by brian boucher 01/17/12
On Friday, The Museum of Modern Art was once again targeted by Occupy Museums, bringing their protest inside the building on a bitterly cold evening. Occupy Museums has staged a number of demonstrations since October; this was a homecoming of sorts, since the first protest took place at MoMA.
Over the two-hour event, protesters, ranging in number from one to several dozen, led a group discussion about art, capitalism and class struggle in the galleries devoted to the exhibition "Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art," and held a general assembly in the second-floor atrium. They were joined by representatives of the Arts and Labor Group of Occupy Wall Street, artists' group 16 Beaver and Occupy Sotheby's.
The main thrust of the occupiers' complaints was that two MoMA board members, James Niven and Richard E. Oldenburg, are also involved with Sotheby's (as a vice chairman and consultant, respectively), which has locked out its unionized art handlers over a contract dispute. A representative of OWS Labor Outreach (who gave his name only as "Alex") proclaimed in the Rivera exhibition, "The fact that MoMA will show Diego Rivera while breaking labor is a disgrace." Noah Fischer, the artist who is the main organizer of Occupy Museums, repeatedly asserted that Sotheby's has spent more on locking the workers out than it would have on their wages.
Friday's protest aimed at a more specific and relevant target than some of the group's previous actions. Occupy Museums was widely derided in the blogosphere at its inception, partly due to the Khmer Rouge undertones of Fischer's call to action, which opened, "The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%." Their second protest, after beginning at MoMA, was to proceed to the Frick Collection, to criticize union-buster Henry Clay Frick, whom they called "the worst CEO in history." This was greeted online by a collective shrug.
In the Rivera galleries, protesters distributed, and partially read aloud, a 1938 text signed by Rivera and Andre Breton, titled "Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art." Security guards interceded only to prevent photography, which is prohibited in special exhibitions. Protesters asserted loudly in the crowded galleries that art is not a luxury item, but rather part of the commons, the inheritance of all people.
Creative Time curator Nato Thompson, a participant in the protest, pointed out that while The New York Times was slow to cover Occupy Wall Street, it was fascinated with the Egyptian revolution. He saw a similar phenomenon in MoMA's exhibition of Rivera: "Rivera can be abstracted from the present. Would he really want us to passively enjoy his murals? If you really love this show you'll get off your ass and overthrow your boss!"
The occupiers chose MoMA's Free Fridays, which are sponsored by Target, partly for historical reasons: free public hours grew out of demands by the Art Workers' Coalition, a group of artists protesting war and capitalism in the sixties. "It's now branded as free Target day," said Rene Gabri, an artist representing 16 Beaver. "It's absurd."
Christopher Kelly, visiting New York City with his family from the upstate village of Painted Post, engaged the protesters with pointed questions: Why is Target suddenly so evil? Doesn't someone have to pay the guards, and to keep the lights on? And doesn't someone always have the power when money is involved? "But brands destroy art," Thompson rebutted. Another protestor called out, "But everything today has become a commodified product."
During a general assembly in the second-floor atrium, currently home to the show "Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence," protesters briefly hung a banner from a fifth-floor walkway. It read, in part, "Hang art, not workers. End your lockout." The protesters cheered, then broke out into smaller groups to discuss, as Gabri suggested, "What kind of resistance will be necessary to alter the trend of corporatization of public institutions, including art institutions?"
Various suggestions were floated, such as art historian Ben Young's recommendation to use sympathetic spaces such as New York's ABC No Rio, a center for activism; another demonstrator called attention to the threat of tuition being charged at Cooper Union. But soon enough, it was 8 P.M., closing time, and the protesters made their way out of the museum along with the rest of its visitors.
Visitor reactions varied. "Some of us came to see the art," one woman huffed in the Rivera galleries. Christopher Kelly's 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, was optimistic. "As long as they stay organized," she predicted about the protesters, "they'll go far."