In the Air
Art News & Gossip

In the Air – Art+Auction's Gossip Column

Occupy Wall Street’s Arts and Labor Group Demands End of Whitney Biennial

Pin It

Just as 2012 Whitney Biennial anticipation reaches fever pitch ahead of its opening on Thursday, the Arts and Labor group of the Occupy Wall Street movement has published a letter demanding an end to the biannual survey show in 2014. The group objects to the revered exhibition because “it upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers.” Read the letter in full below.

Dear Whitney Museum of American Art,

We are Arts & Labor, a working group founded in conjunction with the New York General Assembly for #occupywallstreet. We are artists and interns, writers and educators, art handlers and designers, administrators, curators, assistants, and students dedicated to exposing and rectifying economic inequalities and exploitative working conditions in our fields through direct action and educational initiatives. We are writing to call for an end to the Whitney Biennial in 2014.

Biennials were born in the nineteenth century, in an era when many nations were young and wished to showcase their greatest cultural products and achievements. The Whitney annuals grew out of this, championed by the patron and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, in a period when American art had little critical or financial support.

Much has changed since the founding of the Whitney Studio in 1914 and the advent of the current biennial format in 1973. The absorption of contemporary art into museums, the rise of a speculative art market, and the need for artists to obtain advanced degrees to participate in the current system have changed how art is produced and exhibited.

We object to the biennial in its current form because it upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers. The biennial perpetuates the myth that art functions like other professional careers and that selection and participation in the exhibition, for which artists themselves are not compensated, will secure a sustainable vocation. This fallacy encourages many young artists to incur debt from which they will never be free and supports a culture industry and financial and cultural institutions that profit from their labors and financial servitude.

The Whitney Museum, with its system of wealthy trustees and ties to the real estate industry perpetuates a model in which culture enhances the city and benefits the 1% of our society while driving others into financial distress. This is embodied both in the biennial’s sponsorship – represented most egregiously in its sponsorship by Sotheby’s, which has locked out its unionized art handlers – and the museum’s imminent move to the Meat Packing District, a neighborhood where artists once lived and worked which is now a gentrified tourist destination that serves the interests of the real estate industry.

We therefore call upon the Whitney in its centennial year to end the biennial and to support the interests of art workers over the capital interests of its trustees and corporate sponsors. As the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City states, “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Art institutions have come to mirror that ethos. We therefore call upon the Whitney to terminate its collusion with this system of injustice and use its resources to imagine sustainable models of creativity and culture that are accessible not just to Americans but to people around the globe.

Arts & Labor


— Benjamin Sutton

Tags: , , ,

Pin It


  1. by Tom Groenfeldt

    The letter demonstrates considerable confusion over cause and effect and displays little faith in an individual’s to make intelligent career decisions.
    Graduate schools, I think, are guilty of overpromising the vocational advantages of their degrees, and newly graduated lawyers have sued several schools over the topic. I suspect the problem is widespread — artists aren’t the only students coming out of school with big debts and small earnings.
    The writers say that a graduate degree is required to participate in the current system. Artists have the choice not to participate in a system which seems to be designed for the advancement of real estate interests. To blame the Whitney for causing art students to go into debt is like accusing the Oscars of being responsible for causing drama students to wait on tables or blaming TV anchor salaries for the debt would-be journalists take on at J School.
    As a journalist in New Jersey I occasionally wrote about photography shows and less frequently about art. Following some of the threads online I thought New York artists have a fairly constricted view of what constitute success, and this letter displays some of that — a desire to be part of the existing system. In Door County, Wisconsin, where I live now, I have several artist friends who make a living through their work and I have met many more who come for the annual Plein Air event who travel and paint and support themselves without the Whitney or Sotheby’s. It can be done.

  2. The art department of the cultural entertainment industry has become infected by capitalist excess, as everything in America has, seemingly. Robert Hughes once referred to the art world, with his usual pithy mordancy, as a carnival attached to a stock market. I agree with OWS on this issue, but suspect that museums will follow the money, as always—and that they will perhaps examine this issue in shows in 20 years, when the shouting is over and the issue is safely in the past. The recent flap over the exploitation of nudity at the MOCA Marina Abramovic donor dinner is a powerful symbol of avant-gardist esthetics (painting is dead!) becoming establishment and maybe even decadent.

  3. #huuugeyaaawn

  4. I support you OWS greatly, but not on this issue. And I am even one of those art school grad students with enormous debt and a degree which failed to provide me appropriate work. I also work as an art handler and know all about the exploitation and lack of health care those jobs have. But this letter sounds like sour grapes. You can’t both be jealous of the system and criticize the system. Are you complaining because you haven’t been included in the Biennial or because you want no part of the system?

    I agree that cities attract tourists and gentrifiers with the creative capital that the arts offer, yet don’t want to support it financially. But having worked with so many artists as an installer, I am no longer convinced that art making is some kind of radical act. In fact, in my experience most artists are naval gazing and apolitical and can’t wait until they hit the motherload of blue chip gallery exposure. Of course there are exceptions and the exceptions often tend to be the best artists. You can argue that the ugly system of art commodification brings out these competitive, arrogant tendencies in the artists and they are not to be blamed for a system that corrupts. But until artists themselves refuse to participate I will not be convinced that they are a group of special enlightened radicals deserving of special treatment.

  5. I agree in principal with OWS. the deck is stacked, the debt is stacked and the dreams of those who have opted in are THAT: DREAMS!

  6. We all made choices about Art School, I, eight yrs, three degrees; that said, we followed the path of work/show, work/show, artist retreats/contests, grants, public art submissions, etc…! Some we got, some not! We all know the game. (If we knew someone on the selection committee, an IN)! WE COMMITTED! I have always been an artist, WILL ALWAYS BE! I make to breathe, or I should say: ‘ making art is to breathe’! So it will be done whether I am recognized by the Whitney or whomever! And I won’t be diminished if that is not acknowledged or validated by a selection. Work for yourself. Work for arts sake. WORK.

  7. @sigmarlin, art is no longer radical because museums like the Whitney and the gallery circuit (in cities like New York anyway), fail to support explicitly political work, or radically independent work. One must go to school and learn to artspeak/make. Only then will you be admitted into the holy shrines of the Whitney et al. Additionally, it is well known that creatives and creative workers in the US are remunerated far less than their European counterparts. I don’t see the problem with artists wanting to be part of the system, all artists want to their work to be seen, and museums are one way of doing that, though of course not the only way. Why shouldn’t OWS and artists demand that the system is fairer, and less beholden to corporate interests? It’s just the first step.

  8. this article needs a link to the source:

Add a Comment