Occupy Museums as Public Pedagogy and Justice Work

By Beery, Tal; Fischer, Noah et al. | JCT (Online), May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Occupy Museums as Public Pedagogy and Justice Work


Beery, Tal, Fischer, Noah, Greenberg, Alyssa, Polendo, Arthur, JCT (Online)


N JANUARY 13, 2012, THE ACTIVIST GROUP OCCUPY MUSEUMS organized an action at MoMA, one of their most frequent targets. Once inside the museum, the approximately 20 participants gathered in front of The Uprising (1931) by Diego Rivera, a fresco of a labor demonstration in which a woman cradling an infant shields a male worker from a menacing soldier. MoMA featured this image in subway ads promoting the exhibition Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art which was on display at the time, and which Occupy Wall Street activists hacked into by peeling back a layer of the poster in the shape of the police barricades used by the New York Police Department to corral Occupy Wall Street activists and adding "Occupy Wall Street" and "99%" imagery. Occupy Museums hacked into MoMA's use of this fresco again by reading aloud from the "Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art," which was signed by Rivera himself and serves as a call to action for artists to lead the fight against their oppressors.

Occupy Museums is an offshoot of the resistance movement Occupy Wall Street, committed to addressing social and economic inequality in the museum world using a leaderless, radically democratic organizational structure. For Occupy Museums, the mainstream art museum is an informal learning space, in which social, cultural and economic hierarchies are perpetuated by powerful individuals and corporations and absorbed by the public. Museums privilege elite patrons and corporations, whose financing for exhibitions and programs has filled in the significant gaps leftby severe cuts in public funding. By resisting unionization efforts and relying on low-wage precarious labor, museums perpetuate labor injustices. By furthering dominant narratives of art history and presenting an overwhelmingly white male artistic canon, museums reinforce social and cultural hierarchy. As exclusive sites and "gatekeepers of culture," they impose a value system onto the public of capitalism and systemic economic, social, and cultural inequalities. Occupy Museums, originating within Occupy Wall Street, has shed light on how mainstream museums teach this value system by exposing politically problematic pedagogical practices within the museum - and, as in the MoMA intervention, offering an alternative, activist form of pedagogy.

The format of this interview adapts the strategy of Occupy Museums' practice known as horizontality, in which all members of a collective stand on equal footing, facilitating nonhierarchy and consensus. The participants are myself and three members of Occupy Museums: Tal Beery, Noah Fischer and Arthur Polendo. Our meandering, multifaceted conversation took place over several weeks on a private Internet forum. By enabling all participants to shape the form and content of the conversation, and thus resisting the unbalanced power dynamics between questioner and responder inherent in a traditional interview, this collaborative dialogue reflects the horizontal pedagogy of Occupy Museums.

In the interest of clarity, I have organized the transcript into themed sections that contribute to a holistic understanding of how Occupy Museums' interventions address the museum as an informal learning space, in which both cultural and economic messages are perpetuated. First, by exposing how museums teach visitors, Occupy Museums exposes invisible power imbalances and hierarchies. Second, through interventions at institutions such as MoMA that promote public access to museums and collaboration, Occupy Museums hacks into this problematic museum pedagogy of strict hierarchy and passive learning. In the final section, these Occupy Museums members propose an alternative museum pedagogy based on their own practices that promotes social justice.

The inequalities within museum pedagogy manifest in art school pedagogy as well. The ubiquity of Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees among practicing artists is a relatively new phenomenon, only a few decades old, and has proceeded in lock-step with a phenomenal growth in student loan debt and diminishing opportunities for art teachers at all levels. …

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