11 October 2013

Very, Very Depressing News - MOMA Acquires Occupy Wall Street Art

"Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering, a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways." ~ Rebecca Solnit 
General Strike Match (2012). Molly Crabapple/John Leavitt/Melissa Dowell.

In a truly depressing development, The Guardian reports that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has acquired a collection of posters and prints from the Occupy movement. The works had been part of a collection at Occuprint.

Several things make this depressing. Most obviously, the posters not only have now been converted into private property but that this has happened in an 'of course,' 'isn't that great' sort of way.  But I think this acquisition is symptomatic of the absence of just the sort of public space and just the sort of alternative institutional frameworks that - in large measure - the occupiers hoped to establish. It underscores both the continuing importance of the themes OWS articulated and it's lack of immediate impact.

Moreover, it is especially ironic - given some initiatives among the Occupiers themselves - that MOMA is absorbing the collection. This is as staid an institution as there is in NYC. It is the epitome of the "money laundering" function that cultural institutions of play for the wealthy. Posters and prints generated out of a movement of, for and by the 99% are being squirreled away by an institution whose history is, I suspect, intimately entangled with the 1%.

Finally, there are alternatives. Those alternatives are not perfect. Nor are they entirely inspiring in political terms. But they do not - as artist Molly Crabapple disingenuously suggested to The Guardian reporter - come down to selling off the collection to Morgan Stanley or some other corporate entity for display "in their lobby." I am hardly an expert on such matters. But it took me nearly no time to think of a counterexample to that rationalization. Consider ACT UP - a more or less direct political predecessor of the Occupiers. The ACT UP - NY archives went to the New York Public Library. The NYPL is a large cultural institution. But it is public, not private. And it is, I suspect, considerably less entangled with the monied elites than is MOMA. And it surely would look waaay(!)  less impressive to all those denizens of the art world who care about such things, for Ms. Crabapple to list on her c.v. that her work is in the collection of the NYPL than to note that it is in the collection at MOMA!

Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger posterboy said...

I always appreciate a critique of elite institutions, but this isn't a great example. Posters - especially recent ones - are a medium of multiples. MOMA acquiring these in no way limits the images' ability to retain public access and arguably enhances it. We experienced a similar situation here in the SF Bay Area when an art museum wanted to donate some of the gatherings from an Occupy show to Stanford's Hoover Institution, and after an artist backlash they went to the more community-based Oakland Museum of California. An institution may be faulted for disingenuously collecting political work outside its elite comfort zone, but this in no way prevents copies of multiples from also being held in archives of the 99%.

14 October, 2013 09:39  
Blogger posterboy said...

I always appreciate a whack at elite institutions, but this is not a good example. Posters are a medium of multiples, and MOMA's acquisition of a set of these in no way prevents other copies from being held and displayed in archives of the 99%. That's one reason that posters (as opposed to prints) are a radical medium, and usually outside the scope of "art" collections - because ownership is not finite. I say, If MOMA wants a set of these great - any venue for exposure of alternative ideas is a good one.

14 October, 2013 09:46  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the response. A couple of thisgs seem important.

First, "In acquiring the prints, the museum can now reproduce them for the press, educational and other non-commercial uses." (From The Guardian.)That means for large audiences MOMA becomes the arbiter of distribution and display. How is that a good outcome?

Second, the resources available to non-elite institutions and organizations are limited. Surely they are miniscule combined with the resources available to the MOMA crowd. The resources available to movements actors are often stretched just keeping up with ongoing outrages of the day and the task of collective memory (archiving) falls by the wayside.

My complaint is that there is no alternative public sphere, no places of stature comparable to MOMA from the public's perspective. That is part of what OWS and its offshoots elsewhere hoped to contest (and did). This episode underscores how far short they fell.

Finally, I'd say this episode highlights the asymmetry between graphics developed by ACT UP (collectives from within the movement) and individual artists who while they ally themselves with a movement (say OWS) keep their eye firmly on their own cv! I don't want to overstate the case. But this is not a good outcome.

14 October, 2013 11:59  
Blogger posterboy said...

Elements of a reply.

1. I cannot believe that MOMA has the _exclusive_ right to reproduce the images. Given the Occupy artists I work with, they would never agree to that, an I know from experience that museums are very copyright shy.

2. If by this you are referring to the limited resources of community-based archives - and there are some around the country- you are somewhat correct. But if MOMA wants to digitize, catalog, and mount in their online collection such items, it hurts no one and helps everyone.

3. After the revolution we'll have a Museum of Peoples' Culture. But until then, we have to work with what we have. I work closely with nontraditional archives, and they represent an important step in historic self-determination. But this work is very marginalized and a labor of love.

4. No argument that in many ways the Occupy artists did behave differently than those from previous movements, and not necessarily in a positive way. It's a good political discussion to have, but that's not MOMA's fault.

14 October, 2013 20:52  
Blogger Walter Robinson said...

your antagonism towards the museum is misplaced. MoMA is not a monolith, and the people who work there are your colleagues, not your enemies. I'm glad this material is there, available for public use. Sadly, it is OWS Arts & Labor that failed to devise an effective alternative, and you are naive to be surprised that administrators of that group are now profiting from the movement.

15 October, 2013 09:28  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


First, I do not consider the folks working at MoMA my enemies. But their good intentions do not offset the irony that a conservative establishment institution directly tied to the fortunes that OWS challenged has become the repository of this work. Second, I am not at all surprised that people entangled int he art world keep an eye to their own advantage at all times. Sometimes that is unobjectionable. Often it is not. I'd be surprised if it were otherwise. In this instance I think it is probably objectionable. But I'd like more information than the Guardian report before making that judgement. Third, tying those two comments together, I am surprised by your own view of the MoMA crowd as acting mostly for benign reasons while suggesting that the OWS Arts & Labor crowd are doing otherwise.

15 October, 2013 14:36  

Post a Comment

<< Home