How to Occupy Museums

Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico © 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

MoMa was only two years old when Diego Rivera occupied it for the first time. It was the fall of 1931, during the Depression, and the museum brought the artist from Mexico to New York six weeks before his solo show to create what we now might describe as semi-site-specific works. On blocks of frescoed plaster, slaked lime, and wood, he painted five “portable murals”—some on themes from Mexican history (his famous Agrarian Leader Zapata); others on class inequity, and revolution. After the opening, RIvera added three more murals about social injustice in New York—or, as we might say now, the 99 percent.

That’s the theme of Frozen Assets, shown here, which looks awfully fresh for a 1931 painting–skyscrapers on top, bank vault with clients on the bottom, and the 99 percent sleeping in a shelter in the middle. MoMA is reuniting it with other works from the original exhibition in “Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art,” opening November 13. Also featured are designs for Rivera’s Rockefeller Center murals, which were destroyed in 1934 after a scandal over the artist’s “unauthorized” depiction of Russia’s Communist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin.

How this exhibition might impress the Occupy Museums protestors who’ve branched off from Occupy Wall Street to picket MoMA and other museums isn’t clear. If it lures them inside the museum, they will find (in addition to more Communist art) evidence of the cultural elitism they rightly detect—as well as many programs offering information and empowerment to school groups, teenagers (free classes!), Alzheimer‘s patients, and many others in the 99 percent. Sometimes the radicals are on the inside.

Which is to say, there are a lot of ways to occupy museums. At MoMA, in 1974, Tony Shafrazi spray-painted Picasso’s Guernica, one of the great anti-war paintings of all time, to get his protest against the Vietnam War on front pages around the world; that was a bad way. Occupy Museums has been deeply controversial in the art world regarding its targets and intentions–why not target, some say,  auction houses or art galleries?  But in the end maybe Occupy Museums is not so radical after all. Talking to passerby outside the museum about cultural elitism, underpaid art handlers, and issues that keep people out of museums? Funny thing—that sounds just like the art inside the museum.

Note: Admission is free at MoMA on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. It’s always free for children 16 and under.

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