Art Workers’ Coalition demonstrates for artists’ rights, 1969

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Timing
Time Period:  
3 January
1969
to
10 April
1969
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
New York City, NY
Goals: 
To advocate for artists' rights - The Artist Workers' Coalition made the following demands to MoMA on 28 January 1969 (paraphrased): (1) A public hearing at the museum in February on “The Museum’s Relation to Artists and to Society” (2) A section of the museum directed by Black artists to present the accomplishments of Black artists (3) Museum activities in the “Black, Spanish, and other” communities and exhibits that these groups could identify with (4) A committee of artists to be given curatorial experiences and to annually organize exhibits (5) Two nights that the museum would be open until midnight and that admission would be free at all times (6) Rental fee payment to artists for their work (7) Recognition of an artist’s right to refuse to show a work owned by the museum in an exhibit that is not a permanent collection (8) Declaration by the museum of its copyright legislation and action to inform artists of their legal rights (9) A registry of artists at the museum (10) The museum of experimental works with unique environmental conditions at the museum (11) A section of the museum to show the works of artists without galleries (12) Museum staff to install and maintain technological works (13) A museum staff member to address artist grievances that may arise.
 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many artists, particularly visual artists in New York City, struggled to contextualize their work in an era filled with civil rights, labor, and anti-war campaigns. Artists reconciled their non-representational artwork with a desire to act politically in line with these campaigns by performing non-artistic types of work. This type of work took the form of nonviolent tactics directed at the museum system.

The Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) organized the artists’ campaign to advocate for the civil, economic, and legal rights of artists and demand an increase in museums’ responsibility to artists in regards to upholding these rights. This responsibility as defined by artists included representing artists’ work with integrity, treating artists’ occupation with respect, and being open to dialogue with artists. The specific goals of the artists’ rights campaign led by AWC changed as the campaign progressed and more members joined the coalition. Other early goals included increasing the representation of Black and Puerto Rican artists in museums.

Visual artist Vassilakis Takis sparked the formation of the AWC in January 1969 with a protest of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). MoMA had purchased his piece “Tele-Sculpture (1960)” and planned to show it in their exhibition “The Museum as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” also known as the Machine Show. Takis wrote a letter to MoMA’s organizer of the Machine Show, Dr. K.G. Pontus Hulten, stating that if “Tele-Sculpture” was to represent his work in the exhibition, he did not want to be represented at all. In his letter, he also wrote that his more recent works were easily accessible to the museum. Despite Takis’s request, MoMA put his “Tele-Sculpture” in the Machine Show. This conflict represented the powerlessness that many artists felt when working with museums.

At 4:00 PM on 3 January 1969 Takis, accompanied by Farman (poet and artist), Willoughby Sharp (art critic), Elizabeth Bear, “Do,” and Grenier (artist and poet) for protection, entered the crowded gallery where MoMA was showing The Machine exhibition and walked up to his piece, “Tele-Sculpture.” He cut the wires surrounding it, unplugged it, and calmly and gently carried it into the museum garden. As the artists walked to the garden, they distributed handbills to upset museum guards and confused patrons.

One of these handbills, signed by Takis, read: “Let’s hope that our unanimous decision January 1st 1969 to remove my work from the Machine exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art will be just the first in a series of acts against the stagnant policies of art museums all over the world. Let us unite, artists with scientists, students with workers, to change these anachronistic situations into information centers for all artistic activities, and in this way create a time when art can be enjoyed freely by each individual.”

Another handbill stated the specific grievances of the artists: “1. The exhibition of works by living artists against their express consent. 2. The exclusive ownership privileges exercised by museums over the work of living artists. 3. The lack of consultation between museum authorities and artists, particularly with regard to the installation and maintenance of their work. 4. The unauthorized use of photographs and other material pertaining to the artist’s work for publicity purposes.”

When guards asked Takis to come inside the museum building from the cold museum garden, he replied, “I am guarding my work. I want written assurance that this will be permanently removed from the show and that the museum will not ever again exhibit it without my permission.” Takis performed his sit-in in the garden for one and a half hours until the director of the museum, Bates Lowry, met with him for two hours and gave him a verbal agreement that the piece would be removed from the show. Lowry also agreed to further talks and a public discussion in February 1969.

The day after the protest, The New York Times published an article that included pictures of the protest and favorably described and quoted Takis’s intentions. On 9 January 1969 The Village Voice published a supportive article written by John Perreault covering the 3 January protest, and The East Village Other published an article written by Alex Gross in support of the protest on 17 January 1969. This article expanded the list of the original four grievances to 10 points.

On 5 January 1969, Takis, Farman, Willoughby Sharp, Elizabeth Bear, “Do,” and Grenier, along with Hans Haacke, Wen-Yin Tsai, and Gregory Battock gathered at Sharp’s apartment to meet and produce a document stating that the MoMA protest served “as a symbolic act [sic] to stimulate a dialogue which might significantly increase artists’ control over their works.” This group, along with Bob Bornstein, Robert Breer, Nicholas Calas, Jean Dubuey, Alex Gross, Les Levine, Dennis Openheim, Lil Picard, and Van Sun continued to meet to prepare for the meeting with Bates Lowry, which was originally scheduled for 24 January 1969. This group became the initial Art Workers Coalition (AWC).

When the group arrived at MoMA on 24 January, Director of Public Information Elizabeth Shaw informed them that Lowry refused to meet with the critics in the group, and would only meet with a group of six artists. On 28 January artist representatives Takis, Haacke, Battcock, Perreault, Sharp, Tsai, and Tom Loyd met with museum representatives Lowry, Shaw, Wilder Green (Exhibition Program director), Arthur Drexler (Department of Architecture and Design director), John Szarskowski (Photography director), and William Lieberman (Department of Painting and Sculpture director).

At the 28 January meeting, the artists and critics submitted a list of 13 demands to Lowry and MoMA. The artists demanded: (1) A public hearing at the museum in February on “The Museum’s Relation to Artists and to Society” (2) A section of the museum directed by Black artists to present the accomplishments of Black artists (3) Museum activities in the “Black, Spanish, and other” communities and exhibits that these groups could identify with (4) A committee of artists to be given curatorial experiences and to annually organize exhibits (5) Two nights that the museum would be open until midnight and that admission would be free at all times (6) Rental fee payment to artists for their work (7) Recognition of an artist’s right to refuse to show a work owned by the museum in an exhibit that is not a permanent collection (8) Declaration by the museum of its copyright legislation and action to inform artists of their legal rights (9) A registry of artists at the museum (10) The museum of experimental works with unique environmental conditions at the museum (11) A section of the museum to show the works of artists without galleries (12) Museum staff to install and maintain technological works (13) A museum staff member to address artist grievances that may arise.

As a result of the action that day MoMA met and held a dialogue with artist representatives that was publicly acknowledged. Lowry and MoMA, however, had not met all of the specific demands of the AWC. On 22 March 1969 twenty-five artists gathered at MoMA and passed out fake admission passes printed with the words “Art Workers” that had been designed by Joseph Kosuth. The group requested free admission to the museum, which MoMA denied. Some people gained free admission using the counterfeit passes. The group published a statement that said they limited the demonstration to remain purposefully small so that they could ensure that the demonstration would be peaceful and nonviolent. The statement also said that the action of symbolically requesting free admission for all was directed at all museums, not just MoMA.

The museum planned to arrest artists for using fake tickets, not fake passes, but responded to the action in other ways. At the protest, museum security guards kicked Gregory Battcock out of the museum lobby because he was taking photographs of demonstrators. Lowry issued a statement about free admission in response to the protest, stating that MoMA was operating at a deficit, could not afford to give free admission, and that the free-admission policy was only for students, disadvantaged groups, art critics, and artists whose work was currently being shown.

The artist activists used the 22 March demonstration to publicize a larger demonstration scheduled for 30 March by distributing fliers. These fliers stated the goals of the protest: “(1) to demonstrate the right of art workers to use all museum facilities (2) to support the demands of black artists (3) to demand that all museums expand their activities into all areas and communities of the city (4) to demand free admission on behalf of anyone wishing it (5) to demand access to museum policy-making on behalf of art workers.”

About 300 people gathered at the MoMA garden for a sit-in on 30 March 1969. Activists read the AWC’s 13 Demands, especially emphasizing free admission, and a public hearing scheduled to be on April 10. Demonstrators also picketed outside of MoMA, which was covered by television news broadcasts.

Faith Ringgold and Tom Lloyd both spoke demanding the dedication of a museum wing to represent African-American artists. With Iris Crump, Ringglold and Lloyd formed the Art Workers Coalition Committee for Black Blok and did their own publicization for the sit-in, distributing a flier with the committee’s goals.

At the sit-in 40 MoMA staff members distributed literature on MoMA’s programs and policies and talked individually to demonstrating artists. Fliers focused on explaining museum funding and free admission policies. MoMA staff included a chart of museum income and expenditures for 1967-68, which showed the museum was operating at a $460,000 deficit.

To show that MoMA was willing “to talk” Lowry explicitly made sure that the museum garden would be open to artists for the planned peaceful protest. He even placed signs at the museum entrance that read “The Demonstration is in the Garden. Please Enter by the 54th Street Gate.” When artists ignored the request and entered through the lobby, a path was especially marked off for them. Therese Schwartz described these response tactics by the museum as “control strategies” and Perreault described them as “repressive tolerance.” Perreault attributed the museum’s actions to fear of vandalism, even though the AWC publicized a strong anti-vandalism policy. The East Village Other reported that MoMA had stationed police in the museum basement to break up the demonstration if necessary.

On 10 April 1969 350 people gathered in the auditorium at the School of Visual Arts for the AWC Open Hearing. Presenters delivered 60 papers at the hearing. Notable presenters included Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Gregory Battcock, Mark di Suvero, Farman, Hollis Frampton, Dan Graham, Alex Gross, Hans Haacke, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, Tom Lloyd, Barnett Newman, Faith Ringgold, Seth Siegelaub, Gene Swenson, and Jean Toche. At the Open Hearing, the goals of the AWC became broader.

As a result of discussion that day, the group began to align more closely with the New Left and focused on addressing political and social issues including racism, sexism, Vietnam, and abortion rights - in addition to addressing the original goal of addressing artists rights. The AWC gradually splintered into a number of groups associated with the AWC that planned actions related to their group’s specific goals. The AWC officially dissolved in the spring of 1971 after its last protest at the Guggenheim Museum, though many of its splinter groups and other groups addressing the issues it raised remain active.

The main remaining accomplishment of the AWC was the eventual establishment of free admission on certain days at museums -- Starting on 3 May 2013 MoMA offered UNIQLO Free Friday Nights, in which admission is free from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Art Workers' Coalition influenced the formation of other groups that work to promote artist rights and activism (2).

Sources: 
Anon. 2008. “Art Workers’ Coalition.” Primary Information. Retrieved March 3, 2015. (http://web.archive.org/web/20150303203228/http://www.primaryinformation.org/projects/art-workers-coalition/).

Anon. 2015. "OFFERS & DISCOUNTS." The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved March 3, 2015. (http://web.archive.org/web/20150303202144/http://www.moma.org/visit/plan/offers).

Anon. 2013. "UNIQLO to Become the Exclusive, Multi-Year Sponsor of the Museum of Modern Art's Popular Free Friday Night Admission Program." UNIQLO, April 16. Retrieved March 27 2013. (http://web.archive.org/web/20150328030121/http://www.uniqlo.com/us/company/news/2013/20130416.html).

Artworkers Coalition. 1969. “Document 1.” Primary Information, 2008. Retrieved March 3, 2015. (http://web.archive.org/web/20150303203637/http://primaryinformation.org/files/FDoc.pdf).

Forkert, Kirsten. 2015. “The Art Workers Coalition (revisited): A Call to Participate." The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, 2015. Retrieved March 3, 2015. (http://web.archive.org/web/20150303202352/http://www.joaap.org/5/articles/forkert.htm).

Handler, Beth Ann. 2001. “The Art of Activism: Artists and Writers Protest, The Art Workers' Coalition, and the New York Art Strike Protest the Vietnam War.” PhD Dissertation, Yale University.

Sholette, Gregory. 2008. "State of the Union." Artforum international, 04, pp. 181. Retrieved March 3, 2015. (http://search.proquest.com/docview/214338902?accountid=14194).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Erica Janko 05/11/2015