By Ravenna Koenig for Columbia Spectator
Noah Fischer is a Brooklyn-based artist who graduated from Columbia’s School of the Arts in 2004. Fischer has often focused on alternative and public space as subject for his works, and so, this past October, he instigated the “Occupy Museums” movement. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, the group hoped to both create awareness about and fundamentally change “the pyramid schemes” on which “the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%” operate, according to the movement’s manifesto.
In a recent issue of The Eye, Ravenna Koenig wrote on this intersectionbetween activism and the art world. Check out her interview with Fischer after the jump, in which they discuss artists’ salaries, private wealth, and where exactly, it all went wrong.
Lay it out for me: how would museums really be different if private funders weren’t so involved?
Museums could serve artists and art lovers much more effectively if they didn’t have such a strong relationship with the wealthiest people in society and with the art market. The art market really is a luxury market. Big art fairs like Art Basel and the Armory Show have more direct connections to New York’s museums. That’s a place for the wealthiest people in the world to shop. There’re 100,000 artists in New York City and museums show the same people [that] are highlighted in art fairs and sort of revolve around the cult of celebrity that has come to describe the art world today.
[Museums] could actually pay artists for their labor; they could also pay the workers in the museums a much better salary. Basically museums have fallen into a lot of free market ideology that does not recognize the importance of fairly compensating people’s labor.
How can you argue both that artists need more money for their work and at the same time that museums shouldn’t accept money from private donors? Where else will they get funding? The government certainly isn’t handing out money for art right now.
Really what we’re arguing for is a big structural change. We’re living in a time with historically super low taxes for the wealthy. They give money to museums. That money is basically from not paying taxes. If the art world is organized around philanthropy from the wealthiest citizens, there’s just really no possibility of critical art.
So are you saying that if the wealthy paid more taxes, then institutions like the NEA would get more funding, museums would get more governmental support and would no longer be beholden to private interests?
Yeah, that’s how Europe and Canada work. Museums in New York have something like 15% state funding now, so the vast majority is philanthropy. In Europe it’s exactly the reverse. When I’ve worked in Europe with museums or with cultural institutions, for one thing the artist labor is compensated, for another it just doesn’t feel like it’s all about wealthy people; it feels like culture has autonomy.
If you could change one thing in this system to make it more independent from private wealth, what would it be?
Probably for me, the most important change would be strong and meaningful regulations on corporations. I think people need jobs and our corporations need to be put in check so they are working in a reasonable and fair way so that the middle class can have a share of the American wealth. People need to feel stable to care more about art. That’s why Occupy Museums is at its very core inseparable from Occupy Wall Street. Because when Americans get on their feet and our economy makes sense again, then museums will make sense again.
So you think that there’s been a shift? Can you think of a time when museums did reflect a more “common man” experience?
I’m not naïve. I know that museums have always been tied to big money but yes, I think when the NEA was bigger in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, basically up until Reagan, I think that museums were more reflective of a wider range of artists.