Occupy Wall Street's Arts & Labor Group Meets on the High Line

"Occupy Bottino's," one sign read.

Photos by Andrew Russeth

It was drizzling in Chelsea at 12:30 p.m. today, the time that the Arts & Labor working group within Occupy Wall Street, which recently issued a pamphlet outlining the state of labor in the art world, had planned to meet on the High Line for an organizational lunch and discussion. [The complete text of that pamphlet is available here.]

When we arrived at the planned meeting place, between 22nd and 23rd Street, Gallerist found only two people there, holding umbrelllas, but they quickly directed us south, to the covered section of the park that crosses 16th Street.

About 100 people had gathered there, and they were holding an assembly, their voices echoing throughout the cavernous space and out onto the largely vacant walkways of the park.

“I went to one of the most expensive art schools in the country,” one young man said, stopping every fifth or sixth word, so that the crowd could repeat his phrases in unison. He said that he had dropped out. “Art school is not designed to provide adequate training, ” he said. “It is designed to put you in debt.” The crowd waved their hands in the air, signaling their approval.

There were artists, teachers, writers and curators, as well as many who fill more than one of those categories in their various jobs. At least one Lower East Side dealer was present, as well as a trombonist, who noted that musicians are frequently compensated with nothing more than tips when playing at city clubs. Shortly after 1 p.m., five police officers arrived, and watched from a distance.

A representative from the W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) was there too, and she spoke about the group’s upcoming plans with Artists Space, the SoHo-based nonprofit gallery that has agreed to open its books to the group. They plan to hold public discussions about persuading nonprofit galleries to provide artists with fees when they show there. They need the crowds help, she said, to come to the talks, to join the discussions.

An artist spoke of losing his house when the economy tanked, another about the system of un- and low-paid workers that help produce his shows, and that help galleries function. “Galleries have an interest in presenting me as an independent producer of cultural value,” he said. “My independence is absolutely dependent on those who hold me up and make me look good.”

A handful of organizers circulated throughout the crowd, offering sandwiches packaged in bags affixed with stickers reading 99%. Alison Knowles, we imagined, would have approved. Off to the side of the space there were cardboard signs: “Occupy Bottino’s” [sic] one read, referring to the lunch and dinner spot popular with the Chelsea art crowd. Another choice sign: “Art workers might won’t kiss ass for health insurance,” a revision of a 1969 Art Workers Coalition sign.

College art teachers discussed their low wages and lack of job stability and health insurance. “I have no idea how to make my life work,” one adjunct professor said.

A few voices cautioned that hard work lay ahead, that the art group risked marginalization. “It is incumbent on us to identify our interests with the interests of other workers,” said one artist. Another emphasized the need to “break up the homogeneity here.” The crowd–like New York’s art world–was predominantly white and young.

Another artist, in a purple hat, spoke briefly, near the close of the meeting. “I just want to say that OWS has come to the art world,” she said. She did not know how the group would change things, she admitted, but she was optimistic. “I think we can figure something out,” she said.

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