This morning members from various Occupy Wall Street artist groups — Arts & Labor, Occupy Museums, and Arts & Culture — acting independently released a very official-looking fake Whitney Museum press release (see below) announcing that the museum would close in observance of May Day and OWS’s planned General Strike before reopening on May 2 “a wholly changed institution,” breaking with major corporate sponsors Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank, and “restructuring to respond to the needs of the public it serves instead of the private interests of a small minority who possess a vast majority of the nation’s wealth.”
Though, as Lee Rosenbaum notes, the Whitney will be closed on May Day in any case as it’s a Tuesday, the full text of the OWS press release teases some very fundamental changes to the institution, from the addition of protests during the 2012 Biennial’s opening to the official catalogue, to an ongoing collaborative performance with the locked out art handlers from Sotheby’s.
Here is the fake press release in full:
Whitney Museum to Close for May Day; Announces Governance Changes, Special Addition to 2012 Biennial Programming
In response to overwhelming demand, the Whitney Museum will close its doors on May 1 so that artists, museum workers, and patrons will be able to join the “day without the 99%” and general strike planned for May Day. By taking this action, the Museum acknowledges the labor performed not only by the artists in our exhibitions, but also the labor of everyone who cleans our building; sells tickets and checks coats; guards, handles, maintains, and conserves the art; curates and programs our exhibitions; and educates our public. The Museum also respects the wishes of the artists included in the ongoing 2012 Biennial, who have strongly expressed their demand that the museum either cover or remove their works from the exhibition during this time. The Museum supports their call to cease business as usual and to take art into the streets on this historic day.
About Upcoming Changes to the Museum
The Museum expects to reopen on May 2 a wholly changed institution. This transformation began when we made the difficult decision to break with two of our main corporate sponsors, Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank, on the eve of the opening of the 2012 Biennial. The Museum has since appointed an officer to begin vetting each of its sponsors as part of an ongoing restructuring to respond to the needs of the public it serves instead of the private interests of a small minority who possess a vast majority of the nation’s wealth. The Museum will also soon increase the representation of artists, art workers, and low- and middle-income patrons on its board. And because of the importance of making multiple visits to the Museum to view all of the time-based work included in the 2012 Biennial, and the desire to make this work more accessible to audiences of all kinds, the Museum is also committed to lowering its admission price and offering free entry to the performance floor for the duration of the exhibition.
A glowing New York Times review of the Biennial recently credited the exhibition with offering “redemption for the out-of-control, money-saturated art world,” claiming the show “tacitly separates art objects from the market.” But such a claim would be hypocritical were the separation of objects from the market secured by further subjecting people to its forces; redemption for things would be utterly false were it attained through further perdition of people. Such redemption would have remained a compensatory illusion had the Museum continued to take money from sponsors like Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank, who profit from the worst predations of financial speculation and corporate capitalism. The Museum recognizes that wishful thinking alone does not separate art objects from their social and material conditions, from the people who create, handle, maintain, or interact with them. Aesthetic autonomy for objects cannot be bought with the spoils gained through exploitation. This is why the Museum had to stand materially, and not just stylistically, against market forces by refusing to partner with sponsors who exploit workers, customers, borrowers, and artists in the name of maximizing profits. The Museum welcomes public input on the ways it can take further action to provide a space of public discourse apart from the dictates of finance, profiteering, and austerity. The Museum also calls on the public to assist and support us in turning back the increasing privatization and corporatization of museums, which is part of a much larger attack on all public goods and services.
Collaborative Performance with Sotheby’s Workers Added to Whitney Biennial 2012; Fourth Floor Redesignated Cultural Commons
The Whitney is also proud to announce the expansion of an ongoing collaboration with art handlers from Sotheby’s, who have been locked out of their jobs for nine months. They have been invited back to use the Biennial’s fourth-floor performance space as their work space for organizing and planning their struggle for decent jobs, health care, and slightly more economic equality in negotiating a fair contract their employer. Despite record-breaking profits and large bonuses for its executives, Sotheby’s has sought to break their union and starve them into submission at the bargaining table. Instead of renting out the Museum to Sotheby’s for the previously scheduled private party and preview of the Biennial—which mortgages the cultural authority of the Museum to corporations seeking to coat their profiteering with a veneer of respectability—the Museum insists on making its facilities available to art workers who need them most. Of course, their struggle is but one among many, and the Museum hopes that this collaboration will lead to future work with other such groups.
In light of this collaboration, the Whitney now recognizes that its invitation to an individual artist to live in the Museum for the duration of the Biennial—a performance still ongoing on the third floor—is a far too limited, perfunctory attempt at merging art and life. Rather than provide special accommodations to just a single individual, the Museum will now also offer up the fourth-floor performance space as a cultural commons available to all, creating a space for collaboration, performance, organizing, and creative reuse where public, nonhierarchical, radically democratic groups can freely gather. The Museum recognizes its unique placement in proximity to the great concentration of wealth on the Upper East Side makes it an important, strategic location in the geography of economic inequality.
Biennial Opening Events Added to Exhibition and Catalogue
The Whitney was happy to welcome the demonstrators who stood outside the Museum on Tuesday, February 28, to greet our guests of the VIP opening to the Biennial. While the Museum appreciated the effort to educate our patrons about the ongoing attack on workers and organized labor by Biennial sponsor Sotheby’s, greater action was necessary. Therefore, the Museum was happy to bring a number of the art handlers locked out of their jobs at Sotheby’s off the streets and into the museum the following night, including them as invited guests to the opening on Wednesday, February 29.
That evening the art handlers, with a number of their supporters from Occupy Wall Street and other groups concerned with workers’ rights and economic justice, held an assembly on the fourth floor of the performance space. At the assembly, one Sotheby’s art handler stated: “Sotheby’s is a major sponsor of the biennial and the poster child for anti-worker practices in the art world. Even though they made over $700 million dollars in revenue [$171 million in profit], they are trying to destroy the lives of their art handlers and get rid of our union. We are not on strike. We have been forced out of our jobs and without paychecks for over seven months. Our families have no healthcare. This kind of oppressive greed should not be tolerated in the art world.”
A banner reading “Quit Sotheby’s” that was unfurled behind the speakers at the assembly was donated to the Museum. The Whitney is happy to add it to the Biennial for the duration of the exhibition. As an institution dedicated to the public interest, the Whitney has an obligation to use its platform to facilitate actions that promote the good of the many over the greed and profits of the few. Linking the space of the street and the space of the museum, this dynamic, participatory event is a model for the kind of experiences the Museum hopes will continue to take place in the fourth-floor performance space. Breaking down the divide between participant and spectator, the form of the public assembly was especially important in getting patrons out of the bleachers and onto the stage. As Biennial curator Elizabeth Sussman remarked, “We’re delighted we naturally got involved with Occupy Wall Street.” Documentation of the event and a full transcript of the assembly will be published online and as a supplement inserted into the Whitney Biennial 2012 exhibition catalogue, currently available in the Museum bookstore.
— Benjamin Sutton
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article attributed the group responsible for this action as only members of Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Labor group, when in fact it was the work of members from several Occupy Wall Street groups — Arts & Labor, Occupy Museums, and Arts & Culture — acting independently.