Reclamation of The David H. Koch Plaza at the Met for the Public by Occupy Museums
Identify a public space
The David H. Koch Plaza will be unveiled in fall 2014, situated between 5th Avenue and the front facade of the palatial Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum and plaza fall within the boundaries of Central Park, which was opened on publically-owned land in 1857 and, according to the park’s designer Frederick Law Olmsted, was “of great importance as…a democratic development of the highest significance.” The museum and its surroundings were envisioned as a cultural commons.
The dedication of this historic public space to David Koch is the latest salvo in a war to dispossess a majority of people from their democratic right to public space, the domain in which people can most effectively organize and exercise their freedom of speech. Koch has bankrolled the most insidious neoconservative campaigns, bankrupting and privatizing America’s public school system; breaking unions; and ensuring the continued reign of big oil. If one were forced to choose the greatest living enemy of free speech, David Koch would be an excellent candidate.
While policies Koch crafts for politicians he owns thrust the public sector into budgetary crises, he has increased his own private funding for cultural institutions. They, too, are in his pocket. Koch ends up controlling public space, and we know he is anti-artist. Since the construction of the plaza began, the artist vendors who made their living there have been banished.
The Museum is scouring away the mark of the public, banishing the working artists who sell their art outside the museum to support their artistic practices and feed their families. Koch Plaza is an intolerable affront to the hardworking people of New York who are one Koch-funded cut away from joining the City’s 66,000 homeless.
In a climate of near-total reliance on ever-more powerful plutocrats, how can free speech in public institutions flourish?
Occupy Museums proposes a project to re-common the Museum.
Similar to the proceedings at Detroit Institute of Arts, we would sell a portion of the Museum’s collection to finance a radical re-envisioning of the museum’s public purpose, promoting a living culture rather than preserving a saccharine veneer to dissemble harsh reality.
We would turn the fountains into ritual baths, cleansing the faux-public space of the stench of Koch.
We would “decolonize” the Metropolitan, returning stolen objects to their homelands with apologies and interest payments for the decades of withholding for the sake of Western ethnographic fetishes.
This creates space for ethical programming. The gift shop would be donated to the vendors who have been evicted by the Plaza redesign and the NYC campaign to revoke the first amendment rights of artists to display art in public. And, as Uruguayan President José Mujica devoted Uruguay’s Presidential Palace to the homeless, we would welcome the victims of Koch’s policies into new apartments in the Museum’s wings.
To lay the groundwork for this radical return of the commons, Occupy Museums proposes a series of rituals in the Plaza to create a framework in which the Museum and its public space can be re-imagined.
1. Occupy Museums will conduct a public purification ritual including ceremonial bath and clothing wash in the new David H. Koch fountains to inaugurate the reclaimed public space under the domain of the the people and to cleanse the Plaza of the corrupt stench of dirty money. The water, newly purified by the hardworking, joyous sweat of the 99%, will be sprinkled throughout the Museum to call upon the return of the cultural agency to the people.
2. We shall organize a meet-up action for the artist vendors who were evicted from the Met. We will attempt to create a collective work of art to charge the public space with creativity and the possibility of public solidarity among artists and citizens.
3. We shall set up a stand on the plaza to distribute an alternative histories audio podcast dedicated to dark matter cultures and colonized voices in the Metropolitan Museum with suggestions for pieces that should be repatriated. The guide will be distributed in the Plaza during the opening purification ceremony and in an ongoing fashion.
On September 17th, 2011, we occupied Wall Street because the wealthiest 1% who control banks and big corporations broke trust with the American people. Motivated by a quest for power they robbed the national treasury, bought off our democracy, and made a mockery of the justice system. They left us little choice but to step out in the streets and begin to imagine and building a new system.
We saw a direct connection between the corruption of high finance and the corruption of “high culture.” For example, MoMA shares board members with Sotheby’s auction house, where the value of art is synonymous with speculation. in 2012, Sotheby’s auction house locked out their unionized art handlers, refusing to pay them health care during a year of record profits. As art workers, we stand in solidarity with this struggle. Our labor will be truly valued only when we kick the addiction to obscene wealth that characterizes the American and international art world today.
So we began to occupy museums in New York City. Museums must be held accountable to the public. They help create our historical narratives and common symbols. They wield enormous power within our culture and over the entire art market. We occupy museums because museums have failed us. Like our government, which no longer represents the people, museums have sold out to the highest bidder.
We are unmasking a cultural system of inequality and exploitation with ancient roots. We are working together to replace the exchange of capital with a creative exchange for and by the 99%. As we seek horizontal spaces for dialogue and collaboration, we begin to fill the hollowness of the capitalist art market with the warmth of meaning and the conviction that art is a necessity, not a luxury.