Home Sculptor Business The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World: 2020 Edition

The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World: 2020 Edition

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Our annual list that highlights the inequality and injustice in the art community is finally here. And considering it’s 2020, it was especially tough to compile since most of us have felt powerless this year as a deadly virus ravaged our communities by forcing businesses to close, upending daily life, and resulting in the illness and death of millions of people. 

The list is also a reminder that while some prefer to see the “art world” as a series of glamorous events and high-priced trinkets, the reality is more complicated, less affluent, and more integrated into our everyday communities than they may want to admit.

So, let’s ignore the luxury media-hyped image of rich artists drinking champagne on private islands or collectors hoarding art out of some delusion sense of common good, and let’s spotlight those in our community who make it awesome.

We would say, “Here’s hoping you’re not on it!” but we know we’re all on this list in some way this year.

1. Essential Workers — One of the starkest realizations this year was that individuals classified as “essential workers” are often the most underpaid, underappreciated, and unsupported among us. While white-collar workers and others found refuge at home behind their screens (and Zoom calls), grocery store workers, transit workers, healthcare workers, and others were forced to put themselves at risk, often without the proper equipment. The high rates of infection and death among this group was shocking. While these workers are not part of what we conventionally term the art community, their work allowed all of us to stay safe and work during this terrible year. Hats off to all of them.

2. Museum Educators — In April, the Museum of Modern Art abruptly terminated all its freelance educator contracts, leaving these already vulnerable part-time workers in the lurch. The museum also told its educators that it would be “months, if not years” before it returns to budget and operation levels to require their services. But MoMA is hardly alone. According to an open letter signed by over 1,500 museum educators, they have been “first in the line of fire for layoffs” at several institutions, despite the fact that educational programs are often used to attract donors and supporters, and education is at the core of most museum’s missions (and helps maintain their nonprofit status).

The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia (photo by Jessi Melcer, courtesy Fabric Workshop and Museum)

3. Philadelphia’s Arts Scene — It’s the stuff of nightmares. The Philadelphia Mayor slashed two-thirds of the city arts budget and dismantled its Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE). While some foundations, including Mellon and Penn, have stepped in, they don’t seem able to meet all of the organizations’ needs. Sure, the city created an 18-member Arts and Culture Task Force, but as Tu Huynh opined recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The city basically washed its hands and left the sector to fend for itself.” 

4. Madalena McNeil — This 28-year-old community organizer from Salt Lake City, Utah, could spend the rest of her life in prison for the absurd crime of allegedly buying red spray before a protest. In August, McNeil was arrested and held in a jail cell for five hours for participating in a July 9 protest honoring 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, who was killed by police. The charges against McNeil were raised to the level of a first-degree felony due to the District Attorney’s decision to use a “gang enhancement” charge against her and seven other protesters who were accused of splashing paint and breaking windows. Under these charges, McNeil and others could face lifetime prison sentences. 

A steel monolith was found in Utah’s remote red rock canyons (image courtesy the Utah Department of Public Safety)

5. Monoliths — LEAVE THEM ALONE! And don’t place them on stolen land. Thanks. 

6. Foreign Students in US Universities— It’s been a nerve-wracking year for foreign students in the United States, who have been stressed by the Trump administration’s verdictive immigration policies. In July, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced new rules that would forbid foreign students who are enrolled in only-online courses to remain in the country. Those discriminatory regulations were temporarily rolled back after a major outcry and a lawsuit supported by leading American art schools, but eventually they were reinstated with slight modifications targeting newly enrolled foreign students. It’s a mess and we wouldn’t be surprised if some of these students settle on colleges in other countries.

7. Small Galleries & Arts Nonprofits Left Out Of PPP Loans — The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), funded by US taxpayers, was intended to help support small businesses ravaged by the pandemic. As luck — or rather, capitalism — would have it, however, the nation’s wealthiest ended up getting a huge piece of the pie, often at the expense of those truly struggling. The art world was no exception: data released by the Small Business Administration earlier this year revealed that commercial galleries and museums with large endowments, among other well-positioned organizations, received millions in PPP loans, while many small galleries and nonprofits were denied federal aid. David Zwirner, Pace, and Gagosian galleries each got over $2 million, and the Whitney and the Guggenheim Museum each received over $5 million. Even the studio of Jeff Koons, one of the world’s richest living artists, got a loan between $1 and 2 million. Inequality, indeed.

Some of Djulfa’s thousands of khachkars before their destruction, the majority of which were erected in the 16th century (© Argam Ayvazyan archives, 1970-1981)

8. Cultural Heritage of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh — Most of the world sat silently by as Azerbaijan and Turkey joined forces to crush the indigenous sovereignty of the Armenians of Artsakh — all during the last month and a half of the US Presidential election. As the war ended and Artsakh forces were forced to surrender under the watchful eyes of Russian peacekeepers, the attention turned to the thousands of historical sites and landmarks in the region. It is unclear whether they will fall victim to the catastrophic cultural genocide that similar monuments in Nakhichevan (Azerbaijan’s other, once heavily Armenian region) endured. UNESCO, which has clearly favored Azerbaijan through the years, is still waiting for answers about their plans for the monuments, but in the meantime, the dictatorial regime has already attempted to ethnically cleanse some of the monuments, and we know it’s not done yet. I mean all this could’ve been avoided if art historians repackaged the historical khatchkars as monoliths, amirite?

9. Kate Bae — The New York-based Korean-American artist and independent curator was one of many victims of a rising wave of COVID-related xenophobic attacks against Asian Americans, partly encouraged by President Donald Trump’s inciting rhetoric about China and the coronavirus. On a July morning, Bae was walking by Bryant Park in Manhattan on her way to work when an unidentified man charged at her and struck her in the face, knocking her down to the ground. Bae suffered from mild injuries in her face, neck, and legs. Police couldn’t apprehend the attacker, who had immediately fled the scene. She reported being routinely harassed in the streets of New York during the pandemic. “People yell at me ‘go back to China’ or ‘hey, coronavirus’,” she said. “I face these attacks at least twice a week on my way to work.” 

Met staffers conducting temperature checks to visitors on August 27. The museum is one of the only major art museums in New York to have unionized guards. (photo by Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic)

10. Museum Security Guards — They’re underpaid, often contract workers, and now being tasked with enforcing social distancing as institutions rush to reopen. In this unconventional year, guards have been asked to add another job to their skillset. When will all museums hire guards like full-time employees and give them the training and security they deserve? When you’re buying multi-million dollar artworks and can’t fork over more than $15 or $20/hour for security, then the inequality issue at your institution is out of control.

11. Online Artists — You built your practice for years, if not decades, and now everyone is an online artist of some sort. Not that we’re in favor of gatekeepers, but do the research people and stop Columbusing the world online.

12. Journalists Covering Political Protests — Across the country, the pervasive police harassment of journalists is deeply troubling. In Minneapolis, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his crew were wrongfully arrested live on television as news anchors narrated the dystopian scene in real time. In New York, New York photographer Chae Kihn was tackled to the ground by NYPD and arrested for no apparent reason during an anti-Trump protest. There goes the First Amendment.

13. New Museum Union Leaders  — In July, the New Museum in New York laid off 18 full and part-time staff, citing COVID-related losses in revenue. Consequently, the New Museum Union’s three stewards and its entire bargaining committee were discharged, including vocal union leaders. Was it just a coincidence? The union members didn’t think so, filing a complaint with the National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) accusing the museum of discriminating and retaliating against them. The Lower East Side institution, which received a PPP loan between $1–2 million, reported a  $2.9M loss of income as of June. In August, the museum recalled 23 workers who were furloughed in March, but what was noticeable is that none of them were the prominent union leaders. The crisis at the museum made more headlines in November when art collector Seth Stolbun stepped down from the board of Rhizome, an affiliate of the museum, following revelations in the New York Times about the museum’s allegedly toxic work environment. 

Remember this?

14. Victims of Racist Violence Invoked for Symbolic Purposes by Institutions — This year, art organizations across the world made statements in support of Black Lives Matter activists. Invoking the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of anti-Blackness, these museums and galleries shared artworks by the Black artists in their collections along with messages of solidarity, ignoring their own long histories of inequality in their offices and in their collections. While many of these museums promised to reform their own discriminatory practices after former and current employees spoke out, few changes have made traction.

15. Osman Kavala — The Turkish activist and arts philanthropist has been locked up in prison for more than three years without ever being convicted of an actual crime. In February, an Istanbul court acquitted Kavala, clearing him from charges of plotting to overthrow the government, but he was immediately detained again on new charges of espionage. In December, a court extended Kavala’s imprisonment despite an international campaign for his release. 

16. Egyptian Mummies — Don’t those poor ancient Egyptian cadavers deserve to rest in peace? It seems like every week, a story of newly unearthed mummies is making headlines, but this obsession with human remains has been exploiting the deceased for over a century. It’s time we stop, or at the very least find a more respectful way to display and discuss these discoveries.

17. Artist-Activists in Cuba — Members of the San Isidro and 27N Movements, formed to advocate for artistic freedom in Cuba, continue to be harassed, detained, and surveilled by Cuban state police. In November, artists and activists were trapped for over a week in the San Isidro Movement’s headquarters in Old Havana. Police besieged the apartment after the group attempted to stage a peaceful protest demanding the release of Denis Solís, a young Cuban rapper who received an eight-month prison sentence for insulting a police officer. Several members, including artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, declared hunger strikes that gained international attention. Despite urgent calls from human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, the situation has not improved. Following an initially promising meeting between state officials and members of the 27N Movement, including artist Tania Bruguera, she was detained repeatedly and then placed under house arrest

The Sursock Museum in Beirut, Lebanon was destroyed in a devastating blast (courtesy the Sursock Museum)

18. Beirut’s Art Community — The devastating August 4 explosion in Beirut was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, caused by the detonation of 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at a warehouse in Beirut’s port since 2014, also damaged numerous museums, galleries, and other art organizations. Beirut’s art community mourned the loss of Gaia Fodoulian, a young curator, and architect Jean-Marc Bonfils, who designed Beirut’s Gallerie Tanit —  both killed in the explosion. Joumana Asseily, director of Marfa’ Projects, found her gallery completely gutted out by the blast. Generally, Lebanese citizens are fed up with their government’s corruption and dysfunction, which caused the criminal negligence that led to the catastrophe. 

19. Art Conservators in Spain — Another year, another conservation shocker in Spain. What is it about the Iberian peninsula that makes it a magnet for such fiascos? Let’s hope the trend doesn’t continue, but then again, one of these former “mistakes” has since turned into a destination for tourists. People love a good story, and disasters have a way to attract people who can clearly relate to having the best intentions before something goes very very wrong. 

20. Pro-Trump artists or Trump impersonators — After 4+ years of the Orange Menace, I think we’re done. We don’t care if you think you have a masterpiece on your hands, just don’t show us. The PTSD is real.

Honorable Mentions

Nine-month-old brothers Pandoro and Tiramisù survey the Gerbil Museum in London (courtesy museum trustees Filippo and Marianna)
  • Miniature Museums — Sure, the one bright spot this year was the plethora of miniature museums created for pets (and out of boredom). They were cute and quirky, but now we’re faced with the almost certain prospect that they will all close sometime in 2021. Easy come, easy go. A tiny beam of sunlight during a somber year.
  • Galleries Still Waiting for Payments from Dallas Art Fair — Like many large in-person art events, the Dallas Art Fair had to call off its 2020 show. Sadly, the fair’s organizers also decided not to reimburse the galleries that had already paid for their booths. Instead, they were offered a booth credit for the next edition in 2021, which they’re surely eager to partake in after their wonderful experience this year. One gallery told Hyperallergic that it had paid a $10,000 fee by the time the decision not to refund participants was announced, a significant amount for the small or midsize businesses that the Dallas Art Fair intended to showcase.
  • Guggenheim Museum Art Handlers: It’s been more than a year since the Guggenheim Union started its contract negotiations with the museum’s management, but they still haven’t reached an agreement. The workers claim that the museum is intentionally stalling the negotiations using bad faith tactics. Their protests, pleas to trustees, and solidarity actions by other artists and art workers still haven’t persuaded the Guggenheim to show more flexibility in its positions. We have seen this before in the way the Guggenheim acted with protesters concerned about the labor practices at the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, when they stalled until the timing was better for the institution and then walked away. We’ll be watching.

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