The Deal With Occupy Museums

by Paddy Johnson on October 24, 2011 · 36 comments A Brief History Of

Image via: Jerry Saltz

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 at Gothamist, Chelsea galleries and Sotheby’s everywhere else).

These are all reasonable questions, but they respond to a single artist's work — Noah Fischer's call 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.”


A Blade of Grass October 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Hear, hear! It’s great to think about Occupy Museums in the context of what OWS is, rather than in the context of everyone’s ideas about protest generally.

The Occupy Movement is internet-like, and it’s not exactly a protest. It’s an emergent discourse that requests participation in a meaning-making process using some classic protest tactics. A protest more or less unanimously says Yes or No to something. 

The Occupy Movement’s capacity to spread is its strength. Occupy Museums should probably stop putting out anything with Noah Fischer’s name on it, and it should absolutely keep asking for an active dialogue about:

the role of culture in everyday life
the role of museums as arbiters and gatekeepers of culture
the economic realities of cultural production
the role of the MFA Industrial Complex
the professionalization of art

…and any other topic that comes up about who gets to make, see, write about, judge, buy, sell and place value on art and other forms of culture. Culture is critical. We figure out who we are by creating culture. OWS is a cultural product.

–Deborah Fisher

Paddy Johnson October 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Yeah, I think that because the original call came from Noah’s facebook wall and he himself is a super tall guy wearing a coin mask, he was the person everyone wanted to talk to. I don’t see that extending into this week though. I actually can’t wait for the next occupation (I was at the planning meeting yesterday and they have some GREAT ideas). 

I also really like the topics you’ve laid out and your statements about culture. Do you think you’ll be able to come to the next one on Thursday? Nothing’s announced yet, so the whens and wheres aren’t determined, but I think it will be fun.

A Blade of Grass October 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Yes, I want to participate. I’ll clear my schedule.


Sheree Rensel October 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm

“it should absolutely keep asking for an active dialogue about:

the role of culture in everyday life WHOSE EVERYDAY LIFE?

the role of museums as arbiters and gatekeepers of culture WHICH MUSEUMS. WHAT and WHOSE CULTURE?

the economic realities of cultural production WHOSE REALITIES?

the role of the MFA Industrial Complex DOES MFA whatever MATTER anymore?

the professionalization of art IS A PROFESSION DEFINED AS THE WAY YOU MAKE YOUR LIVING? If so, 99% of the artist of the USA are out of the running unless they have an inheritance, a rich spouse, they know rich people, or they live on the poverty line and love being bohemian.


Dan Adams October 25, 2011 at 12:04 am

What a Joke!  First the Occupy movement was about nobody on Wall street or FannieMae  being held legally responsible for their part in the economic collapse.  Great!  Now it’s been reduced to people in the movement trying to promote themselves by various means.  If you’re a frustrated artist, HEY let’s protest Museums & Galleries. Stick to real problems people!  Don’t let the movement be kidnapped by various factions that don’t give a damn about REAL problems, JOBS, WAR, & POLITICIANS that are holding this country in a stranglehold!    

Brian Sherwin October 25, 2011 at 1:16 am

I find it odd that some of the same people who are showing support for Occupy Museums have poked fun at the UK Stuckists in the past for some of the protests they have had in the same spirit… including their protest of the Turner Prize. Such irony.

Paddy Johnson October 25, 2011 at 1:54 am

I have poked fun at the Stuckists. They make a lot of really bad art. I support Occupy Museums for attempting to discuss how income disparity effects the art world. I am not interested in a world in which museums show anything though, and I don’t think that’s what the people I’m talking to are interested in either. I think it’s good to assume some basic level of common sense being used here. 

Justin Town October 25, 2011 at 4:23 am

oh. This is about how income disparity effects the art world?…there is more to this picture than meets the eye. So you say  “MoMA’s always been a play thing for the rich”? Good. Forget the Occupy Museum thing then. Now, separate from that I am saying that the “Temples of cultural elitism” do not begin and end with museums. It is the exclusive network of power dealers, curators, critics, slick advisors and investors/collectors that define contemporary culture. period! Galleries and art fairs are the arenas in which the rich really like to play and the club is exclusive …you and I and everybody else knows it. So go ahead and keep down playing the questioning of these powerful aspects of the art world if you must. I think it is too late to stop the momentum. 

Paddy Johnson October 25, 2011 at 4:34 am

I’m not sure I understand why the tone of this message sounds so angry. There’s an Occupy Chelsea movement too. 

Justintwn57 October 25, 2011 at 11:38 am

Tone?… Angry?… Let’s
temper that for you then 🙂 🙂 🙂   I’m well aware of Occupy Chelsea.
I will say this in yet another way… The manifesto from Noah’s group is indeed
angry and silly and very short sighted. It’s like OWS focusing on general banking
practices rather than the corruption within the Federal reserve. There are many
naive platitudes from Noah’s call to occupy but one that really
stands out in my mind is “Art is for everyone”… Whaaat? Art is not for everyone, art is esoteric and elitist from the bottom up. The common man could care less about
art per se. So this “temple of cultural elitism” is not simply a
physical space, the true temple is the (contemporary) art world and within that
structure there is a hierarchy and museums are at the bottom. So why beat
around the museum bush?  Let’s focus the ire where it matters…the contemporary
gallery. This is the heart of the question coming from many artists. So like I
said… fine, forget Occupy Museums then, let them go on with that because I’m
quite anxious to see the outcome of a far more relevant critique
aimed right at the belly of the beast: The exclusive network of power dealers,
curators, critics, slick advisors and investors/collectors that define
contemporary culture.   

Justintwn57 October 26, 2011 at 12:07 am

Disclaimer: I fully support and am part of the exclusive network of power dealers,

curators, critics, slick advisors and investors/collectors that define
contemporary culture. so bring it on! 

Brian Sherwin October 25, 2011 at 7:58 am

And keep in mind that the majority of the “99% of the art world” in the United States live outside of NYC. ;p 

Brian Sherwin October 25, 2011 at 1:24 am

“JOBS, WAR, & POLITICIANS that are holding this country in a stranglehold” — As Biden pointed out… that all falls on the Obama administrations plate now. Which is exactly why you see the Democrats trying to hijack the OWS movement for their own needs. The last thing they want is for that massive force to crack down on their policies — which some already have. As I’ve said before, politicians need to stay out of this movement less it be divided. Remember the criticism the Republicans received for pandering to the Tea Party — which, like it or not, shares many similarities with Occupy? Why are the Democrats not being criticized more for attempting to twist Occupy for their own needs? That is something to think about. 

Paddy Johnson October 25, 2011 at 2:04 am

Sometimes I get the feeling you spend a large amount of time watching and reading content from republican news sources. If you want to criticize the Obama administration, blame them for putting together a stimulus package that offered a quarter of what the country actually needed and for not raising the debt limit before the mid term elections. This idea that Democrats are not being held accountable for their actions or are co-opting a largely left movement is so absurd it makes my brain hurt. Politicians are held accountable, not by the citizens of this country, but by the corporate interests that have bought and paid for their campaigns. Rule by Renters. 

Brian Sherwin October 25, 2011 at 7:49 am

Paddy — don’t make assumptions. True, I do lean conservative on several issues — at least compared to my fellow writers — but I don’t follow extremes either. Extreme political party support is one of the reasons we are in so much trouble now… people voting for bad, or should I say, inexperienced, candidates just so their party can ‘get in’. In my opinion, we saw that with Bush … and with Obama. Personally, I was hoping Clinton would have won the last election. I’m also extremely happy that Palin appears to be off hunting somewhere. Again, don’t make assumptions about me.

Trust me, with work and raising my daughter I have little time to allow the TV screen to lecture me on how to think. If you don’t see my points as valid, fine.

As for Stuckism –  I actually was not taking a jab at you… but I guess it turned out being just that. LOL  I don’t think the Stuckists are saying that museums should exhibit anything and everything either — that said, they do make some good points. Some of the same points that Occupy Museums is currently making.

As for me, I’m interested in a world where museums actually preserve the meaningful art of our times rather than just the art promoted by art world power players and art embraced by a handful of extremely wealthy collectors. The desire of the public should play a role in choosing at least some of the art that defines who we are as a people today — at least in state funded museums. Just because you may not like what the public, overall, likes does not mean that it is not meaningful to who we are collectively.

Anything less is a purchased lie… from bank statements to art history books. Does monetary value dictate what is ‘good’ art?  Perhaps you are content with that reality of the mainstream art world — specifically in New York City — but I for one am not. If the rich want an art playground in the form of private art galleries, fine. That said, their influence should not be allowed to make a playground out of our cultural centers. Why should only a few decide who we are visually?

Justintwn57 October 26, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Brian, the desire of the public should (not) play a role in choosing art that defines who we are as a people today — state funded museums or not. Just as the affluent should not be allowed to make a playground out of our cultural centers. It works both ways. Art when it works best brings the collective mind out of the box. I would no more want the “common man” as viewer/consumer to move aesthetics in the realm of contemporary art any more than I would want to see him dictate what is to be played in Carnegie Hall…unless that common man wants to roll up his sleeves and create the content.  The conflict I am seeing here in this debate is the contemporary idea that there are no geniuses or experts and that everyones opinion is valid or equal. Well, that’s like saying all art work is valid and equal and I beg to differ. Yes there are exceptions that we are all well aware of in which the unexpected comes about by way of the those outside the pale of the institution via (some) folk art or in musical terms the blues or Jazz or punk. These are rare exceptions, and in fact it is the “experts” that pulled these anomalies from the common into realm of spectacle; gave it voice on a mass scale. The artist by nature is continually in flux…so leave it to the artist to create and leave it to the experts (yes experts) to play goalie. The viewer/consumer can continue to view be it a prince or a pauper.  I will expand on this more in an upcoming article…stay tuned


Brian Sherwin October 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Don’t get me wrong… I don’t want to see a Thomas Kinkade fest bombard museums… that said, I also don’t agree that every studied art professional — museum directors for example — knows best — many appear to know what is best for their bank accounts and the bank accounts of their former clients. In the case of state funded museums they are doing it on our dime technically. 

The goal of museums should be to preserve culture beyond the throws of the art market — and part of that means that art that we may not exactly enjoy will be preserved along with what we consider ‘good’. As it stands I’m sure that we have all seen works of art in museums that leave us thinking, “How the Hell did THAT get here?”.

To me that is part of the discussion — if something you don’t enjoy ends up in a museum… by all means discuss it. That said, the fact that it appears most museums follow the mainstream art market as an unwritten prerequisite for exhibit/collection inclusion is alarming to me consider that their missions often imply a different direction.

The mainstream art world — and I think you know what I mean by ‘mainstream’ — is important… but it does not define a solid direction in art throughout the United States. If museums are to be nothing more than soapboxes for specific art scenes while denying everything else they should just declare that openly.

Jordan L. October 25, 2011 at 2:29 am

I agree that that the methodologies employed by the occupiers do altogether present something rather new (in the context of political system where candidates are essentially purchased), but many of these forms borrow from traditions that are quite old:

Also worth noting that there are still a few regions where direct democracy is still practiced:

Star Wars Modern October 25, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Unfortunately “using the open process of self-education as a means of self empowerment” os not what OWS is about – it is about getting a moribund political system to adress the monstrous income gap that threatens to destroy the gains made by middle class Americans in the post war years. Instead of allying themselves with those most at risk the artists involved in these splinter protests are draining energy, good will, and credibility from the core group. Shame on them.  

Brian Sherwin October 25, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Well… if you think about it Occupy can be anything to anyone for any reason — any cause.There is a blueprint to consider. However, an individual will add his or her own motivations to the mix. That is just human nature — and expected when you consider how open the movement is to people of all backgrounds. I’d say that is what makes it so powerful.

I don’t think artists challenging the system they work in with the banner of Occupy waving is a bad thing per se. Showing up at a bank with a mask on is. But again, it all falls on the individual in the end — and parts of the media will demonize Occupy no matter what. Food for thought. 

Paddy Johnson October 25, 2011 at 7:35 pm

I don’t agree. OWS grew organically out of the culture as a result of discontent; continuing to do so does not hurt the protest. If you look at Christianity there are countless splinter groups. Some survive, some die, but the religion isn’t dying as a result.  

Similarly, we can look at the outcome of two neighboring countries’ protests, each who opposed taxation by the British. The American Revolution and Canada’s Durham Report shows us that while protests drove both, the results were different and positive for each. Canada is a particularly good example here, as it was through negotiations with the British, that we ended up fixing a lot of our education problems. (In upper Canada only the anglicans got good education because they were upper class, so the public school system came out of these reports). Now this isn’t OWS, but generally speaking, I think the people have a responsibility to figure out what they want and need from their institutions and demand it. There’s nothing wrong with this and I don’t think it’s right to tell people that their own self-empowerment is in fact dangerous because it’s less important than an issue with more visibility. To my mind, there is absolutely nothing about doing this work that in any way diminishes a movement that is about getting a moribund political system to address the growing income gap in America. 

Anonymous October 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm

It just seems dumb to me.

Anonymous October 25, 2011 at 6:00 pm

If people want to lift art up – start locally.Smaller galleries are suffering more so than ever. So, I really can only laugh at these folks complaining about the big daddies when they are forget us small folks… shame on them. 

Justintwn57 October 25, 2011 at 3:11 pm

suffering? Even owning a gallery is something that could be seen as being in the realm of the “privileged” in todays economic environment. So, who’s forgetting the small folks?… and what do you consider small…gallery space under 20k a month? and most importantly, what is the caliper of work being shown?

Justintwn57 October 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm

…and that being said, we must remember that this is a museum that features MODERN ART! want more of a contemporary twist? go over the bridge to PS1

None October 26, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Destructive, narcissistic and counterrevolutionary. Less occupying the bong and more occupying some common sense?  

Will Brand October 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm

What part of this is destructive?

Man_ray October 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm

The first actual piece of research on the fuss surrounding “Occupy Museums:”

Will Brand October 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm

You’re commenting on the first actual piece of research into Occupy Museums; this piece was based on a series of original interviews, and contains plenty of information that isn’t available elsewhere. What you’ve linked to is, inexplicably, an essay about museum funding in the United States.

I should also clarify that we are in no way involved in the organization of Occupy Museums. We’re writing about them, and Paddy posted their statement to tumblr. We’ve said this quite a few times before, and anything worthy of being called “research” would have turned that up.

Firstly, we’ve already dealt with Karen Archey’s private gallery proposal. She is misinformed about the movement, and failed entirely to understand its clearly stated intentions.

Secondly, the post you’ve linked to doesn’t seem to understand the point of either criticism or protest. “Occupy museums wants a shift in what art is shown and how it is shown”? “Art world insiders want to tell you what is good for you and what you should be seeing in a museum if they could make that decision”? No shit. The first point has been stated fairly explicitly by Occupy Museums, and the latter point is the entire basis of conversations around art. I have a right to an opinion about my culture, and I have a right to do what I can to shape the art world in my interest; this is not fascism, this is democracy. Exactly who is qualified or morally justified in determining what art is, if not active participants in art? Why do museum staff alone receive this right? Also, how are we being called “elitist” in a reactionary appeal to the mindless preservation of the current incarnation of the canon? Really? No self-awareness there? And then we’re called hypocrites?

I have a lot of trouble believing this could have been written by someone with any actual investment in the art world; people who understand art generally understand that it is mutable, politicized, and contentious. I’m not afraid of leaving footprints in art history, and I’m not interested in those who are.

Will Brand October 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Oh, and we’re not going to stop writing about “Work of Art”, mostly because it’s fun. Anyone who thinks it reflects or affects the art world more generally is an idiot.

Man_ray October 28, 2011 at 5:23 pm

“Art world insiders want to tell you what is good for you and what you should be seeing in a museum if they could make that decision”? No shit.”
I want to see people of all walks of life occupy art museums (as is happening with Occupy Wall Street), then you can speak of real protest and revolution. So far we have a splinter group of art insiders that is distracting from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and entertaining discussions like this one here among a small circle of art geeks who are mostly attacking each other. This is really a waste of time and energy. 

Will Brand October 28, 2011 at 6:43 pm

So art should belong to everyone, only art isn’t that important and also people who are enthusiastic about art should be mocked. Got it. Get off my blog.

Austin November 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Art, like everything else in the end, is just a business. A business that is typically accompanied by just as much or more self-fellatiating discourse as any other business. I see no problem with people who are better businessmen (or women) filling their pockets more than those who are simply less successful. There are unfortunate circumstances, sure, where someone with huge talent or potential simply never makes it to the top, even though we all thought they would. Then again, some people die before ever even growing up. Sometimes things just don’t work out. Keep in mind, I myself am on the low end of the art-world salary rate.

That being said, I’m sure that most people working in the art world, or making money off art in any way, probably including most, if not all, people writing on this blog, wouldn’t mind being in that top tier of salaries. It’s easy to cry for equality when you’re among the groundlings, but your perspective changes a bit once you’re in the box.

Also, museum directors fiscal responsibility to the museum should not be neglected. No one should mistake the museums responsibility to the public as exhibiting all relevant or even significant works of art within a particular scope. The museums primary responsibility is archival, not exhibition. I have plenty of friends whose works are in the MoMA collection and have never been exhibited there. Museums should be exhibiting work that excites the public, draws people in through its doors, hopefully educates them a bit while they’re in there, and makes enough (or more) money to produce another exhibition more impressive than the last. If MoMA chooses to curate a Kandinsky exhibition over Under-Appreciated Psychotropic Substance Induced Art of the Late 1960s, then good on them and I hope they continue to do so.

zenmonkey November 3, 2011 at 9:40 am

can someone please point to what particular art in which particular institutions they find objectionable?  The beautiful thing about artists is that they make art because they are compelled to – and there are many many outlets, especially now, to show, display, & inform the general public of their work.  I’m just confused, I guess.  What is the goal here?

Art, like literature, like theater, like music — brilliance will be appreciated by someone, many someones, and will generally rise to prominence. Institutions are sometimes ahead of the curve and sometimes slow the progress – but they, I truly believe, are benign forces of what good can be had with large dollar infusions of corporate backing.  Just because a corporation donates a million dollars doesn’t mean that the art being produced and displayed is tainted.  I am truly confused by this.  I guess there are factions who want to tear down the whole shebang.  But they think in simplistic, reductive terms. There is actually quite a lot of good being done with corporate donations – not all corporate functions are evil.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Justintwn57 October 27, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Ok. Let’s get specific then. MoMA does openly declare a
specific art scene and that is Modern Art and within that specific genre there
is an extensive rage of content. The Folk
Art Museum’s specific
art scene is Folk art, with an extensive rage of content in that genre… and
so on. As far as I know, museums do preserve culture beyond the throws of the
art market and most established museums do not blindly follow the
mainstream art in regards to exhibit/collection either. Museums tend to be
extremely selective and informed when drawing from works within the art market
and again I think it is important to specify which museums you
are referring to. In regards to exhibitions, the museums in this
country have been vanguard in giving a voice to a vast array of cultures and
subject matter.  Now, in response to the business side of things…I
firmly disagree with the idea that the directors “bank accounts and the bank
accounts of their former clients” inform the museum collection in the way
that I think you are implying. So I ask for specifics, which major museum lets
the wallet dictate the aesthetic?  Lastly, I stand by my view that in
general, the studied art professional/museum director in all probability is
better informed than the general public per se. and is certainly less
biased than the average artist in the context of the museum. 

I do agree with you that there are facets of our society
that are traditionally underrepresented by the art world. Areas where no man
has gone before, but I’m willing to bet that they’ll get around to it

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: