Crashing the Biennial: Locked-Out Sotheby's Workers Take Their Fight to the Whitney

Crashing the Biennial: Locked-Out Sotheby's Workers Take Their Fight to the Whitney
Whitney Museum of American Art
(Photo by Jerry L. Thompson)

This Wednesday, a group of artists and others involved with Occupy Wall Street will take Teamsters as their dates to the Whitney Biennial's official kickoff party. And not just any Teamsters: specifically, Sotheby's union art handlers, who have been locked out of their jobs since August in a bitter contract dispute with the auction house. According to three separate people familiar with the action, the OWS-art handler couples plan to engage attendees in conversation about the Teamsters’ situation and discuss inequality in the arts more generally. It's all part of an effort from various activist groups to shine a spotlight on the corporate patronage that underlies the Whitney's major art event of the year.

The demonstrations will kick off this evening at the VIP preview, where a rally to protest Sotheby’s sponsorship of the biennial is currently in the works. A joint effort from various activist groups including Occupy MuseumsOccupy Sotheby’s, OWS’s Arts & Labor working group, and the Teamsters, the demonstration aims to skewer the company's sponsorship of the show as well as critique the exclusive nature of such survey exhibitions.

Critiques of the Whitney Biennial first hit the news on Monday, when a mock (but very official-looking) press release was sent out announcing that the museum had made the “difficult decision” to cut ties with two of its corporate sponsors, Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank (which the satirical text calls out for its association with the financial crisis). A separate letter from Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Labor group, also released Monday morning, called on the Whitney to end its biennial in 2014 because the event “upholds a system that benefits collectors, trustees, and corporations at the expense of art workers."

These protests are the latest in a series of actions organized by arts-affiliated OWS groups in partnership with Sotheby’s art handlers. In January, a group staged two protests at the Museum of Modern Art to highlight its affiliation with the auction house. Harrison Magee, who has been heavily involved with the Occupy Sotheby’s movement, told ARTINFO that the decision to target the Whitney was a logical extension of previous actions protesting the affiliation of the Museum of Modern Art with Sotheby's, which included dropping a banner that read "Hang Art Not Workers: End Your Lockout." (Both museums host restaurants owned by Danny Meyer, who happens to be a Sotheby’s board member, the workers point out. The Whitney also shares a board member with Sotheby's, Goldman Sachs managing director Henry Cornell.) The Teamsters have called on both MoMA and the Whitney to cut ties with Sotheby's until it ends the lockout, according to Julian Tysh, an art handler who has helped organize many of the demonstrations. The Whitney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its involvement with Sotheby's. 

Coincidentally, the biennial protests come not long after the Whitney finalized a contract with its own art handlers after prolonged negotiations. At the end of January, the Whitney’s union voted — with a strong majority, but not unanimously — to affirm a contract. (According to one art handler, however, the staff has yet to see or officially sign the documents, and installed the biennial “in good faith.”) Though it appears that the Whitney's handlers currently have no plans to join today's demonstration, at least one expressed sympathy for the cause. “A donor plaque went up this morning, and Sotheby’s name is right at the top,” he said.