On Friday night, Occupy Museums — in conjunction with Arts and Labor, 16 Beaver, and Occupy Sotheby's — conducted an exceptionally clear and efficient GA under Sanja Iveković’s controversial feminist monument Lady Rosa of Luxembourg, while a small group from Arts and Labor demonstrated with OWS banners and a flugelhorn outside the museum. Though “this isn’t Wall Street” was the general response from museum visitors, articulate speakers pinpointed specific issues. Feasible goals were set. The crowd, of about fifty people in the atrium and a combined sixty looking down from MoMA’s three landings, included a notable increase in women and academics.
Using the people’s mic, Occupy Museums co-organizer Natasha opened with the remark that museums often display the spoils of colonialism, explaining why there is so little gender and racial diversity amongst artists shown.
Another man read the first paragraph of an Occupy Museums statement:
…art is the inheritance of all people to be shared equally. Art is not a luxury item, but twenty-five-dollar admission fees are a luxury item. We call on MoMA to extend its free hours and make art accessible to all.
The decision to meet on a Target-sponsored Free Friday not only allowed everyone to meet within the museum, but also marked a historic concession made between the museum and an artists’ protest. Free Fridays are the result of a campaign by the Art Workers’ Coalition in the early 1970’s for free museum admission; MoMA eventually granted one day per week, which is now Target-sponsored.
A middle-aged woman in glasses addressed this:
I would like to know why we have to depend on the beneficence of an entity like Target. What kind of economic system lets one company or person amass so much wealth that they get to decide what is free and what will cost? Who gets health care? What African countries get aid? What diseases get researched, who gets educated, what kind of technology forms our culture? Can we imagine an economic system that would be based on something besides amassed wealth and the concentrated power that now proceeds therefrom?
Many snaps and woos followed.
Soon after, a large banner was dropped from the third floor balcony; I did not catch what it said, but it resulted in a few rounds of “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street.” In response to this action, Noah Fischer announced:
…we would like the lock-out of the art handlers at Sotheby’s to end today. The Museum of Modern Art has the power to do that. There are two people on the board of trustees at MoMA who are also on the Sotheby’s board. This is a conflict of interest, but it could also be an opportunity. Put our brothers and sisters back to work. We are calling on this lock-out to end today, Friday the 13th, 2012.
Earlier in the evening, I had asked a member of the Arts and Labor group whether he saw any progress made in the art handlers’ negotiations. His answer was no, but Sotheby’s is now spending almost as much on security as they would on paying unionized art handlers.
We then broke into small groups to discuss the prompt: “What kind of resistance will be necessary to alter the trend of corporatization of public institutions, including institutions of art?” After ten minutes, the crowd reconvened.
A former Cooper Union professor brought to our attention the fact that Cooper Union may soon begin charging students. A younger, student-aged girl in her group noted that “institutions are composed of students, workers, and professors – none of whom are the institution themselves” and wondered:
[h]ow can each of these members – artists who want to talk to other artists – insert themselves in the institution so that they do not become prey to it?
An older, heavily accented European man in their group mentioned that over a million people have now signed a pledge refusing to pay back their student loans. “[Education is] a resource that is not scarce,” he said. “You shouldn’t be paying for it.”
Nato Thompson of Creative Time then addressed transparency in large institutions:
Part one: …Does anyone know where the money is coming from? Part two: Even if we do accomplish free museums for everyone, how do we educate our children to be ready to exploit these free entries to the museums and culture of our cities?
Nato, toward the end of the meeting:
I work in a non-profit, and I want to clarify that the problem of the one percent being in cahoots with non-profits is extremely structural. It’s the way the system is built. If we want to change that system, we have to radically get rid of the non-profit idea entirely. And simultaneously, the one awesome thing about non-profits is their mission statement to serve the public good. If there is a conflict of interest where the actions of that institution do not meet that mission statement, it’s a strategic opportunity to strike.
The assembly then discussed alternative spaces; a young woman noted that “if a big institution doesn’t serve the community, then it shouldn’t have a 501c3. There should be no tax write-offs,” and suggested that the group “occupy an alternative space, like CHARAS in the East Village.”
A young man then addressed the institutionalization of alternative spaces. This comment resonated most of all:
She mentioned CHARAS, an alternative space that's closed on the Lower East Side. I wanna point out it's actually contained in this museum in an exhibit in the contemporary art wing that includes flyers from alternative art spaces like CHARAS and ABC No Rio from the Lower East Side in the 1980s. That is dead history. The question, it seems, is how to activate that history. It’s here in these halls for our taking and activating- we just have to make use of it.
An older women:
….The fact that private public spaces like this are iconic like Liberty Square … these kinds of public conversations and provocations and actions need to happen everywhere. We invite you to participate in generating a new, living civic society.
Those last two comments felt especially poignant, given that we were surrounded by newspaper headlines and television broadcasts around Sanja Iveković’s monument, which, only ten years earlier, had prompted a widespread public debate about freedom of speech and women’s rights.
When I asked Occupy Museums co-organizer Harrison Magee about Occupy Museums’ focus, he replied that he hoped that artists would raise their expectations for basic workers’ rights. “We think we’re supposed to work for free until someone hits the jackpot, but that’s just because of the way our system is built.”
Magee also confirmed hopes to expand support to more strikes and lock-outs in the future; he mentioned that, aside from Sotheby’s, 114 workers are currently locked out of the City Opera. “We want working people to know that they can win with our help.”