By MELENA RYZIKThe Occupy Wall Street movement took on the art world, sort of, this week, with a splinter group, Occupy Museums. Convened on Thursday evening through a Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr posts, about 20 people made their way from the Museum of Modern Art to the New Museum to a downtown gallery, protesting what they say is the conflation of art and commerce, the snobbery of the art market and high ticket prices at museums, which they called the “temples of the cultural elite.”
Outside the New Museum they chanted: “Museums, open your minds and your hearts, and listen. Art is for everyone! The people are at your door.” Standing in a circle on the sidewalk, they used the call-and-repeat system known as the people’s mic, which has become a hallmark of the movement. The people’s mic is an “art form,” Noah Fischer, an artist and organizer of Occupy Museums, said later, promising that it was only the first new artistic tool to emerge from the protests. “I thing art is going a change from this movement,” he said, “because it’s going to unstick the current paradigm, which is based on money.”
After a reading from a text, which called museums a “pyramid scheme” in which “the wealthiest one hundredth of one percent claim ownership of culture,” the Occupy Museums group opened the floor to supporters to speak. One woman noted that the New Museum had recently collaborated with a group called WAGE – Working Artists and the Greater Economy – to take on the issue of artist compensation in an exhibit called “Free.” She wanted to acknowledge the museum for paying artists fairly for their work in it. But she added, “This should not be an exception, but rather a rule.” She called upon artists to be brave and stand up to gatekeeper cultural institutions. Together, she said, “we are stronger than the threat of obscurity.”
At MoMA, the protesters had been cordoned off by the police, but at the New Museum they were unencumbered. Three police officers casually watched the proceedings, leaning on their squad car. Museumgoers, too, seemed to take the spectacle in stride (though a protester in a gorilla mask, a woman who said she worked at an art museum, drew a few double takes). Some passersby stopped to listen. “It makes sense,” one 60-ish man, a neighborhood resident, said of the group’s comments, before heading on his way.
Mr. Fischer, 34, a Brooklyn sculptor, performance artist and Fulbright scholar, has been a supporter of Occupy Wall Street since it started five weeks ago, though he has spent only one night at Zuccotti Park, the movement’s epicenter. “My girlfriend, she would not appreciate me sleeping there every night,” he said, as his girlfriend looked on, nodding. He has, though, committed himself as an artist to protesting. “Right now, this is my practice,” he said. (He teaches at the Pratt Institute and rents out artist studios to make ends meet.)
Even in its first day, Occupy Museums, which is meant to be a weekly event, had drawn some criticism online, but Mr. Fischer said dissent was welcome. “This is our moment to expand people’s thinking about what part of our culture is controlled by the one percent,” he said, “and people who think about it will figure out pretty quickly that MoMA is.”
Over the summer Mr. Fischer and several others were involved in a performance of their own on Wall Street, “Summer of Change.” Wearing an oversized mask that resembled the head side of a coin (a penny or a quarter), Mr. Fischer and his compatriots gave out vast amounts of change – 400 quarters, 1,000 dimes – in an attempt at redistribution of wealth. (The project was funded by a Kickstarter.) “It’s time now, in the movement, to look beyond Wall Street and notice that a culture of economic inequality flows to all parts of our city, and all parts of our culture,” Mr. Fischer said.
At the New Museum, a protester mentioned White Box, a small gallery off the Bowery that was having an opening that night. After a consensus vote, the group marched their protest over to its doors. But the exhibit there, “WALLmART,” turned out to be in solidarity with the 99 percent movement. So after a few minutes, the Occupy Museums group abandoned their sidewalk chants and went in.
“We occupied, and now we’re going to schmooze,” Mr. Fischer said.