Occupy Wall Street joins protests against Frieze New York

New York’s Carpenters’ Union has already complained about the fair’s labour standards

                 Following on the heels of a labour dispute brought against Frieze Art Fair by the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters, the Occupy Wall Street movement has revealed that it is planning a full-on demonstration of the London-based art fair. Members of the subgroup Occupy Museums, the self-described visual arts “affinity group of Occupy Wall Street”, aim to protest what they call “the rampant financialisation of art”.

Occupy Museum members say their action is a criticism of the one-sidedness of the art economy. Their plans involve both a traditional, placard-bearing protest and outreach through “the free exchange of art”, according to Imani Brown and Noah Fischer, the representatives for a movement that rejects the idea of official spokesmen. Brown and Fischer say the demonstrators (many of them artists themselves) will trade their art for whatever the fair-going public wishes to barter in return—time, conversation, even tickets to the $25 entry-fee event. The group held a similar, albeit rather anaemic, “Free Art for Fair Exchange” event at The Armory Show earlier this year.

In interviews, members of the protest movement repeatedly stressed their desire to branch out beyond traditional art world activities like “institutional critique”. “We want to stay away from that term. We want to un-Frieze art,” Fischer says. “We’re not specifically against exchanging art for money. But we do want to point out that the economic reach of an art fair like Frieze benefits a tiny minority of artists in New York and not the larger arts scene.” Brown points out: “artists are not unionised, so part of our outreach is to talk to people who are artists but are not represented in a fair like Frieze—a huge number. Free Art for Fair Exchange can do that because it lays the foundation for artists’ solidarity. This economic model obviously doesn’t work for the vast majority of artists.”

Both Brown and Fischer say they expect far larger numbers at Randall’s Island than attended March’s Armory Show protest on the West Side piers. They cited improved weather in May and sustained outreach for what they anticipate will be crowds “in the hundreds”. Besides explaining that they will set up tables and “a presence” outside the fair’s entrances, they refused to provide further details of the demonstration for “security reasons”. It remains to be seen how the twin entrance and snake-like tent design devised by the architects SO-IL for Frieze New York will stand up to protesting crowds.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors are joining local trade unions, who have already spoken out against Frieze plans to not use union labour on Randall’s Island. The movement has often supported the unions, most visibly in connection with the Teamsters’ protesting Sotheby’s lockout of art handlers. “We’re against breaking unions, like what’s happening at Sotheby’s,” says Fischer. “Frieze, by running away from union labour, is doing something inherently unfair. It’s like they’re trying to turn Randall’s Island into a gated community.”

Last week, the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters sent a letter to Deutsche Bank, the fair’s main sponsor, claiming that Frieze “and others like them… do not meet labor standards” and use contractors who “do not pay the area standard wages to all their employees including providing or fully paying for health benefits and pension”. Reached by phone, the union’s representative Brian Brady says the organisation attempted to reach management at Frieze New York, before it started a picket line outside Deutsche Bank’s US headquarters at 60 Wall Street on Friday 13 April. “We sent emails, left voice mails, we went to their offices at 41 Union Square; then, we went out to Randall’s Island to talk to them. We were met by two security guards and couldn’t speak to management. They were very annoyed we were there and called the police. These people don’t want any sort of discussion.”

According to a spokeswoman for the fair: “Frieze is aware of the letter sent by the New York City District Council of Carpenters and would like to state that we are not in a labour dispute with them or any other collective-bargaining organisation. Frieze has a track record of producing high-quality art fairs and has contracted reputable local vendors with the appropriate skills and experience to prepare the Randall’s Island site for the upcoming art fair. Frieze is working closely with Randall’s Island, the New York City Parks Department, and many of the City’s museums, galleries and not-for-profit arts organizations from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan to engage the community and provide access to artist-focused events during the fair. In our inaugural edition of Frieze New York, we aim to make a positive cultural and economic contribution to the city by creating the best art fair experience for our participating galleries and the public.”

Invoking an instance during the March 2012 fairs when the carpenter’s union resolved a similar dispute with the management of Scope art fair, Brady says: “At that time, they sat down with us and we came to a resolution. For a company from London to come over here to undercut our benefits and everything we’ve worked for is just wrong.” Asked what the District Council of Carpenters will do absent a resolution by fair time, Brady is firm: “We’ll protest. We’re not just going to get pushed around.”

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