artists are protesting at their own whitney biennial installation

Occupy Museums is speaking out against rising art student debt and the corporations who profit from it.

by Hannah Ongley
May 5 2017, 7:18pm

One of the many reasons worth spending a lot of time at the Whitney Biennial right now is the installation Debtfair (2017.) You'd be forgiven for missing it what with Samara Golden's dizzying inception mirror installation and Dana Schultz's infamous Emmett Till painting, given that Debtfair is ostensibly an infographic with a bunch of numbers on it. But it's actually pretty fascinating. Debtfair is part of an ongoing project by the collective Occupy Museums, and addresses the crippling financial cost of being a contemporary artist. Incorporated works from 63 insolvent artists are for sale at prices related to their respective debt: in total, $5.78 million.

Tonight Occupy Museums hopes to draw a little more attention to this art emergency. The collective is staging a "counter-commencement debtor's ceremony" to speak out against rising artist debt — a demonstration that is not, the collective confirms, part of the official Whitney Biennial schedule. It's being timed to coincide with both Frieze Art Fair and the Whitney's highly popular "pay what you wish" hours. This is not the first time a demonstration will have broken out in the Whitney since the Biennial opened in March — Debtfair is located on the same floor as the Schutz painting that has sparked a heated debate about race and cultural ownership.


"This is a painful moment," says Occupy Museums. "We are caught between the clubs of budding Fascism and the nearly inescapable glass grip of Financialization. For most artists, echoing much of the US workforce, the price of entry into the Art World is massive debt. That means an intimate and legally disempowered relationship with financial corporations like JP Morgan Chase, Banco Popular, and Navient Corporation that work against their borrowers while enriching the 1%." The collective is not oblivious to the irony of the Whitney Biennial itself being sponsored by JP Morgan. 

Debtfair also includes a quote from the CEO of money-management company BlackRock, which has seen profits soar in the debt economy: "The two greatest sources of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art… and apartments in Manhattan." Fink is now an advisor to Donald Trump, who has stocked his whole cabinet with a pack of Wall Street wolves, though this happened long after Debtfair was first conceptualized. (After Trump took office the collective staged a protest against the BlackRock chair at the Museum of Modern Art.) Like much of the Whitney, the installation has certainly taken on more meaning in a post-Obama world. 

Occupy Museums's "Debtfair" demonstration takes place from 7.30-9pm tonight on the Whitney Museum of American Art's 5th floor.


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Facebook

Whitney Biennial
Occupy Museums