Report Back: At the Whitney Biennial Opening

Outside the VIP opening on February 28, the golden auction hammer threatens to crush a teamster. Photo: David Martinez.

Some members of Arts & Labor, Occupy Museums, Occupy Sotheby’s, and Arts & Culture, acting autonomously, paired with locked-out Sotheby’s art handlers from Teamsters Local 814 to bring their struggle to the Whitney Biennial, of which Sotheby’s is a major corporate sponsor. Many gathered outside the museum on the night of the VIP opening, February 28, for a loud demonstration denouncing Sotheby’s treatment of its workers. Signs including “Occupy Wall Street,” “Quit Sotheby’s” and “CULTURE Day 1 of Biennial + BARBARISM Day 210 of Local 814 Lock Out = Sotheby’s” were accompanied by a giant, inflatable fat cat and two giant, walking silver locks courtesy of Occupy Museums.

Two giant, walking locks from Occupy Museums arrive at the VIP opening. Photo: David Martinez.

The line of protestors, which also included supporters from other labor unions in the city, was visible from the main stairway and the fat cat loomed over the windows looking into the cocktail reception in the basement. Those waiting in the red-carpet VIP line seemed most amused by the chant: “Who are the V-I-Ps? Work-ers! Work-ers!”

After mic-checking the opening party on February 29, a Sotheby’s art handler explains the lockout and asks for support.

The following evening, February 29, brought an action less visible to those standing in line. Invited guests paired up with art handlers and union activists to take as their plus-ones. Smuggling their dates in, they got the locked-out Sotheby’s workers off the street and into the exclusive confines of the museum opening. Inside, the group convened on the fourth floor, which has been designated the performance area for the biennial and outfitted with bleachers facing an open, floor-through dance stage. After some smaller conversations, an assembly began with a mic check and banners were unfurled that read “Quit Sotheby’s” and “Occupy Wall Street.” Participants, sympathetic listeners, and surprised celebrants gathered around.

Participants gather in the assembly on the fourth floor as others look on from the bleachers off-frame during the February 29 opening.

The first to speak, a locked out art handler, stated: “I am from Sotheby’s. I have worked there for four years as an art handler. Sotheby’s is a major sponsor of the biennial and the poster child for anti-worker practices in the art world. Even though they made over $700 million dollars in [revenue; $171 million in profit] they are trying to destroy the lives of their art handlers and get rid of our union. We are not on strike. We have been forced out of our jobs and without paychecks for over seven months. Our families have no healthcare. This kind of oppressive greed should not be tolerated in the art world. By receiving support from Sotheby’s the Whitney is complicit in Sotheby’s war on workers. We are simply asking the Whitney museum to do the right thing: Stop doing business with Sotheby’s while the lockout is on. The Whitney takes money from the public–they have an obligation to support socially responsive practices in the art world. Whitney: Stop taking money and stop doing business with Sotheby’s until they end the lockout! Thank you.”

Then a speaker stood up to announce: “I have a statement from one of our great art writers and activists. Her name is Lucy Lippard. In an email today, she says: ‘I have been inspired by Occupy Wall Street and the Arts and Labor group just as I hope some of you have been inspired by our long past efforts in the Art Workers Coalition in the late ‘60s and Political Art Documentation Distribution in the early ‘80s and the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee, which set a precedent when we picketed outside and did actions inside the 1970 Whitney Annual. Santa Fe Occupy is pretty small but we’re in it together. Que Viva! –Lucy Lippard.’”

More statements of solidarity followed as a Biennial curator looked on from the stands. The final speaker declared, “as workers, as artists, as art workers . . . We love art. We love the people who make it. We love the people who come look at it. We love the museums who show it. We demand that there are fair practices. That workers are recognized no matter what they do. Thank you for coming to this exhibit. Thank you for remembering who it was who put it on the walls.”

After the end of the assembly the “Quit Sotheby’s” banner is left as a gift to the museum.

After the assembly concluded, the lovely rose-decorated “Quit Sotheby’s” banner was laid out on the floor and inscribed in the corners to read: “A gift to the Whitney Museum from Teamsters local 814, Arts & Labor, Occupy Museums / Not for sale.” It was still resting there when participants filed out at the end of the night.

For more photos of the February 28 demonstration, visit the Gothamist.

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