Each year, more American artists go to school to get M.F.A. degrees, and more people come out of those programs in debt. Becoming a successful artist may, in other words, come at a financial cost. “Debt,” the collective Occupy Museums writes in a manifesto on the website for its ongoing project Debtfair, “is the key to American art today.”
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Occupy Museums will be in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, which aims to provide a snapshot of American art right now. For the past few years, the five-person collective has been creating actions and projects that explore the connections between high-ranking financial leaders and the art world. Speaking with me in a conference call earlier this week, its members—Arthur Polendo, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Kenneth Pietrobono, Noah Fischer, and Tal Beery—explained that now more than ever artists need to organize and deal head-on with their financial stress.
“In the U.S., we’re citizens of our debt,” the collective, which grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, told me. “Almost everyone has some kind of debt. If artists don’t organize around it, [the debt] is going to gobble us up.” (The group members spoke individually but asked that their comments be attributed to the collective.)
For the biennial, Occupy Museums is planning to stage a new version of their Debtfair project. First done in 2012, Debtfair asks financially strained artists to share their experiences and apply to have their work in a project by Occupy Museums. Their applications, which allow artists to submit images of their work, are then made available to the public. “We’re actually trying to show artists in debt that they do have relations to each other,” Occupy Museums said.
For the Whitney version of Debtfair, Occupy Museums is looking for artists in default, Puerto Rican artists and artists who are of Puerto Rican descent that have somehow been affected by Banco Popular, and current or former New York University students in debt. But Occupy Museums explained that you don’t necessarily need to fall into those three categories to apply on its Debtfair website. (The open call for applications ends on December 9, so act fast.)
As with a 2015 version of Debtfair that appeared at Art League Houston in Texas, a portion of the museum’s sheetrock will be removed, and artworks by the applicants will be shown between the exposed two-by-fours. The goal for the collective will be to find ways of arranging the 30 artworks they select into three groups of ten, which they call “bundles,” in reference to the financialspeak that traders use when selling debt portfolios.
The collective explained that they’re using the Whitney Museum as a way of amplifying the reach of their project. “One of the core questions of this project is, How does your economic reality affect your art?” Occupy Museums said. “That’s something that we’re asking the art world at large. . . . That goes from individual economic reality to our cultural economic reality and the economic reality of museums and galleries.”
Already, Occupy Museums has noticed that this edition of Debtfair has a more diverse pool of applicants, with more women and more artists of color showing interest in the project. What else is different this time around? Quite a bit, the collective said, because “We’re dealing with a post-Trump reality.” Look no further for proof than the case of Steven Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs banker who just left the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in order to focus on becoming Donald J. Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury. (Mnuchin’s father, Robert, owns New York’s blue-chip Mnuchin Gallery.)
“There really is momentum with Trump and with this political moment, to make sure that we know what’s going [on], and to organize against the extraction that [politicians and bankers] advocate,” Occupy Museums said. The collective added, “it’s a little more obvious than it was a month ago, because now we’re thinking about Obama’s debt forgiveness program being cut off. Now we’re calling to artists nationally to join us in empowering ourselves around our economic condition.”