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Occupy Museums Values Statement on #J20
January 20th is not a day for business as usual. It is a day of reckoning: a day when we must step back stand together and acknowledge how far we have fallen from the values that we supposedly uphold as individuals, communities, and institutions. At the same time, however, we must recognize that this occasion is exactly business as usual in the United States of America. It would be naive to suggest that the advent of Fascism is representative of one man or one woman or one administration. This moment has finally landed following decades of Reaganomics. It landed after centuries of living in a house with a flawed foundation built on slavery, stolen labor, and bloodshed; maintained through the normalization of systemic injustice. It has landed as the full legitimization of cultural homogenization, techno-militarism and life inside the atomized logic of corporatism. It has landed after the sequestering of money and political agency into fewer and fewer hands. We have become a country of red and blue: a separatist mentality that replays “the people” as demographics, driving wedges between “races,” classes, regions, genders, education levels, and worldviews.
Our values — values fought for tirelessly over the generations, values that we believe to be sacred — have proven to be as fragile as they are precious.
Facing this reality, we bear much responsibility and seize this moment of national coming-into-consciousness as an opportunity. Occupy Museums calls on our communities — in this case artists, cultural practitioners, and institutions — to directly name and confront this truth: we are living in a Fascist State. Fascist propaganda exacerbates the racism and misogyny embedded in our culture for cynical political ends; it is the enemy of art. This can be seen from the new administration’s plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts — a last vestige of truly public support of the arts. Their vision of art is reduced to luxury trappings for oligarchs. Although the same financial sphere that has largely brought us to the current precipice stands behind US museums as their primary means of support, this doesn’t devalue their potency as public spaces and repositories of collective mythologies. Their civic function depends not on philanthropy but on struggle. Museums require artists, activists, and global citizens to challenge them, demanding that they hold true to their missions to serve the public, not just the 1%. That is why on #J20 we invite our communities to join us inside the museum, which we demand function as public space, to declare our common values, to make undeniable our demands, and to render our truths unmediated and unavailable for contortion, interpretation, or abstraction. Then we head out into the streets.
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Occupy Museums reflects on the values behind our mission and in solidarity with all arts workers commits to continuing the struggle for the following:
1. Racism and xenophobia are real and alive today. Misogyny and homophobia are real and alive today. White nationalism is growing in political, economic, and symbolic power. We value cultural institutions who are able to name the severity of this political zeitgeist and join the fight for dismantling white supremacy. We declare that one cannot be neutral on a Fascist train. We commit to joining in efforts to organize an anti-Fascist resistance.
2. Arts within neoliberal economies have long been stripped of social organizing force and community accountability. We have witnessed a transparent bid to transform art into an asset class for private speculation, upending its political autonomy; art has become a tool of propaganda. As this incoming administration dramatically reduces or eliminates public funding for the arts, museums will be relying solely on compromised private funding. We uphold the value of art and cultural production independent from financial and political coercion, free from appropriation and exploitation.
3. We reject a culture that ignores or celebrates US war and imperialism. We reject a culture that fetishizes, essentializes, and flattens the layers of our shared reality. Such a culture reflects a shallow politics where sycophantic hype replaces public discourse. We value art that is authentic, layered, diverse, and unafraid of delving into the complexity of our shared experiences. We commit to a struggle against the reign of hegemonic power brokers in the arts and in support of a more committed art and discourse. Museums must move toward greater social justice to be relevant.
4. Since their inception centuries ago, the collections of art museums have consisted of objects stolen from indigenous and oppressed peoples whose cultures were appropriated and/or decimated to reify whiteness. Even though museums partially embody the democratization of art, they are also sites embedded with white supremacy and patriarchy. We will not separate our appreciation of museums from the ongoing need to shift the power that is codified into this mode of cultural representation. We commit to the ongoing struggle for increased presence of Black and Brown people, immigrants, and women in museum administrations, collections, events, and viewership, and in the return of stolen cultural heritage and objects.
5. White Nationalist populism thrives from the perceived (and often real) elitism and exclusivity of the “art world.” Yet it is a right for every human being to partake in and benefit from the cultural wealth and heritage composed from our collective history, regardless of economic or social status. We believe that access to cultural institutions should always be free and we commit to a long struggle to take back institutions from the exclusivity of philanthropy and high-ticket-price corporate models.
6. Economic precarity stemming from the devaluation of labor and increased corporate profits from extractive debts drives a wedge between members of our society, pitting us against each other in ruthless competition. We look to democracies across the globe who affirm the right to a living wage and even a basic income and call on our nation’s cultural institutions to pay all employees, contractors, and exhibiting artists a living wage for their labor.
7. The transformation of public spaces and our neighborhoods and homes into speculative instruments increases the already dire state of class anxiety. The economic precarity suffered by artists puts them at risk of being both affected by and a catalyst in the gentrification of poor neighborhoods. Cultural institutions play a major role in gentrification that must be addressed; it is imperative that institutions use their cultural and financial capital to support their communities of arts workers and their local publics rather than enable gentrification by participating in development schemes.
8. Intellectualism and cultural experiment are considered as dangerous and unpatriotic to Fascists. Nazi poet laureate Hanns Johst famously wrote: “Let ’em keep their good distance with their whole ideological kettle of fish … I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word culture …, I release the safety on my Browning!” Our cultural institutions must fortify themselves against the coming onslaught by deepening and declaring their commitment to and support of artists, critical discourse, freedom of expression, and their immediate communities. We call on all museums and cultural institutions to stand in solidarity with the artists, art critics, art workers, and public who will not stand by in silence as power is handed over to Fascists. Cultural institutions can begin (as some have already begun) by collectively reassessing their institutions’ statements of ethics, making amendments, addenda, and revisions that specifically address the institution’s role and responsibility to treat its workers fairly, to protect them from State repression when threatened, and to support the creation of bold and progressive works of art.
Speak Out on Inauguration Day, organized by Occupy Museums, takes place at the Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) on January 20 from 11am to 2pm. Admission to the event is free, and entrance to the Whitney will be on a pay-as-you-wish basis all day in observance of the inauguration.
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