Same Old Art

Occupy Museums? Why Noah Fischer and Art Fag City are Wrong

I.

Remember when in February of 2009 the US Senate voted 73-24 in favor of an amendment brought forward by Republican (of Oklahoma) Tom Coburn? His amendment intended to ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and non-stimulative projects, such as funding museums, theaters and arts centers.”

I had a hard time reading what Padddy Johnson from Art Fag City posted on her tumblr under the headline “Occupy Museums.” In short, Noah Fischer and the “Occupy Museums” movement want protesters to occupy MOMA, the Frick collection and the New Museum. The reason for this reads as follows:

Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital. The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.”

Let’s play a little game here. Let’s replace “museums” with “galleries” and “art historical cannon” with “contemporary art cannon:”

"Recently, we have witnessed the absolute equation of art with capital. The members of gallery boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by galleries are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the contemporary art cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading galleries have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.”

Interesting, isn’t it? Paddy Johnson writes mainly about contemporary galleries and art fairs, but is seemingly unable to understand how certain galleries and art fairs contribute to an inflated art market. Coming originally from Europe, I know that even the Communist Party who has seats in the Senate here in France would never dream of cutting funding or occupying its art museums. Our belief is that it is a fundamental right of the people to access these institutions. According to Paddy’s entry, “Occupy Museums” agrees that museums are for everybody, but they do not want these elitist institutions to divide us any further. I am not sure what they mean here. Are they referring to the entry fees that not everybody can afford? If that is the case, I agree. But would it not be helpful to ask why that is?

To answer this question we have to admit that within the last decade, even before the recent financial collapse, spending cuts have greatly affected museums and other parts of the cultural sector. Earlier this year a conservative group called the Republican Study Committee announced a bill that aims at eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. How does this relate to Johnson’s and Fischer’s “Occupy Museums” idea? Funds from the NEA are allocated to art museums like the MOMA. In 2006, a total of $124 million was available to all art programs and museums in the US while MOMA has an annual budget of $150 million alone. You can imagine that if they received any money that year, it could not have been more than maybe a few percent of the total amount.

If less funds are available to support museum programs, money has to be raised differently. One way is to hope for private donations, as happened in case of MOMA’s recent expansion for which $800 million were raised privately. Since MOMA is not city-funded unlike other museums, raising the admission fee is standard practice (just take the recent admission fee increase of the LOUVRE in Paris even though they are government funded). Starting in November admission at MOMA will be $25 which is, without question, high. But let’s not forget that a ticket to a baseball game starts at about $30, while a movie ticket in New York costs around $13.50. If you are a student and you buy a ticket to the MOMA online, you will only have to pay $12 which is not a terrible deal.  

The other reason why art museums like MOMA are increasing their admission fee has to do with government support.  This is therefore a political issue. A document on NEA’s website gives an interesting insight into private vs. government funding for the arts. In their example they use numbers regarding funding of American symphony orchestras, art museums and other art-related programs:

"Many of America’s leading institutions would not exist if private citizens had not bequeathed their holdings and invested their resources. Consider some broad estimates for American symphony orchestras. According to one set of figures, 39 percent of their income comes from private donations and 12 percent from endowments and related sources. Concert income generates 36 percent of revenue and other earned income provides 9 percent. Direct government support represents only 4 percent of revenue. 

For purposes of contrast, a theater or orchestra in Germany will likely receive 80 percent or more of its budget from direct governmental support. In France and Italy, government support at various levels accounts for almost all of the funding for a typical museum. Even the Louvre, which was asked to find private funding as of 1993, raises less than half of its operating budget. In the United States, however, direct government support accounts, on average, for 13 percent of the total budget of nonprofit arts organizations.”

If anything, Johnson and Fischer should be occupying the US senate.

The significance and importance of “Occupy Wall Street” is to make people aware that big corporations function as a kind of pseudo-government which regulate the financial markets almost at their will. At this point you could argue - as “Occupy Museums” does - that it is big corporations who finance and eventually influence art museums. But that is not the case. According to a study from 2004, the role corporations play in financing nonprofit arts organizations (MOMA is a nonprofit organization) is minimal: only 3% of the total income generated by arts organizations are due to funds from corporations. 75% of these corporations are businesses that make less than $50 million a year while 90% of the money they give goes to local arts organizations.

II.

The other aspect pointed out by “Occupy Museums” has to do with “cultural elitism” of art museums. Republicans like Tom Coburn believe that art funds should be reduced because of their limited merit for government funding. They are considered luxuries enjoyed by a small group of people, one might say by “elitists” (an expression frequently used against Obama during his campaign in 2008). In 1991 Charles T. Clotfelter, a professor of economy and law at Duke University, published an essay titled “Government Policy Toward Art Museums in the United States.” He writes: “One of the central recurring issues that arises in debates over public support for the arts is the tension between the perceived elitist nature of the arts and the populism that is embedded in American politics.” 

To support this observation, Clotfelter uses an illustration that shows how museum attendance depends on the overall income and education of its visitors. This would otherwise support “Occupy Museums’” idea of a division initiated by the museums, except that Clotfelder’s table includes art galleries as well. Art galleries, as we know, are free of admission. Shouldn’t more people be visiting these then? Not if people think that galleries are elitist too.  oops…is Noah Fischer an elitist?

Then Charles Clotfelter states something that actually points out what “Occupy museums” is really about:

"More often, the elitist-populist issue manifests itself in ways less obviously class-oriented, such as the forms of art that should be supported (e.g., the "fine arts" vs. folk art), the kinds of institutions that should be supported (established vs. "emerging"), and the regions where support should go (the urbanized Northeast vs. the hinterlands)."

If you re-read Paddy Johnson’s tumblr post again and if you take into account which art or art venues are being written about positively on Art Fag City, you will realize that “Occupy Museums” wants a shift in what art is shown and how it is shown. That demand is a symptom of a deeply insular debate where art world insiders want to tell you what is good for you and what you should be seeing in a museum if they could make that decision. This is a case of self-promotion and self-interest and not criticism or protest. What Johnson and Fischer suggest is not the beginning of a fruitful debate, but hypocrisy (of course there is lots of room for art museums to improve…most of us could have done without a Tim Burton show or think back to the 1988 protests by ACT-UP against a MOMA exhibition which is an effective way of going against wrong decisions on behalf of MOMA).

I have to agree with Karen Archey’s article on artinfo and I repeat her idea: “Rather than targeting museums, it seems more pertinent to take action through creation of art reacting to its market catering to rich and elite–or maybe even occupying super rich galleries and art fairs. How about the notably evil David Zwirner, anyone?”

 I want to return to Paddy Johnson’s tumblr entry one more time where it says that: “For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of the intense commercialization and co-optation or art.” True and you, Art Fag City, contributed to this commercialization. How so you wonder? What about as a first step you stop writing about Bravo’s “Work of Art?” 


  1. sameoldart posted this