On May 1, 2012, the Occupy movement, which grew out of Occupy Wall Street and demonstrations in other parts of the world, has asked people to join in a “day without the 99%,” general strike, and more to protest the growing disparity of wealth in our society, a financial system that rewards the rich and exerts outsize influence on government and electoral politics, and the destruction to our planet caused by industry and disastrous environmental policies. Arts & Labor, a working group of Occupy Wall Street that organizes around labor issues in the arts, supports this call and asks artists, art workers, and all other people to join us in making May 1 a day of creative, festive, and nonviolent reclamation of public space, replacing our society’s emphasis on private profits with public solidarity and mutual aid.
Art has historically been treated as a realm of imagination, innovation, or utopian promise apart from the workaday world. But art today also mirrors the growing inequality in our society. Few other fields exhibit such striking contrasts of wealth and increasing want. Although those who produce, maintain, educate, and run the art world often work in close proximity to extreme wealth, the riches, glamour, and record-breaking auction prices reported in the media disguise the realities they face.
Like many workers today—especially freelance, adjunct, and temporary ones—those who work in the arts face cuts to or already live without healthcare, childcare, job security, unemployment benefits, pensions, or retirement plans. The situation gets all the more grim when the rationale of austerity threatens limited existing social services with further cuts. Many cultural workers are one ambulance ride away from financial ruin. This vulnerability links what has been labeled the “creative class” with all other workers, students, and the unemployed: the 99% excluded from the growing concentration of wealth.
In the field of contemporary art alone, to become an artist in the neoliberal system of galleries, museums, art fairs, and biennials, artists increasingly feel obligated to obtain an expensive education that puts them in debt—sometimes well over $100,000. And this debt, which mirrors the larger student debt crisis in this country, is particularly insidious because it is incurred to gain accreditation in a field that still includes a high degree of risk with slim chances of sustainable returns.
Although artists were once able to live and work in affordable enclaves, the burgeoning size of the art world now plays a role in profound changes to our cities. Several decades ago, the real estate industry saw how the “improvements” artists made to low income and minority neighborhoods could pave the way for development, making these neighborhoods appealing to higher-income transplants who eventually priced out artists and the original inhabitants. These practices privilege speculative investment over affordable housing and have contributed to the current housing crisis, marked by widespread foreclosures.
With contemporary art treated in many precincts as a luxury commodity or high-end form of entertainment, cities around the world rushed to build a Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by a well-known architect. Despite their aims to boost local economies, these efforts often furthered the cycle of development and displacement. These institutions also became increasingly more indebted to corporate sponsors and wealthy trustees—the 1% who have benefited most by the rise of finance capital, rampant deregulation, and the powerful real estate industry.
As a new collector class rose in the ‘80s and ‘90s, pumping money into the art market, public institutions like museums were increasingly defunded, forcing them to rely on tax-free private donations. As public coffers are drained and institutions get mortgaged to private interests, the question arises, Whom does this benefit? And at what cost?
Joining with others on May 1 and reiterating the concerns raised by the Occupy movement last fall, we call for reducing student debt and for greater transparency and equitable practices in our institutions. As part of a larger struggle to protect the rights of workers, we call for an end to the exploitative use of interns, which allows institutions to profit from uncompensated labor and ensures only those with independent financial means can work in the arts. We call for city administrations to stop rezoning plans that profit the real estate industry and eradiate affordable housing. And we demand our government and industries fund public institutions and services rather than continuing to cater to the wealthiest in our society.
On May 1, we ask those who work in the arts to assemble with all others to work toward greater equality and to create sustainable ways of living on this planet. Let us free art from the vagaries of financial speculation and privatization and restore its promise of a better world. By sharing its power to enrich all of our lives, let us make it part of our struggle to reclaim the commons.
For schedules of May 1 events in NYC, see http://occupywallst.org/article/nyc-full-schedule-permitted-and-unpermitted-may-da/ and http://maydaynyc.org/may-day-2012#schedule