An exhibition-intervention by Occupy Museums that exposes the relationship between global economic inequity and artists’ growing debt burdens. The project functions as an exhibition and organizing mechanism that intervenes within “fine arts” institutions via physical and digital platforms. Original artwork is accepted through a non-juried open call, which includes an online questionnaire to delve into the relationship between the artists’ creative aspirations and their economic realities.
Just as banks bundle loans together into packages called asset-backed securities, artworks that are displayed through Debtfair are hung in close, salon-style proximity as “bundles,” with each bundle representing a financial, rather than an aesthetic or conceptual, relationship.
The bundles are exhibited within the walls of the luxury art institution, hung between exposed studs, representing the structural omnipresence of debt. This installation strategy depicts how all spaces within capitalism function with a layer of extraction just below the surface. By showing the interconnected, systemic nature of personal debt, Debtfair examines the financial relationships that simultaneously bind us to and alienate us from one another, locates possibilities for solidarity in a global struggle, and encourages the leveraging of our collective power as debtors.
The ebb and flow of the global debt market influences the tides of the art world by shaping and monetizing the artistic canon. Art has become an asset class for speculation and is traded alongside other financial instruments––municipal bonds, student loans and medical bills. In an era of near-total financialization of resources, culture, and people, debt can be considered the primary instrument used to represent, maintain, and enlarge economic and social inequities. The complexity and abstraction of debt markets and the false separation of personal and collective debt are roadblocks to political agency, solidarity, and restitution.
The invitation to produce an iteration of Debtfair for the 2017 Whitney Biennial provided us with a tremendous opportunity to fully realize the project’s core vision: to expose the debt and extraction codified within the walls of a luxury art institution. Here, BlackRock, Inc., the world’s largest asset management corporation with $5.1 trillion in assets under management (larger than the US economy), acts as a lens for understanding the relationship between artists, their debt, and international banking and investment firms. 500 artists participated; their art and stories are featured online and projected in the Museum.
The art of 30 artists is embedded in a gash in the wall formed by two graphs showing art market profits and BlackRock assets over time and organized into three “bundles”: Puerto Rico (artists with debt to Banco Popular and other Puerto Rican institutions affected by the debt crisis), Navient (student loan debt); and JP Morgan Chase (credit card debt and mortgages). BlackRock is a majority owner of these companies and profits from the inability of artists to pay back their debts.
Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, who sits on the board of MoMA, NYU, and the Council on Foreign Relations among other notable institutions says that “the two greatest sources of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art [...and] apartments in Manhattan.”Projects (in chronological order):
Rendering for "A bundle of 10 Debtfair artists affected by the Puerto Rican debt crisis", El Museo del Barrio, 2017
"Debtfair", Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2017
"Artists who Say Art is their Career but Work Multiple Precarious Jobs to Make Ends Meet (A bundle from Debtfair)", University of Illinois, 2016
"Debtfair", Art League Houston, 2015
Photo Credit: For Whitney Biennial to Kenneth Pietrobono (Occupy Museums) and the Whitney Museum.