Despite the broad popular support for Occupy Wall Street, its art world incarnations have been more hotly contested. Chief among the critiques of Occupy Museums, Occupy 38, and Occupy Internet has been a lack of clearly defined goals; while some of us want to tear down the walls of MoMA, others like our de Koonings well enough to prefer change over demolition. Across the spectrum, artists and critics call out for a single purpose that is objectively worth our energy and attention. One such opportunity has arisen in the dispute between Sotheby’s and the union representing its art-handling staff.
The word “dispute” may be a misnomer here. The trouble actually didn’t start with the union making demands, Sotheby’s deciding they were unreasonable, and the union calling for a strike. As Whitney Kimball and I confirmed in August, local Teamsters president Jason Ide was in the middle of contract negotiations when, on a Friday afternoon, unionized art handlers found slips in their mailboxes instructing them not to come to work on Monday –hence the phrase “locked out”. The temping company Modern Staffing swiftly moved in to replace them with part-time workers with little or no experience handling valuable works of art.
The line between the good guys and the bad guys couldn’t be clearer if Sotheby’s PR staff had goatees and East German accents and one of the Teamsters looked like Bruce Willis.
This is a company that reported $680 million in gross profits last year. Occupy Wall Street supporters in general can see the absurdity of Sotheby’s laying off people who were getting the job done, and doing it well, citing economic hardship. Occupy Museum supporters can see how the problem at Sotheby’s resonates with the undue power a few small institutions have over how art is seen, bought, sold and made in the current order.
Both parties would do well to make their voices heard when Sotheby’s holds a major auction at their York Ave address later this week. Supporters within and without the art world can go a long way to righting a clear wrong by showing solidarity with the Teamsters at 6 PM this Wednesday, at 1334 York Avenue, between E. 71st and E. 72nd St.