Rain did not deter this week’s Occupy Museums General Assembly, the second in what is an ongoing series of protests. Joined this week by the Art Handlers’ Union, Teamsters Local 814, a group of roughly 60 people collected on the steps of MoMA to protest a system they say has a funding structure and relationship to the market that “disempowers artists, and alienates art from the 99%”. From the museums, they traveled across town to join the picket lines at Sotheby’s just before the launch of their evening Prints sale.
The crowd of protesters was unusually diverse for an art-specific event and according to some protesters larger, even in the rain than last weeks. In attendance was one Guerrilla Girl, a performance poet, and several teamsters. Also, some requisite art folk and a bunch of theatre professionals.
With this week’s theme exploring the relationship between labor and museums, Occupy Museums asked protesters to bring their own manifestos. One occupier wore a sign with a reproduction of a Van Gogh self-portrait and and a quote attributed to the artist: “There is nothing so truly artistic as to love people”. There was not a time when I did not see a soft smile over her face. Another, going by the name of “Scotty”, wore a yellow jacket adorned with labels that read, “This economy sucks”. He also had text that read “one love” on his face. Marching back and forth, the occupier spoke movingly on the subject of inclusivity and his desire for museums to better represent the “100 percent”. This prompted others to make predictions for a “new age of art making” should the museum achieve this goal.
Such utopic calls are not unusual amongst the group and have been described over the Arts and Culture listserve as important to defining the movement. Dystopian visions were also expressed, but tended to elicit less enthusiasm from the crowd. In one bizarre rant, an artist described institutions as bodies that will “deform” and “rape you”. This prompted Deborah Fisher, the Executive Director of the non-profit granting agency A Blade of Grass, to respond: “Institutions are not inherently anything,” she said, “They are made up of people. We get the institutions we deserve.”
Such observations would not have been heard in front of Sotheby’s, a protest that couldn’t have looked more different. No general assembly took place, but a clammer of whistle blowing, bells, and chanting could be heard nearly two blocks over. Art handlers have been locked out by the auction house for more than three months, and are striking against the Sotheby’s proposal to eliminate their retirement benefits completely and gut the union.
Indeed, at Sotheby’s the contrast between the 1 percent and the 99 couldn’t have been more stark. Rain-drenched protestors in plaid shirts and blue uniforms faced Sotheby’s glass doors, behind which men and women in corporate attire chatted amicably as though nothing were going on outside. At one point, Sotheby’s representative Diana Phillips was spotted in the lobby, and an art handler shouted out, “That’s the woman who’s responsible for this!” A billow of boos and whistles erupted from the crowds, but no acknowledgement was offered.
The crowds, according to handler Felix Cardinal, were a “little louder” than usual, though he added that it “depends on the day.” Cardinal, a handler at Sotheby’s for four years and the second-newest employee on staff, mentioned last week’s protest with United Steelworkers as memorable: “They were the ones who taught us about banging on the fence.” Yesterday’s protest was filled with the noise of metallic clangs.
By the end of the night, the signs supporting the strikers were tattered by the rain. The words of warning given to occupiers on the way to Sotheby’s hung in the air. Stopping the crowd, a teamster member prepped the protesters. “This won’t be quite as rosey.” He was right.