Occupy Museums exposes cultural institutions that serve the nation’s wealthiest citizens at the expense of the vast majority. Here we offer an update on this evolving protest. We believe that institutions promoting a cult of celebrity, unfair labor practices, extreme commodification of art, and which trivialize or glamorize political struggle and protest are only the logical outcome of an entire culture stolen from the people by the 1%. We point to the visual promotion of corporate or private sponsorship seemingly without limit- as if this small group, not the public, truly own our cultural commons. In addition, our current tax code which is tilted to benefit the wealthiest in our society declares that the full market value of artworks donated to museums, or placed in corporate offices can be written off. It is therefore a massive conflict of interest for the same people to sit on the boards of both the auction houses and museums in effect, maximizing tax-free profits and social status as they minimize the benefit of their personal wealth to the society. As artists of Occupy Wall Street we recognize that these practices are bad for our culture and bad for art. While most American struggle with problems caused by the recklessness and greed of many in the top 1% and the overwhelming economic inequality in the US today, it is time to reclaim the commons of art and culture from the narrow confines of a market that has become an inside-game.
Occupy Museums is an ongoing protest that formed in October 2011. We are an agile action group within the OWS Movement. This meme, Occupy Museums, was proposed in early October 2011 to the Arts and Culture working group within Occupy Wall Street and was given enthusiastic consensus. With great urgency, the first action was organized for the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum. Participants staged an OWS-style assembly in front of the museums where a manifesto was read and injustices in the world of arts and culture were spoken publicly using the people’s mic. This first action was widely covered in the press and debated on countless online forums. At the end of the action, directors of MoMA came down and asked what we wanted. We replied that we had no demands, but would continue to Occupy each week in order to open up a meaningful conversation about economic injustice and abuse of the public for the gain of the 1% in cultural institutions. They were invited to join our General Assembly at the next occupation.
For the second action, we re-occupied MoMA holding a “Bring Your Own Manifesto (BYOM) assembly, and formed alliances with Teamsters Local 814 who had been locked out of their art handling jobs at Sotheby’s. The teamsters brought flyers tying MoMA board members and donors to Sotheby’s. This time, rather than being met by MoMA directors, we were greeted by the NYPD and their barricades. After the police demanded that we protest within a steel pen off of the sidewalk and away from MoMA’s main entrance, the General Assembly facilitator refused to speak to the police unless they used the people’s mic. Thus the group was empowered to talk to the police as a whole. Needless to say, it did not give consensus on the proposal to enter the police pen. We demanded that the police explain the rules of public space in front of the museum through the GA format. As it was legal to be there (we now know that the NYPD does not encourage people to excercize or know their legal rights), we held our ground, and continued our assembly. Manifestos were read about the abuse of unpaid intern labor in galleries and museums, an Irish revolutionary song was sung, and a ballet was danced (toe shoes and all). After everyone had read their manifestos, we headed to Sotheby’s to join the picket line of the Teamsters Local 814 in the freezing cold rain.
For the third action, we occupied the David H. Koch Dinosaur wing of the American Museum of Natural History— donning dinosaur masks and giving guided tours through the bones of T-Rex and friends about the potential menaces of philanthropy. We gave a full overview of all the philanthropic activities of the Koch dynasty including the funding the Tea Party, right-wing think tanks, numerous anti-climate change initiatives. We told a story of the history of the ferocious Koch-asauras, rooted in the anti-communism paranoia and the racist underpinnings of the John Birch Society. A medium channeled the voices of dinosaurs past while doing an interpretive dance with a crystal ball. We did a mass dinosaur die-in followed by a discussion of what alternative models of philanthropy might look like.
For the fourth action, we joined a chorus of voices including artists, labor unions, and allies and re-occupied Sotheby’s joining the lock-out Teamsters on their picket line for the Fall Contemporary Art sale. We gathered and rallied in Liberty Park, occupied the subways, and joined the crowds at Sotheby’s. We stood in solidarity with the Unions, demanding that profits should not be made off of the backs of working people. We stood strong as brave friends engaged in a direct action “lock-down,” that included U-locking their necks to one another in protest of the locked out workers. These direct actions gave us energy and determination as we watched the police violently arrest and drag protesters away.
For the fifth action, we joined the student movement to occupy the opera at Julliard. This was the premiere of Kommilitonen!— an opera by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies about the history of the student protest movement—performed by Julliard students. Chanting “Off the Stage and Into the Streets,” and surrounded by a heavy police presence, we greeted the opera lovers as they exited the building to find that the protests they had just witnessed onstage were uncomfortably real. We were joined on our side of NYPD barricades by director and librettist David Pountney who used the people’s mic to thank us for “taking the opera seriously.” We finally marched to Lincoln Center and occupied the steps of Josie Robertson Plaza in a tense standoff with the NYPD and Lincoln Center officials where we were told by a director of Lincoln Center that proteste were forbidden on Lincoln Center by court order before being physically evicted from the steps.
For the sixth action, we occupied Lincoln Center during their last showing of the Philip Glass opera, ‘Satyagraha.’ It was a glaringly obvious contradiction that the Lincoln Center would present an opera about the non-violent protest leaders Gandhi and Martin Luther King First, when Lincoln Center is heavily funded by David H Koch and Bloomber LP, who is currently bent on dismantling the OWS protests, restricting freedom of speech and of the press. For this action, hundreds gathered at the police barricades all around the Lincoln Center plaza. We took off our shoes as a sign of dignity and mic checked a statement together. When the opera ended and people poured out onto Lincoln Plaza, the opera audience was warded off from joining us by the police. All of a sudden, the composer Philip Glass popped up in the OWS crowd, and mic-checked a text from the opera three times. This unified the crowd, completing the big assembly on both sides of the barricades. Many spoke including an opera singer from Lincoln Center who had been fired the day before on cutbacks. Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed were there and spoke. Finally, an autonomous OWS protester read a statement initiating his six day hunger strike, demanding that Lincoln Center open up its space to Freedom of Speech.
For the seventh action, we joined with Occupy 477 in Harlem, a low-income home that is currently battling foreclosure by predatory lenders, and marched from Harlem to the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street. 477 W. 142nd Street is a landmark building on Alexander Hamilton’s former estate. The building has served for decades as a residence for low-income families and been a key site of the black community in New York City. It just so happens that The Museum of Finance on Wall Street is housed in the former headquarters of the Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton—America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton created the country’s financial system. On December 6th, a day that the OWS movement highlighted foreclosures nationally, we marched a replica of 477 W. 142nd Street to the Museum of American Finance, and offer it as an exhibit of the damaging effects of Wall Street’s financial system on American’s everyday lives. In response, the museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, whose “CEO” was a longtime Wall Street trader, locked its doors and shut its security gate in our face, during visitor hours!
As we look towards future actions, we are invigorated by the power of collaboration and creative action and by ‘satyagraha’ or “truth-force.”
In spite of the cultural poverty of mass media, through which the wealthy profit by staged controversy and constantly misinforming the 99%, we at Occupy Museums continue to drive an open and public dialog about the stranglehold that the wealthiest have on our arts and culture. This is already working. Although many newspapers and blogs initially scoffed at the Occupy Museums protest, we now see journalism that for the first time dares to criticize museums that abuse their call to serve the public such as “A Families Billions, Artfully Sheltered” in the New York Times which discussed Ronald Lauder and his Neue Gallery. Many more articles and studies about economic disparity in the arts are on their way. This is only the beginning of a change in our culture where the abuse of the commons is gradually brought out into the daylight- we believe that this will ultimately result in better institutions and exciting artistic forms. In Occupy Wall Street, we are taking the first steps toward a future where our cultural commons are truly shared and celebrated, not hoarded by the few. Look out for us at a museum near you!