Why Karen Archey is Wrong About Occupy Museums

by Will Brand on October 21, 2011 · 22 comments Opinion

Noah Fischer, in full regalia

In a piece yesterday at artINFO, Karen Archey asks, “Why is Occupy Wall Street Protesting NYC Museums, and Not Super Rich Galleries and Art Fairs?” The post is aimed at Occupy Museums, the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Culture Working Group project that began protesting yesterday outside MoMA and the New Museum. Archey thinks the movement’s energy is misdirected, and might be better spent looking into art-worlders more directly associated with the market. It’s an intelligible post, and it’s true that the influence of a small group of private firms holds undue weight in the crafting of art history. Pretty rapidly, however, Archey’s post descends into personal axe-grinding against Art Fag City.

First of all, Archey's question about Occupy Museums only makes sense if you're not paying attention. For Occupy Museums to direct its criticism at state-funded, public-serving museums is in exact accordance with the methods of the Occupy movement as a whole: every official demand to emerge from the Demands Working Group has been directed at government institutions, rather than private industry. Even Adbusters' original call, back in July, was addressed not at banks or investment firms but at Barack Obama, demanding he “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” While the Occupy movement has also endorsed a boycott against the banking sector, its principal demand has always been for a change in government regulation.

It doesn't take much to draw the connection here between government and museums. After all, as Archey points out, “museums are exceedingly bureaucratic and held responsible for using tax payer dollars”. All of those taxpayer dollars are dispensed with the explicit understanding that museums are to act in the public service. The bureaucrats who run the country’s biggest museums are an altogether fitting analogue to our legislature: their salaries are paid for our taxes, and the decisions they make affect everyone. Archey asks, “Should they be occupied because their curators and directors are arbiters of taste?” Yes! Yes, for exactly the same reason that we direct our demands at the arbiters of commerce. This is what this entire movement is about.

Further, Archey does not seem to be able to distinguish between requests for change and requests for demolition. It is of course true, as she says, that museums “should be supported in weaving art into our cultural fabric”. No one said anything to the contrary. Protest is not unpatriotic simply because it is directed against an institution one supports. The entire history of institutional critique in art stands as a testament to this.

The rest of Archey's post is largely turned over to personal attacks. She implies that Noah Fischer is unfit to organize the Occupy Museums protests by virtue of his being represented by Claire Oliver Gallery, writing, “Is YOUR art for everyone? I think not.” This is akin to the accusations leveled by the right-wing media that the Occupy protesters are insincere because they use mobile phones or internet platforms produced by large corporations. She then speculates that Occupy Museums is “born out of misdirected bitterness toward an institution that has yet to accept [Fischer] in the way that [he wants]”. Apparently Noah Fischer, art-world insider, is frustrated that he has no works in MoMA's collection at the age of 34. In Archey’s telling, he is at once complicit with the art world (because he works with Claire Oliver) and enough of an outsider to expect early-career acceptance at MoMA.

Lastly, she turns over a section to accusing us of… something or other. Quoting a section of Occupy Museums’s press release: “We recognize that art is for everyone, across all classes and cultures and communities,” she writes:
*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 [AFC Editorial Director Paddy] 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.
The evidence goes thus:
  • The press release produced by an art offshoot of a movement whose favorite word is “everyone” contains the phrase, “Art is for Everyone”.
  • 20×200, the editions dealer, uses “Art for Everyone” as its motto.
  • 20×200 has been a sponsor of Art Fag City.
  • Paddy Johnson, Art Fag City's editorial director, posted Occupy Museums's press release on her tumblr.
  • …So I guess maybe we staged some protests to sell prints for our friend?

This is nonsense. To make this argument, Archey must ignore a quarter of the words she quotes. She must ignore the long history of democratic rhetoric in art. She also must ignore the fact that there really isn’t any connection between 20×200 and Noah Fischer.

Democracy, as silly as this sounds, is a part of Art Fag City's brand. It's why we like net art, it's why we like multiples, it's why we like protests, it's why we offer our material for free and why we work to encourage intelligent discussion in our comments. It's sort of a theme for us, and it's a theme people know about and like, and it's been that way since long before 20×200 purchased their ad space.

The Occupy Museums press release ends on a positive note, heralding “an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market.” Far from calling for museums to close, it asks them to “open your mind and your heart!” We can support our museums and still want change, and that doesn’t make us misguided or corrupt or immoral. It makes us art lovers.
  • Karen Archey

    Hi Will,

    Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful response! A couple things: I just want to reiterate that I love AFC and have personally learned a lot from Paddy. For example, earlier in the post I lauded her for her great coverage of the Rose Art Museum closing. She was undoubtedly the go-to person, pretty much in the world, for her coverage of the Rose during that time. What is confusing to me, and this is not explicitly stated in the post, is that motivations behind the people organizing this (I don’t know if AFC could be considered an organizer or…a publicizing agent?) don’t necessarily match up with historically what they’ve been known to champion or practice themselves. So what is their impetus to support Occupy Museums? In this specific instance Paddy has a reputation of championing museums and explicating to the public that these institutions indeed are experiencing a lack of funding, and that they’re important parts of any city’s cultural landscape. So it came as confusing to me that she would not only support but help the efforts of a campaign that sought to challenge museums, and villainize them as a negative part of our culture. Further, AFC has also supported the fact that Jen Bekman recently received about 850k in venture capital for her 20×200 project. This is the sort of thing that I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that OWS/OM are entirely against–the co-mingling of big capital with the art world, and consequently, how that money is funneled into publications… like AFC. But hey! I’m not against this at all. I just found these contradictions strange. I also found it strange that there are sooooOOOOOoOoOO many artistic practices that engage a lack of materiality in order to challenge the commodification of art, and further, its flirtation with big capital and the art market, but hey, that’s Noah Fischer’s decision. I just thought it prudent to point out that there are other, more progressive ways of thinking about art, the market, etc.

    • Will Brand

      Hey Karen!

      Just to clarify, we’re not involved in the organization of Occupy Museums at all. We sit in on their online discussions, we’ve conducted an interview with Noah that’ll be posted sometime soon, and Paddy reposted their manifesto/press release/whatever from Noah’s Facebook page because she thought it was interesting and relevant. That’s the extent of our relationship. Frankly, if we were publicizing it professionally, we’d have done a better job.

      More to the point, I don’t think Occupy Museums will result in any museums closing. In fact, I don’t think museums being open or closed has anything to do with anything: at no point have I heard any rhetoric out of Occupy Museums that implied they wanted to destroy, close, boycott, defund, or otherwise outright harm museums. They just want them to be a little different, and particularly they want them to be less tightly controlled by a tiny number of super-wealthy board members with obvious conflicts of interest. Without putting words in their mouth, I’d imagine that process would require more, rather than less, public funding: this is, in essence, a call for the further nationalization of cultural institutions.

      I don’t think the idea that Occupy Museums wants to “villainize [museums] as a negative part of our culture” is accurate, and it’s one that’s been thrown around a lot (I was looking at the retweets your artINFO post got). Again, looking at their statements, what I read is more a sadness at the perceived decline of what Noah calls “beloved institutions”. Granted, there’s a lot of standard-grade institutional critique stuff in there – “the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%”, blah blah – but at this point I think we’ve seen enough of that to understand it doesn’t mean anybody’s going to torch the Met.

      On Noah in particular, I think he did a pretty good job of refuting your points well before you made them. When you ask if Occupy Museums was “born out of misdirected bitterness toward an institution that has yet to accept you in the way that you want”, I think of this passage in the very piece you’re responding to:

      “To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool. Such a critic was a sore loser. It is time to end that silence not in bitterness, but in strength and love!”

      Misdirected bitterness, indeed.

      As to us and 20×200: Yes, in 2009 Paddy reported on a fairly unprecedented show of transparency by a for-profit fine art editions website. If you read the post, though, there’s absolutely no opinion in it other than “The more transparency we can add to the profession the better.” No “hey go check these guys out!”, no descriptions of them as “up-and-coming” or “rising stars” or “visionaries”, nothing. Just, hey, it’s weird that we know the financial details for this company, because most of the time art companies don’t want to publicize that stuff. If anybody wants to confirm that, go ahead. Somehow, when you mention this in your post, we’re suddenly “lauding” them. I think that if you’d actually read the post you wouldn’t have gotten confused about whether “exceedingly large amounts of money in the hands of people that control the art world bad or good”, because Paddy never actually said anything about bad or good.

      Lastly, attacking AFC (and I’m using that word because that’s how we read accusations of inconsistency and collusion, sorry) wasn’t an accident. You’re spinning this as though you were honestly attempting to inform people about alternate financial strategies being developed in the art world, but that’s simply not true: you spend perhaps two sentences at the end of your piece mentioning e-flux, and that’s it. The rest of this was an attack piece, alternately against Occupy Museums (yeah okay) and Paddy’s credibility (hell naw), and I think that was clear to anyone reading it.

      • http://walterlatimer.com Walter Latimer

        Just to interrupt and comment on your point about nationalizing museums: I think that is a great idea.  I also think it is a great idea for companies to start museums, and for private collectors to start museums.  When a museum clearly belongs to a larger institution, public or private, or an individual, it’s able to reflect the values of that institution, even if it is as ridiculous as that Jason Rubell show at the RFC…  It’s important for both private and public museums to exist, and when things start getting muddy and people don’t know who the museum is supposed to reflect anymore, it kinda loses it’s point.  So if transparency in funding is the goal, maybe Occupy does have a place in museums?  I’m still not sold though.

        But definitely no place in private galleries…

  • http://walterlatimer.com Walter Latimer

    Corruption is bound to happen anywhere, but the level of corruption happening in museums is (hopefully) nowhere near whatever levels of corruption are happening in banks, government, etc.  It’s more of a moral corruption than financial, so it doesn’t seem to have much to do with Occupy.  Actually, Occupy doesn’t really seem to have much of a place in the art world (directly), unless it’s about the underpaid art packers or something but even that is a bit of a stretch.  Unless Occupy is now about any and every wrongdoing anyone has ever done, which is what it seems like it is becoming…

    • Will Brand

      I believe the line of thinking here is probably along the lines of “well, if everyone’s fired up already…” That’s okay, but at some point we’re taking advantage of genuine outrage over fairly black-and-white Bad Things to lend strength to much less important, much more nuanced causes. I care enough about income disparities that I’m going to get pissed if the movement loses that message.

      Frankly, and somebody’s going to hang me for this, I agree that Occupy needs to stop at some point. Like, if you’re going to represent everybody and we’re going to have some change, cool, but at some point critiques are going to get too esoteric to authentically claim the support of the general public. MoMA’s probably of interest to the general public, so I’m cool with this, but if we started protesting outside, say, the Armory Show, well… eh.

  • http://twitter.com/ArtistDominic ArtistDominic

    Whatever motivations were the impetus for Archey’s piece aside, I am still confused with OccupyMuseum for one simple reason. Maybe people closer to the action can fill me in…

    Why is Noah Fischer’s name attached to so much of this chatter. Granted, I know logistically he “created” or started the spin-off, but having one person the centerpiece of the protests clearly CLEARLY goes against the heart of the OccupyWallStreet movement. I’ve attended OccupyLA four times and every time I go, it is made known and a shared view amongst that copyright does not exist within the movement and hierarchy does not exist within the movement. And speaking with friends that have been to OWS regularly agree that stance is taken their as well. The governing structure of OWS is horizontal. Yet, OccupyMuseum it is not, Noah Fischer is on top, getting quoted, interviewed, etc etc.That is the glaring difference and that seems to be very suspicious. And I have mentioned this on a few other places, Hyperallgeric and HuffPo and Jerry Saltz FB… OccupyMuseum puts OWS at unneeded risk for backlash because essentially Art is a luxury. it is not food/water/shelter/fair tax use/being able to provide for survival- which is at the heart of the OccupyWallStreet desperation. Not saying it shouldn’t be done and museums are perfect- but the timing seems inappropriate. Crack the beast and museums would seem to straighten out as collateral damage…

    • http://www.abladeofgrass.org/ A Blade of Grass

      Agreed that Noah Fischer’s sense of authorship about OM is not in keeping with the spirit of the Occupy movement. I’m curious about his decision to be so forward with his name.

      I also think it’s both hard to imagine and critical to remember that artists are not obliged to participate in the art world–that the art world should be following the actual producers and not the other way around. One of the reasons that OWS makes sense is because we can’t help but participate in the economy. Occupy Art World doesn’t quite make sense because artists are perfectly free to ignore Chelsea, Culver City and the LES and go make their own weather. 

      But I think that museums as a symbol of the public’s relationship to art and the discourse surrounding the economics of culture is a perfectly legitimate purpose for a rangy, burbling, self-organizing Occupy Movement. Art and culture are elemental, and are inextricably linked to class and the economy. The Occupy Movement is working as well as it is because it’s such a deft cultural gesture–because it’s borrowing from the traditions of protests, the new lingo of social media and responding to this set of economic and (tangentially) environmental issues that are unbearably complex. OWS is art, or at least art-like. As a necessary cultural product, it should concern itself with culture.

      –Deborah Fisher

  • http://hereisafantasy.com Here is a Fantasy

    I’m worried. In order for Occupy Museums to remain salient it needs to move beyond nitpicking debates, and quickly. Why has no one brought up one of the most obvious reasons why it’s necessary to target museums and other non-profits, that throughout the 20th century, the actions of groups like the Art Workers’ Coalition and The Guerrilla Girls have focused on museums? Museums and other non-profits have been the target of such protests because of their educational mission to the public and their continued failure to live up to their stated mission. The most grievous and endemic issues of museums include the near lack of unions and budget cuts targeted at curatorial departments, the latter in contrast to fundraising and development groups.

    Museums, more than for-profit institutions like Sotheby’s, don’t have labor union disputes because, quite frankly, they don’t have them or allow them. This is an important, yet overlooked issue in the discussions I’ve heard about Occupy Museums. Having a low-paying, non-unionized job isn’t OK for the sake of culture. I’m looking to history to show that Occupy Museums can become a valid and widespread. I’ll be more than happy to take part and contribute to this movement.

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

      Ah lest we forget MoMA’s great labor strike of 2000, in which they attempted to lay off workers to finance their expansion. Museums have union disputes and they have been very ugly! I completely agree with the rest. 

      • http://hereisafantasy.com Here is a Fantasy

        Touché.

  • http://www.abladeofgrass.org/ A Blade of Grass

    I think the primary problem with Archey’s piece (beyond the way it contorted logic and stretched relationships to attack AFC) is that it confused the Occupy movement with a classic protest.

    A protest gets a bunch of people together to say NO (or occasionally yes) to a specific thing or idea more or less in unison. The Occupy movement is gathering a bunch of people who sense the same constellation of problems so that discourse and meaning can be generated. The primary mode of a protest is shouting at. The primary modes at Zuccotti are negotiations and conversations.

    MoMA dealt with getting occupied by participating in that meaning generation and discourse. Every time I go to Zuccotti park I get into a discussion with someone who came to sneer at the hippies but winds up taking flyers or making a sign or just saying, “Man, I did not know what I was getting into, but I am really glad I came down here.” This is the biggest strength of the movement, and it feels apparent to anyone who has watched it with their own eyes for awhile. Was Archey writing about the idea of the occupation that she had in her own head rather than committing actual journalism?

    –Deborah Fisher

  • Eageageag

    Just curious. How much money, if any, has AFC received from Jen Bekman for advertising her work in any shape or form through the years? Thanks.

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

      20×200 bought one ad package from the network during the art fairs last year and I was not involved with the sale. Only Nectarads can disclose customer rates, though basic pricing is on their website. Jen Bekman Gallery and Hey Hot Shot have placed no ads. When I link to the work on the site, I disclose my relationship. We are friends.

  • Eageageag

    Okay then. It should be clear to your readers by now that Archey is just one more bitter person in the art world who has an axe to grind. These kind of people are as common as a pretentious poorly written press release or a mid-career artist who had a bad experience with a dealer. One has to wonder what happened behind the scenes at AFC when she was an intern.

  • Anonymous

    Putting aside all of the interpersonal disarray of both of these articles, what of the valid point that Archey’s piece brings up? Why have galleries and fairs been left out of the Occupy Museums’ agenda? It’s pretty clear that galleries and fairs utilize as less of a meritocratic approach and as much of a self-serving one as museums do.

    I’m less concerned with interpersonal accountability of the writers of these two articles and where their respected allegiances lie as I am with the actual substance of the above sentiment.

  • Sean

    One thing that I think keeps getting lost in this discussion are some of the issues W.A.G.E. and others have bringing up for a while.  

    It is of course highly problematic that cultural institutions are run by a handful of elite 1%ers, as has long been the case in the US. However, this power structure has reached a crisis point because, as in the economy at large, it has been turned into an explicit scheme for capital accumulation (both cultural and, more importantly, economic). The fundamental problem with this system is one of survival for the other 99% when the fact is that even artists who exhibit in museums are rarely PAID for their work (i.e. a fee for exhibiting). Rather, they are expected to jump at the chance to work for free for the potential exposure it might give them (essentially becoming speculative capitalists on their own work, and relying on “the market” to reimburse them for their labor). Meanwhile, museum directors make steady ’1%’ range salaries, and “even the graphic designer gets paid” while the producers of the work get little or no remuneration. Regardless of how museums are funded (and that is doubtless an important matter in relation to the bigger picture), the central question is “How are those funds distributed?”. 

    This is of course a microcosm for the economy at large where the unproductive 1% (really .01%) has created a speculation game that robs the producers of goods and services of their labor. If a museum is entirely funded by the “largesse” of its board members, then perhaps it’s acceptable for them to convert it into the equivalent of a derivatives market/horse race, to pump value into their respective collections. But if public funds are part of the picture (as they almost invariably are), then these funds are going towards creating a speculative capital-accumulation scheme that is built upon the un-paid labor of the actual producers of artwork. The union-busting common to museums arises from the same ideology that has created an atmosphere in the “art world” where (art) workers have to constantly compete with each other for rapidly shrinking “rewards”, while the real capital shifts around in the upper echelons, out of reach. 

    On a related note, if OWS is considering a demand of a 1% financial transaction tax, perhaps we should begin seriously considering proposals for a 1% auction tax to fund a living wage for living artists. 

  • TH

    The funny thing about art is that it’s not for everyone. An artistic position is simply that, one artists’ assessment of things. In Europe this seems to be understood, but in the USA this issue brings into focus the ongoing and unresolved matter of the individual vs the group which is taking place in both the tea party and the OWS movements. This country has been through it before during the culture wars of the 80s / 90s: who pays for who and why. Then the NEA’s seeming preference since to fund children’s programs and community groups. Safe, group satisfying grantees – not much for individual speech. I doubt the matter will ever be resolved in the US since the going attitude seems to be to artists (which is a completely devalued occupation): you can say whatever you want, but not on my dime. 

    Let’s hear it for the museums. Some of which have been tireless in their community out-reach to be vital. But it brings it back, art is not for everyone. The expectation of art to be for everyone rings of fascism and censorship. And yeah, there are elites that make decisions about what art is displayed. Art is a specialist field. I could hardly walk into another occupation and suddenly know what I am doing.This will never be understood in the US. Elitism will be criticized for the individual and the needs of the group will not be resolved (at least when it comes to a consensus on art – that should never be) where the country is now.

    I know I am saying obvious things but I haven’t seen this conversation elsewhere. 

  • Jason Stopa

    thoughtfully written article which raises some interesting points

  • Cjgabrielli

    I think the protesters should move their protest to public museums like the Metropolitan Museum or the Brooklyn Museum. These museum are public and funded by the government. Admission is free and acquisitions are covered with both public and private money. Museums like the Whitney, MoMA and the New Museum (which is actually NOT a museum because they do not have a permanent collection) are privately run non-profits. They all charge admission because they are privately funded and their acquisitions are paid for by board members or gifted.

  • Guest

    “democracy” as part of a “brand” sounds so problematic…

  • Jennifer Chan

    Yes, refreshing. lots of interpretive bite. 

    When was the last time non-consensual institutional critique happened in a museum? Isn’t this supposed to be exciting because of that-to be mobilized and visibilized-or is this tactic dated? This is nothing a digital “sit-in”/DDOS action could replace. 

    I want to recall Andrea Fraser calling for an “institution of critique” instead of “institutional critique” for the defense of the/any institution as a space were radical action can and should possibly occur.Situational ironies are always worthy of noting and Archey did valuably acknowledge a bunch of gatekeepers were protesting against bigger fish despite their own implications in fundraising. 

    My (artschool/online) peers have been mostly #eyeroll about the OWS action to begin with and we are based in upstate New York. It doesn’t seem like it’s only net artists that are apathetic though I could see why because the work isn’t made for museum distribution. I feel like young, cynical scholars have eroded empathy or a lack of recognition of our role in the system. (Hello, we’re the next up!) Or maybe they’re overly weary about protesting-for-the-hell-of-it and have a distaste for the deliberate disruption of “order”. (I suppose it’s the “bombing-for-peace is useless” logic) 

    I thought we were supposed to be a self-educating community…

  • Anonymous

    When I worked at Moma in 2000, the staff was on strike.  The director had curators man the information desk and gave everyone that crossed the picket line free food in the staff cafe.  I was  horrified.  The front desk people made about $12,000. a year.  Then they built the new Moma and the director had a secret salary amount added to his income provided by a trustee.  I was sent home for yelling ‘scab’ at someone in the museum, I was a guard and would have been fired if I didn’t show up for work.  I left Moma then.  When I started working there in 1988 I was so pleased to be working in this ‘enlightened cultural institution’.  Yea right.

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