In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement had the nation up in arms over economic inequality. The protests against the saturation of wealth by the 1 percent showed people were desperate for social change. At the height of the demonstrations, protesters set up camps in New York City’s Zuccotti Park for several months, inspiring satellite protests in different cities across the country and internationally. Eventually, the Occupy movement petered out after police forcibly removed protesters from Zuccotti Park, leaving many— including co-founder Micah White— doubtful the about the long-term impact of their efforts. However, the legacy of Occupy is still alive and has filtered into possibly unexpected avenues such as the arts.
On November 18, Pioneer Works, an interdisciplinary arts center in Brooklyn, held a talk with artist, activist and scholar Coco Fusco and artist-activist Noah Fischer about Occupy Museums-- a movement launched in 2011 to call out economic and social injustice in institutions of art and culture following the recession of 2008.
Income inequality continues to be a big deal in both the art world and beyond. According to CNN, in the US alone, the top 1 percent controls 38.6 percent of the country's wealth. That percentage of is nearly double that of the bottom 90 percent at 22. 8 percent. What’s worse is the economic divide has only increased over time as the rich get richer and the working class stagnates.
“There is a good deal of interesting art that aims to make people think about political situations in the world.”
The event coincidentally took place three days after the six-year anniversary of the police eviction of Occupy protesters at Zuccotti Park. The space felt reminiscent of the Occupy protesters camp in the park, filled with artist-instructors from the Pioneer Works’ Fact Craft series—programs meant to challenge identity, data and the notion of alternative facts. Prior to listening to Fusco and Fisher, audience members milled about the space, speaking with various artists about their political and creative endeavors.
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During the talk, Fusco and Fischer spoke anecdotally about how top-tier art schools-- which Occupy Museums lists on their site-- would lure students into expensive programs with the promise of making them rich artists upon graduation. According to Fusco and Fischer, only a handful of graduates from these overpriced art programs would become financially successful fine artists while the rest were left drowning in loans.
In 2012, Occupy Museums started Debtfair, an exhibition for artists to discuss their debts and put a face on the starving artist trope. Also, in 2013, a Wall Street Journal report based on Department of Education statistics confirms that art school graduates acquire more debt than students of other colleges.
Earlier this year, Occupy Museums was also a part of the Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York with an installation of their Debtfair project. The group held a counter-commencement ceremony at the Whitney, in which students from the class of 2017 talked about the issue of loan debt— some wearing nothing but body paint and taped-on dollar bills.
In June, New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez introduced a bill to the House that would alleviate student debt for professionals with careers in art. The legislation, known as the American Arts Revival Act, has been cosponsored by other representatives but is currently being held up in the Education and Workforce Committee.
On their website, Occupy Museums states that “art and culture are for the commons,” and that “art is not a luxury.” They’ve taken action by protesting various issues at museums from fracking natural gas at the Whitney, climate change denial at the Met and labor rights in the Gulf at the Guggenheim.
“We set out to, generally speaking, politicize the space of museums.”
One could ask why protest in the museums and not on Capitol Hill where people in power may be able to affect change. “We set out to, generally speaking, politicize museums [to] make museums more accountable and more of a public space than they were before,” Fischer told VICE Impact following the talk at Pioneer Works.
As long as the demonstrations aren’t destructive, the protests are seemingly undisturbed by security and are given some leeway by museum officials.
On the arts ability to change the culture or motivate political activism, Fusco remains optimistic. “I teach young adults,” Fusco told VICE Impact in an email interview. “I try to engage them in discussions of social issues and how artists address those issues. I do think that there is a good deal of interesting art that aims to make people think about political situations in the world.”
DJ and Bernie Sanders campaign organizer Luis Calderin is a firm believer in art shaping politics and culture. “There has always been a role for musicians and artists to play, to utilize their platform as a way to tell the people – We the People – what is actually happening in politics and more importantly what was happening in their communities at a micro-local level,” Calderin told VICE Impact in an email interview. “They are here to interpret and tell the truths of what is actually happening in society.”
“There has been a victory not attributed to one group's work alone but to being part of a wave of different groups and tactics like Gulf Labor, Liberate Tate, Decolonize This Place, and Chinatown Art Brigade and a lot of groups that speak truth to power in art spaces,” Fischer told VICE Impact. These groups are all anti-establishment art organizations like Occupy Museums that are dedicated to combining art with activism.
Fischer also feels that Occupy Museums has been a successful movement that has had an impact on systems outside the New York art world, which can feel inaccessible to people who may be art lovers but aren’t art industry insiders. “Everything we’re talking about is a process that’s happening all over the US and all over the world,” he said.
Contact your representatives and let them know you’re concerned about the high costs associated with getting a college degree and the financial burden of debt that too often comes with that education after graduation. For talking points, check out the recently released manifesto from Future Forum (a group of House Democrats) on making higher education more accessible and affordable.