After a Contract Fight with its Workers, the New Museum Opens Hans Haacke’s ‘All Connected’
It’s tempting to read Haacke’s career-long work of institutional critique as prescient. In fact, he’s been an astute observer for long enough to know that current scrutiny of museum ethics is long overdue
In 1986, in a catalogue essay for ‘Unfinished Business’ – Hans Haacke’s first major retrospective US exhibition, at the New Museum in New York – the Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson described the artist’s work as having ‘a kind of personal necessity and inevitability about it […] One is surprised to find that a particular work was produced three years ago, or five years ago, or perhaps just last year, since it seems that this work must already have been there somehow.’
More than 30 years later, on the occasion of the artist’s current New Museum retrospective, ‘All Connected’, his work has something of the opposite effect: it is surprising to realize just how long Haacke has been at it. His work drawing attention to the Mobil oil company’s funding of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MetroMobiltan, 1985) was produced over 30 years ago, long before Extinction Rebellion protested BP sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Condensation Cube (1965) and Recording the Climate in Art Exhibition (1969–70), which demonstrate the functioning of atmospheric processes, were made some 50 years ago, before climate change loomed over every natural phenomenon. In Les must de Rembrandt (1986), he pointed to the violence from which corporate sponsors derive their riches decades before Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett’s 2019 essay ‘The Tear Gas Biennial’ was published in Artforum.
Haacke was even ahead of the curve when it came to being ‘cancelled’ – not by online critics, but by people with real power. Six weeks before an exhibition of his work was to open at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1971, director Thomas Messer declared that his piece Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), which meticulously detailed the financial dealings of the shell companies used by New York slumlords, was not ‘a fit subject matter for a museum’, as Haacke quotes in Working Conditions, his 2016 collection of writings. Messer also fired the curator, Edward F. Fry.
Yet, the force of Haacke’s work has only grown with time. After all, the institutions which he subjected to critique have only grown more powerful. Shapolsky’s holdings are small compared to today’s real-estate giants, like SL Green Realty and the Blackstone Group – although now most real-estate moguls go for the billionaire market, leaving the role of slumlord to the woefully underfunded New York City Housing Authority. (Meanwhile, the Baltimore slumlord Jared Kushner is senior adviser to President Donald Trump.) Oil companies, too, are bigger and richer than ever: in 1999, Mobil and Exxon (the two largest descendants of the Standard Oil Company, the monopoly broken up by the US Supreme Court in 1911 and the source of the Rockefeller fortune, which has funded both New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art over the years) merged to become ExxonMobil. The company’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson, served as Trump’s first secretary of state. ExxonMobil has spent millions funding not only art, but also science intended to cast doubt on climate change, the phenomenon that now gives Haacke’s early earth systems works such frisson.
In light of all this, it is tempting to describe Haacke as prescient. But this would be to suggest that he had some sort of special insight into the future that we now occupy. In fact, he has simply been an astute and honest observer long enough to remind us that our current state of affairs has been in formation for decades.
Haacke tends to produce site-specific works that reflect the social and political conditions in which they are shown. Given the nature of retrospectives, ‘All Connected’ is not intentionally site-specific – but it might as well be. The events surrounding its opening crystallize perfectly the changes that have shaped the world over the half-century of Haacke’s career, and especially over the 33 years since his last New Museum exhibition. Then, the New Museum was an upstart project in a small space in SoHo. Now, it is a leading New York art institution, ensconced, since 2007, in a $50-million building on the Bowery (all figures in USD), which it has helped to intensely gentrify. Despite these changes, the museum invoked its avant-garde heritage in announcing the Haacke exhibition, proclaiming, in Lisa Phillips’s ‘Director’s Foreword’ for the catalogue, to be the one of the few institutions in the US that would welcome such a controversial artist’s retrospective.
And yet, as the exhibition’s opening approached this month, the museum was in a bitter contract fight with its newly unionized workforce, haggling over workers’ salaries and healthcare even as it planned to construct a new Rem Koolhaas-designed expansion at an estimated cost of $89 million. Here were the themes of Haacke’s career, almost too perfectly on display: labour exploitation, the institution as ideological apparatus, the breakdown of the boundaries between art and politics, the predatory force of New York real estate.
Seventy-four workers at the New Museum, ranging from editorial staff to part-time art handlers, had organized a union over the course of several months beginning in the autumn of 2018. The main issues were low pay and what senior editor and member of the union organizing committee Dana Kopel called a culture of ‘disposability’: employees regularly worked overtime, burned out and moved on. In response to the organizing drive, the New Museum hired the anti-union consultants Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan and, as reported by Artnet and Artforum in January 2019, reclassified some workers as ‘supervisory’ to take them out of the bargaining unit and attempted to discourage many employees from joining a union altogether. The museum denies both allegations. (Compare Messer’s 1971 statement to the New York Times upon cancelling Haacke’s Guggenheim show – ‘I’m all for exposing slumlords, but I don’t believe the museum is the proper place to do it’ – to the New Museum’s statement on the union – ‘We don’t believe unionization is the best way to preserve what is special about our culture or advance change.’ Art institutions are different.)
Workers nevertheless voted to unionize in January, with a final vote of 38–8 in favour (82.6%). But, the vote was just the first step. After contract negotiations broke down, per union representatives, the union voted to authorize a strike just weeks before the installation of ‘All Connected’ was to begin. The museum settled a contract with the union in late September – at least in part, one has to imagine, to avoid the public relations nightmare of a picket line outside an exhibition openly publicized as a radical political statement. Particularly after the 2019 Whitney Biennial became a referendum on Warren B. Kanders, who was then vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, museums are nervous.
The union contract guarantees full-time staff a minimum salary of $46,000 – a significant raise from the previous baseline of around $40,000, if not quite the $51,000 that museum representatives acknowledged constitutes a living wage in New York. (In 2019, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New York hit an all-time high of $2,980 per month.) The contract also includes a reduction of healthcare fees and a medical stipend for art handlers and other part-time workers who are not included in the museum’s healthcare plan. Meanwhile, New Museum director Lisa Phillips received $727,450 in reportable compensation in the 2016–17 tax year, the most recent period for which public data is available, and an additional $24,363 in additional compensation – all told about 16 times the baseline for workers set by the new contract.1 Perhaps this appears egalitarian in comparison to the 287:1 average CEO-to-worker pay ratio for companies on the S&P 500, or the 151:1 ratio at Goldman Sachs, where New Museum trustee David B. Heller was an executive until his retirement.2 Perhaps to Phillips – who, in 2013, spearheaded an investigation into the gender pay gap for museum directors – her own compensation package is a sign of progress in gender equality. In any case, it is a sign that labour practices in the art world are little different from those of any other industry, however distinctive museums proclaim their mission to be. Fry could have used a union.
But, what if the museum hadn’t backed down? How would the art-going public have responded? You can actually imagine making something of a Haackean project out of it: he has always liked taking the political temperature of museum-goers. In his 1970 MoMA-Poll, he asked visitors to a MoMA show to indicate whether they would support Nelson Rockefeller, heir of Standard Oil and then the Republican governor of New York, in light of his failure to denounce President Richard Nixon’s ‘Indochina policy’. In other shows over the years, he has asked visitors to fill out demographic profiles (John Weber Gallery Visitors’ Profile 1 & 2, 1973; Documenta – Visitors’ Profile, 1972), answer poll questions regarding various socio-political views (World Poll, 2015) and pinpoint where in New York City they lived (Gallery-Goers’ Birthplace and Residence Profile, 1969). What better way to examine the makeup of the art world and the actual political positions held by its participants than to take a tally of how many museum visitors are willing to cross a picket line?
For that matter, what would Haacke himself have done in the event of a strike? As artists are asked to withdraw their work from institutions supported by the makers of teargas and opioids, certainly they should also be expected to withdraw work from institutions denying workers’ rights. Haacke has long supported labour in his own work, whether drawing attention to the labour conditions of workers employed by Mobil or those of the workers constructing the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Yet although things didn’t come to a head in this case, in some other instance they might. How can we take the relationship between art and politics as seriously as Haacke has insisted we must?
Andrea Fraser, in a piece in the catalogue for ‘All Connected’, wonders what happens when institutional critique has itself become institutional: is ‘IC’ dead, or just icky? It is almost too easy to do institutional critique these days – anyone with an internet connection can Google the board of trustees of any museum and find out that, say, the New Museum board president James-Keith Brown made his fortune at a hedge fund formerly known as Och-Ziff Capital Management, which the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has charged with bribery in countries including Chad, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Brown moved to the technology investment fund Coatue Management in 2018.) But it is not hard to find out that rich people have worked someplace unsavoury, and no one will be much surprised to see financiers amongst the ranks of museum donors. It is much harder work, of course, to not only build a truly damning case against a trustee but to organize a movement like the one which led to Kanders’s resignation from the Whitney.
In any case, the problem goes beyond trustees and their ill-begotten money. As Haacke has long pointed out, many more ordinary members of the art world uphold its norms. ‘The millions of white-collar workers of the consciousness industry, the teachers, journalists, priests, art professionals, and all other producers and disseminators of mental products, are engaged in the cementing of the dominant ideological constructs – as well as in dismantling them,’ Haacke notes in his 1976 essay ‘The Constituency’. ‘In many ways, this group reflects the ambiguous role of the petite bourgeoisie, that amorphous and steadily growing class with a middle and upper-middle income and some form of higher education, oscillating between the owners of the means of production and the “proletariat”.’ This remains an insightful analysis of the uncertain status of art professionals. But, at the New Museum and other sites of art production, many of those workers are throwing in their lot with the ‘proletariat’ rather than with the owners of the means of production; after all, their own position is far closer to that of the former.
To understand what made something art, Haacke suggested in ‘All the “Art” That’s Fit to Show’ (1974), it was necessary ‘to look into the economic and political underpinnings of the institutions, individuals and groups who share in the control of cultural power’. He argued that ‘strategies might be developed for performing this task in ways that its manifestations are liable to be considered “works of art” in their own right.’ That is, the examination of the workings of power could be a work of art, one that produced a ‘portrait of [the museum’s] own structure’. What better portrait could one ask for than the one now on display at the New Museum? Indeed, much of the work being done to organize artists, art workers and art-going publics looks remarkably like the work that Haacke has produced over the years: the salary-share spreadsheet created by workers at art institutions throughout New York to increase transparency around pay could be a Haacke piece (cf. Documenta Besucherprofil, 1972); so, too, could the case built by artists and activists against Kanders (cf. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees, 1974).
But, when it comes to organizing, this kind of portrait of institutional structure – what organizers might call power mapping – is only the start. You also have to figure out where your own power might come from. And then you have to build it. If institutional critique is a practice, it is hard to see where it is better embodied than in organizing a union, strike or boycott – practices that, instead of highlighting the connections between money, state and culture at the top of the pile, build connections between those at the bottom, between the people who make museums work and the people who museums are supposedly for. If a critique of institutional power can be art, can a bid for power be too?
1 US Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, ‘Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax’, GuideStar, 2017, https://bit.ly/2P9p5tE