Occupy the museums … or, simply don’t

thumb33I have been watching and, in spirit, am all for the Occupy Wall Street protests because I feel the issues being raised need to be discussed. I truly wish the banks would get involved, to help balance out the conversation, but apparently they’re too busy raking in record profits.

That said, I find the Occupy the Museums notion a bit too misguided (and more than a bit ironic) to let it go without comment.

In a nutshell the message of the Occupy the Museums effort is :

Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are
at your door!

Let’s begin with the fact that despite $20 and $25 dollar entry fees, the people seem more than happy to keep passing through the doors of New York’s museums :

What’s more, they offer alternatives for people who can’t afford those fees. So there’s apparently NOT a serious “access for the people” issue here.

More specifically, Occupy the Museum’s rallying cry is:

For the last few decades, voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money. To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool.

Er…uh…the critique of institutions is alive (*cough* #class) and well (*cough* #rank) by artists like William Powhida (whose new show opens Saturday) and Jennifer Dalton (whose current show ends this Saturday. (Full disclosure, I represent Dalton, but that’s why I find the notion that institutional critique is being discouraged so out of touch, it’s also why I can report that BIG money seems to get and does indeed buy such art as well).

So there really is no “hushing” going on here.

So if it’s not that “the people” are being denied access to the museums, and it’s not that artists are afraid to critique the institutions, what is it really that this protest can accomplish?

Their stated goals continue:

The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.

This strikes me as a gross oversimplification of what motivates curators and museum boards to mount shows. Although there is a popular sense that inflating certain markets does occur to certain decision makers at times, most museum curator I know are indeed passionate about the artists they work with, and the persuasion going on is, generally speaking, from them to the board members, not the other way around. Furthermore, the correlation between museum shows inflating the value of individual collections has never been shown. That’s a red herring that does a disservice to board members who could spend their money on far less altruistic things than supporting art and museums.

But I think this text jumps the shark with claims of “stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.” What is or isn’t “flimsy” is a matter of opinion, and the history of art is nothing if not a shifting of opinions. As for “fraudulent” deals, I think I’d consult a good libel attorney before throwing that accusation around so casually and indirectly.

Ultimately, though, I find this an opportunistic and somewhat ahistorical argument. Take this line:

For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of
the intense commercialization and co-optation or art.

That’s only true if by “past decade” you mean “past few centuries.” And it’s only wholly true if you acknowledge that the victimizers (i.e., those responsible for the “intense commercialization”) include many, many artists as well.

Mind you, I think the protest should move forward and I’ll be very curious to see how the museums respond. I suspect they’ll accommodate the protesters as best they can.

I just don’t think the motivation as outlined in the official text is even remotely accurate and probably won’t be very productive. Moreover, I think a better way to get the museums to change (if that’s your goal) is to encourage people NOT to occupy them…but that’s just me.

Author: Edward Winkleman

New York art dealer (Winkleman Gallery : www.winkleman.com) and author of blog on art and politics (http://edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com)

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