Museum Activism

A sheet-rocked wall is torn open at the Whitney Museum of American Art, jagged, colossal and chaotic. Its mouth is full of an eclectic collection of artwork, mounted in groups on busy backgrounds. On closer inspection, the rows of red-tipped fangs reveal themselves to be something else entirely, but nothing less morose: the art is trapped between two graph lines plotting the wealth BlackRock Inc. accumulates off the debt of artists. The piece is aptly named Debtfair.

This installation at the Whitney’s politically-charged biennial was created by Occupy Museums, an art collective born in the wake of 2012’s Occupy Wall Street movement. Their mission is “to reclaim space for meaningful culture by and for the 99%. Art and culture are the soul of the commons. Art is not a luxury!” Their installations point a finger at elitists who manifest their wealth through art while the creators of their collections struggle financially. According to Occupy Museum’s tally, the cumulative amount of debts artists are facing today is hovering at $55,176,849.84, and growing.

BlackRock Inc., with $5 trillion in assets, is the target of their Whitney installation; specifically, BlackRock’s chairman and CEO, Laurence Fink. A quote from Fink is printed imposingly above the chart, introducing viewers to the point of the exhibit: “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today are contemporary art […and] apartments in Manhattan.”

Just below his words, a brief resume establishes the borderline–corrupt relationship between shadow banks (lenders with limited oversight and regulations) and the art world. Fink: Chairman & CEO of the world’s largest shadow bank, friend and member of President Trump’s administration, key player in the 2008 financial crisis…Trustee, Museum of Modern Art.

Why is a financial tycoon interested in securing a spot as a board member at the MoMA? Debtfair uses art to approach concepts that often seem intangible and overwhelming to the 99%: debt, loans and investments. On the 30×17-foot wall, visitors learn that from 2004-2015, BlackRock Inc.’s assets have flourished substantially, as has the price for art globally. Simultaneously, the staggering amount of student loan delinquency owed by art students has remained stagnant – and BlackRock Inc. profits majorly off the firms that provide and then collect those loans.

If you read between the lines (literally), the work of artists indebted to BlackRock are displayed. They are grouped per the banks who hold their debt on patterned backgrounds made from the logos of the corresponding firms. Each piece is for sale – the purchase price is equivalent to that artist’s monthly loan payment. Hence the “fair” in “Debtfair”.

Nearby, a screen scrolls through thoughts shared by struggling artists, from “I have big ideas but I can’t afford a canvas large enough to hold them” to “Thinking about my debt elicits a deep pessimism about the future and my ability to overcome this”. There are tablets beneath the screen that encourage viewers to take a survey about their own experience with debt, as Occupy Museums is constantly attempting to collect data directly from the people.

While art is meant to be a pleasure for everyone, young artists often accumulate cripplingly steep loans due to MFA’s, renting studio space, purchasing supplies and graduating with even less of a promise of a steady paycheck than their peers. Debtfair aims not only to expose the harmful greed afflicting the industry, but to send a message to artists that they have someone on their side, fighting for the underdogs. The goal of this year’s biennial is to “gauge the state of art in America today”, but art imitates life, and the climate inside the museum echoes that of the streets: equality is long overdo.


Image sources: Art Net, Hyperallergic, Hector Serna

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