or dealers join this protest tomorrow, otherwise it will look like sour grapes. Even the Guerrilla Girls, who complained about the art establishment, were at the end of the day consumed by the system that now celebrated by them.

In my opinion, the bigger question is how will we fund a museum of the 99% and who gets to decide what is shown?