What the Art Workers' Coalition Meant for Artists and Museums

February 4, 2020

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American social sphere became more and more populated with various groups willing to change the existing order by engaging themselves in the struggle. All of the activists' efforts in preaching antimilitarism and gender, racial, and sexual equality found their way in a series of student protests taking place across the country in 1968.

Such an atmosphere largely reflected on the upcoming generation of artists who believed that art should be used as a tool for social and political emancipation. That is how a coalition of cultural workers (artists, filmmakers, critics, writers, etc.) was formed in 1969 under the name The Art Workers' Coalition (AWC). They aimed to dissect the stiff hierarchies embedded in patriarchy that didn’t allow for experimental art forms to be exhibited and censored artists primarily on the grounds of race and gender.

Now, to understand better their demands not only in historical but also in contemporary terms, it is much required to understand the initial impulses of the individuals who formed the group as well as the functioning of the art institutions during the mentioned period.

Editors’ Tip: Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era

In response to the political turbulence generated by the Vietnam War, an important group of American artists and critics sought to expand the definition of creative labor by identifying themselves as “art workers.” In the first book to examine this movement, Julia Bryan-Wilson shows how a polemical redefinition of artistic labor played a central role in minimalism, process art, feminist criticism, and conceptualism. In her close examination of four seminal figures of the period―American artists Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Hans Haacke, and art critic Lucy Lippard―Bryan-Wilson frames an engrossing new argument around the double entendre that “art works.” She traces the divergent ways in which these four artists and writers rallied around the “art worker” identity, including participating in the Art Workers' Coalition―a short-lived organization founded in 1969 to protest the war and agitate for artists' rights―and the New York Art Strike.

The Initiative

In January 1969, an incident occurred at MoMA when the Greek kinetic sculptor Takis physically removed his work Tele-sculpture (1960) from the exhibition The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age curated by Pontus Hulten. Although it belonged to the Museum’s permanent collection, the artist decided to take it down due to lack of consultation regarding the selection and the fact he perceived it no longer represented his practice properly. After demounting the piece, Takis waited for the confirmation from the Museum’s end that this work would be withdrawn from the exhibition. The incident caused a series of spontaneous meetings held at the Chelsea Hotel where the group that supported Takis's gesture debated about the political and social issues surrounding the art community.

Alongside Takis, the group consisted of the German conceptual artist Hans Haacke, co-founder of Avalanche Liza Bear, American writer and independent curator Willoughby Sharp, American kinetic sculptor Wen-Ying Tsai, American artist, and Village Voice art critic John Perreault, and American minimalist artist Carl Andre. At the end of the same month, the AWC presented a list of 13 demands to MoMA's director Bates Lowry.

Art Workers Coalition 13 Demands
The Art Workers’ Coalition 13 Demands. Barr Papers, 1.489. Image via MoMA Archives, NY

The Demands

The aim of the Art Workers' Coalition was to pressure the city's museums, primarily the Museum of Modern Art, to start implementing much required economic and political reforms. In general, the group insisted on conducting a more transparent exhibition policy by including women artists and artists of color. As a result of AWC’s pressure, the MoMA and other museums enabled a free admission day that still exists today.

After receiving the demands, MoMA decided to enter a dialog with the Art Workers' Coalition and to acknowledge it publicly; however, the Museum did not accept all of the demands, in particular the one to organize a public hearing on the topic The Museum's Relationship to Artists and to Society.

The Coalition organized several demonstrations in front of MoMA, and in April 1969 they arranged a public hearing at the New York School of Visual Arts under a different title: What Should Be the Program of The Art Workers Regarding Museum Reform, and to Establish the Program of the Art Workers' Coalition. This event attracted three hundred proponents of the New York art community; the initial demands were expanded including issues concerning racism, sexism, and abortion rights, and were debated within the larger group. Later, the conclusions were refined and addressed to all New York Museums.

In October 1969, the AWC organized a successful Moratorium of Art to End the War in Vietnam during which The MoMA, the Whitney Museum, the Jewish Museum and a few commercial art galleries closed for the day. The Guggenheim Museum and The Metropolitan Museum were not part of the protest, although The Met postponed the exhibition opening scheduled for that day.

In 1970, the AWC released posters My Lai and And babies to provoke the institutions to articulate better their position in public space regarding the Vietnam War. The second one was shown during demonstrations in front of Pablo Picasso′s Guernica at the MoMA the same year.

Art Workers Coalition Guernica Protest
The Art Workers Coalition protest in front of Guernica, The Museum of Modern Art New York, 1970. Image via Medium

The Legacy of the Art Workers’ Coalition

Although the Art Workers' Coalition actively functioned for three years only, their engagement directly led to the shifts in museums policies, meaning that the impact of their actions was lasting. The AWC inspired new generations of artists to engage themselves in Institutional Critique, a more articulated movement that was born out of Conceptual art.

Although a majority of art institutions conveyed their functioning to the emancipatory discourse of gender and racial equality, diversity, and political correctness, the global art world operates on the basis of hierarchies and exploitation that is most often at the expense of the Others (women, queers, or people of color coming from Second or Third world countries).

Therefore, in a time of the reemergence of fascism all around the world, initiatives like this seem extremely valuable for a rethinking the current strategies of art-making and precarious labor in regards to ideological positioning and reasoning.

Featured image: The Art Workers Coalition Poster And Babies. Image via Christie’s.

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