Anti-Debt Activists Plan ‘Unsanctioned’ Rally Inside the Whitney Biennial

Not all the talk in New York this week has to be about art fairs, about the prices and spectacle taking place in New York, from Frieze to TEFAF, from 1:54 to Art New York—or so says one group of art activists. This against-the-grain group is hoping to call attention to what its members deem to be the unspoken crisis that plagues the art world: the severe debt burden weighing down recent art-school graduates.

In what it is calling an “unsanctioned action,” timed to both graduation season and the fairs, Occupy Museums will gather at the Whitney Museum of American Art on Friday evening during its “pay what you wish” hours to stage “a counter-commencement debtors ceremony.” (The assembly is set to be held from 7:30 to 9 pm.)

The collective currently has an installation, Debtfair (2017), on view as an official part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. In it, a slash in the museum’s wall serves as an infographic that indicates the soaring profits of the company BlackRock. A selection of work by artists whose debt is owned by BlackRock’s various subsidiaries is displayed in the hole opened up in the wall. These works are actually available to buy at prices determined by a formula in which the price equals one month of the artist’s debt.

Occupy Museums Debtfair (2017). Photo: Henri Neuendorf.

Occupy Museums Debtfair (2017). Photo: Henri Neuendorf.

Though Debtfair was an official inclusion in the Biennial, Occupy Museums has been known for its particularly activist forms of institutional critique. Recently, these have included a protest in front of the Museum of Modern Art, calling attention to the fact that Trump adviser Larry Fink on the institution’s board. Fink, it so happens, is also chairman of BlackRock, and a quote from him is a centerpiece of the Whitney installation (“The two greatest sources of wealth internationally today [are] contemporart art… and apartments in Manhattan.”)

As part of their research for Debtfair, Occupy Museums has prepared a dossier of the educational background of all the artists in the show, estimating the cost of the education—and thus the potential profits for companies like BlackRock—needed to create a Biennial-sized crop of artists:

Occupy Museum, , Occupy Museums Whitney Biennial 2017 CV (2017). Image courtesy Occupy Museums.

Occupy Museum, Occupy Museums Whitney Biennial 2017 CV (2017). Image courtesy Occupy Museums.

Among other things, Friday’s speak-out promises a debt manifesto penned by members of the 2018 class of New York’s Columbia University, which, Occupy Museum points out in a press release, is among the best-represented schools at the Biennial itself, and where tuition alone costs nearly $60,000.

The Whitney did not immediately comment on what Occupy Museums is calling an “autonomous event.”

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