On Friday night, Jan. 13, 2012, a trumpet sounded outside the Museum of Modern Art at exactly 6 pm and a banner was unfurled by its front door, announcing the presence of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Museums, a working group of OWS, had decided to take advantage of Free Fridays at the museum and enter the premises for a well-organized teach-in. It was a band of approximately 20 participants -- a group that included professional arts activists like Creative Time curator Nato Thompson, Queens College art professors Greg Shollette and Maureen Connor, and Jim Costanza, a founder of the once-active collective Repo History.
Once inside the museum, they quickly collected in front of The Uprising, Diego Rivera’s 1931 painting of a labor demonstration that shows a soldier and a worker being separated by a woman cradling an infant (a picture that MoMA has used throughout the subway system to advertise its Rivera exhibition). Someone shouted "mike check" and the protesters immediately formed a human microphone, Zuccotti Park-style.
"What would Diego have said?" asked one. Among the answers was a demand to end the lockout of Teamsters Local 814, the Sotheby's art handlers, who have been on the picket line for the past four months. Then, a speaker stepped forward to read Rivera's own manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art, co-authored with André Breton in 1938.
"We can say without exaggeration that never has civilization been menaced as seriously as today," starts the manifesto, sounding a bit like a parody of contemporary Republican talking points. The chant-reading and repeating continued for ten minutes, providing a rousing accompaniment to the Diego Rivera murals in the gallery. The performance was made all the more visceral by the guards hovering just a few feet away and surrounding the group. Some museum visitors joined in while others kvetched, "Are you done yet?"
But Occupy Museums wasn't done yet. It went from the Rivera exhibition down the hall to the museum café, where the group continued to harp on the Sotheby's lockout and MoMA’s ties to the auction house. According to Occupy Museums, two MoMA boardmembers -- director emeritus Richard Oldenburg and Sotheby’s auctioneer James G. Niven -- are also on the board of Sotheby's, along with restauranteur Danny Meyer, who operates the museum cafes.
Artist Noah Fischer, who launched Occupy Museums in October, shouted to diners that they would not be so comfortable eating if they knew about the situation at Sotheby's. The waiters applauded. "It's all interconnected," said "Alex" from the OWS Labor working group. "It's very incestuous."
The protest then moved into the museum atrium, where, beneath Sanja Ivekovic's soaring Lady Rosa of Luxembourg obelisk, the protestors called for a "general assembly." Flyers fluttered down from above and Occupy Museums members hung a banner from the fifth floor balcony, reading, "If Art Insists on Being a Luxury, It Will Also Be a Lie," a quote from Albert Camus. Charges against MoMA were made repeatedly, including the perfectly true if inflammatory claim that "MoMA sells its art through Sotheby's."
Still, the protest held the attention of the museum audience, which surrounded the group and watched from above. MoMA did a good job of exercising restraint, allowing the action to continue unimpeded, rather than risk any kind of publicity disaster.
In the past two decades, “political protest” has become almost routine at our museums, as curators commission such work in the name of "participatory art" and "relational esthetics." Museums have long been subject of political analysis, from the Art Workers Coalition to Hans Haacke, the Guerrilla Girls, Andrea Fraser and many others. As for Occupy Museums, it’s not hard to dismiss its earnest activity as a tired rehash of longstanding objections to the corporatization of American art institutions.
(In fact, as Occupy Museums itself noted, in the 1970s the Art Workers Coalition staged protests at the museum to criticize the connections of MoMA boardmembers with the military industrial complex, to demand the removal of Nelson Rockefeller from the board for his bloody handling of the Attica prison uprising, and to demand free hours at the museum. MoMA responded by establishing Free Fridays, now Target Free Friday Nights. Occupy Museums noted that the public pays a price when Target gets free advertising.)
Unlike many of its predecessors, however, the Occupy Museums protest was straightforward and political, not “dressed up” as an art event. And as it drew to a close, it was clear that Occupy Museums raises important questions. Why, for instance, does our highly developed art scene ignore important issues of financial and social justice yet deliver up spot paintings to great acclaim? Why cannot museums function as contemporary commons, rather than as reputation-laundering facilities for hedge-fund managers and corporations?
MoMA spokesperson Kim Mitchell was on hand at the event on Friday, with a worried look on her face. "Our official position is no comment," she said. Meanwhile, Occupy Museums is waiting to hear about the fate of its banner, confiscated by museum guards. "If they agree to our conditions, we will let the museum acquire it for the permanent collection," said one member. He wasn't talking about money. He was asking for the museum to take action.
If you want to restore your sense that change is possible in the art world, I recommend that you check out Occupy Museums on Facebook (and keep an eye out for its dedicated website, scheduled to open soon). If you're too cold or old to come out to an action, or if you own a Damien Hirst, just pass this information on.
BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).