Un-Friezing Art for the 1%



Last weekend, the luxury contemporary art fair called “Frieze” arrived on Randall’s Island in New York via London. Frieze is a highly exclusive affair where a selected group of international taste-making galleries sell their wares to the wealthiest people in the world, many of whom were intimately connected to the credit crisis and are now busy shopping for art objects, private jets, and fourth or fifth houses as people in their respective countries suffer foreclosures, unemployment and austerity measures.

Calling our action “Un-Frieze Culture,” Occupy Museums staged an action outside the fair to call out economic injustice and search for alternatives–a new path where contemporary culture can be in greater harmony with values of justice and universal respect. Born in the heady days of October 2011, when Zuccotti Park was filled round the clock with highly energized people of all persuasions, Occupy Museums stated that art and culture – like political representation or rights – should be horizontal, open to all. And we embarked on a series of actions to point out how art is currently hoarded and co-opted by the richest few at the expense of the many.

Even before our first action at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall, Occupy Museums was controversial. People instantly “got” the logic of Occupy Wall Street, but museums were seen differently. Museums are well-loved; people associate the paintings on their walls with creativity, beauty, history and truth. So, critics screamed, why do you protest museums? Do you hate art? Many assumed that only the bitter and jealous, those angry at beauty itself, could occupy such a thing as a museum. But the truth is (and I can only speak for myself), I love art so much I cannot bear to see it turned into just another derivative or “tangible asset.” Yes, some members of Occupy Museums were fueled by anger at the conflict of interest we saw between MoMA and Sotheby’s Auction House, a “partnership” that is cornering the cultural world and speculating at astronomical profits for the wealthiest few. We had also grown weary experiencing the cutthroat competition for few positions of art-stardom rather than collaborating and putting art to use for meaningful social change. But in the end, this was about connecting the times with culture, giving art its respect and making it relevant to everyone.

Occupy Museums noted that in this current age of unprecedented wealth inequality, museums have essentially been functioning as tax shelters and investment houses for the wealthiest–and that art itself has undergone a transformation from cultural tool to financial asset. As Occupy Museums staged action after action at various New York City museums starting in October, the critique caught on; people began to see that art and culture have been taken away from the 99%.

And that we can take it back.

On October 20, a small group of protesters took the subway uptown, marched across the Upper East Side to the Museum of Modern Art, and stood in front of the monumental museum entrance forming a General Assembly circle on the sidewalk. After a “call to action” was read in unison, facilitators opened the assembly and people spoke about why they had come. Voices and stories began to emerge. Unpaid interns at non-profits called an end to widespread labor abuse in the art world. Museum guards spoke of their experiences being treated as second-class citizens during elite donor parties. Union members called for fair contracts and artists presented a future in which their practice and passion promoted creativity over capital. News media picked up on the protests. The directors of MoMA came out to talk with us and ask what our demands were. The reply: “We’ll be back next week.”

In the months since, Occupy Museums has staged action after action at the Museum of Modern Art, Sotheby’s Auction House, Lincoln Center, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American Finance and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The events ranged in size from a few protesters to hundreds. Occupy Museums asked the Museum of American Finance to accept artifacts built by and for members of the 99% facing foreclosure in Harlem. (After a letter-writing correspondence with the CEO of the museum, they accepted the artifact.) We protested Sotheby’s greedy choice to lockout its art handlers, the Teamsters Local 814.

Perhaps most noticeably, just after OWS was evicted from Zuccotti Park in mid-November, the Lincoln Center showed an opera by Philip Glass called “Satyagraha” (truth force), inspired by such protest-luminaries as Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The fact that Lincoln Center is funded by billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had just violently and unlawfully evicted a non-violent protest, did not go missed by the public. Occupy Museums worked with Glass and other Occupy groups to stage a huge General Assembly on Lincoln Center’s steps (the private plaza is off-limits for exercising First Amendment rights of assembly). When Philip Glass himself joined the crowd and read a poem on the Human Mic, the entire opera audience joined the protesters for a mass assembly on human rights and economic justice.

Over the winter, as Occupy matured and drew indoors from the weather, the Occupy Museums group also changed and grew. A major question kept coming up: what kind of alternatives could occupiers offer in exchange for the current capitalist system we were criticizing. In response, Occupy Museums designed an action called “Free Art for Fair Exchange” at the Armory Show, a large and prestigious art fair in New York. Standing outside the fair, we exchanged our art and ideas for non-monetary items and invited others to do the same. Arts lovers exchanged conversations and objects with each other, or made drawings to trade on the spot. Although Occupy Museums did not claim to present a rent-paying alternative to the current market, the action gave participants a taste of non-financial values of exchange and the thrill of horizontal, respectful interactions–greatly in contrast to the frozen luxury showroom atmosphere inside the fair. The call to Free Art for Fair Exchange was the beginning of an experimental stage of searching for alternatives, learning to think differently, and being open to collaboration and dialogue with anyone.

The dialogue at the Frieze was more difficult. We prepared another Free Art for Fair Exchange action to open a space for discussion with fair-goers about the nature of speculation and art. But Frieze had rented an island in the middle of New York City, then rented a large buffer zone around the fair and declared it “temporary private space” patrolled by the NYPD. Occupy Museums was kept far away from the fair, in a corner of a parking lot; there, we created a “freedom cage” that VIP cars sped past, windows rolled up, on their way back to Manhattan. Sharp class divisions in culture hurt everyone in the end. Dialogue is needed and we are not giving up.

Members of Occupy Museums know, as members of the greater Occupy movement know, we’re a long ways from here to a new system; right now, we’re finding more questions than answers. Yet along this path, Occupy Museums, like the movement as a whole, has already discovered something special: a new vitality and solidarity that comes from employing creativity for common cause. This alone is transformative, and gives us both hope and joy.

Please check out www.occupymuseums.org for more information.