Hörsaal, Kunsthochshule Mainz
Image Courtesy of the New Museum Union
On a warm afternoon in September, I sat at a table in the NoHo Le Pain Quotidien across from Hans Haacke, the godfather of institutional critique, along with two fellow members of the bargaining committee. A major retrospective of Haacke’s work was set to open at the New Museum in October.
It was perfect, in a way: so much of Haacke’s oeuvre is about the ethical failings of art institutions, and I had admired him for a long time because of it. He had been instrumental in forming the Art Workers’ Coalition in the late 1960s, a group of artists and others who came together to pressure New York museums to implement reforms such as ensuring free admission for all, showing more work by Black artists, and allowing all art workers a voice in the museum decision-making processes.
The upcoming exhibition would feature more recent projects alongside Haacke’s legendary works of institutional critique, including Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees (1974), which features seven framed black- and-white silkscreen prints listing the Guggenheim’s board members alongside their corporate affiliations, and the role that these corporations play in capitalist exploitation around the world. Also on view would be MoMA Poll. First exhibited at MoMA in 1970, it invited visitors to vote on the question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” Roughly thirty-seven thousand people voted in the initial installation, the majority of them expressing discomfort with Rockefeller’s position. Considering the Rockefeller family’s extensive financial support for MoMA, Haacke’s query had been pointed, and he didn’t show again at the museum for nearly twenty years.
Given Haacke’s efforts to expose the hidden complicity of museums in propping up oppressive organizations and regimes, it wasn’t hard to think of our union campaign as fitting within a lineage of the kind of institutional critique he practiced. We told him we’d unionized in January to improve our conditions at work and had been fighting an uphill battle with museum management ever since. We explained that we hadn’t called a strike vote yet, but if we did, and if it were successful, we were prepared to withhold our labor during the weeks that the installation of his exhibition would take place.
Haacke told us he understood what we were fighting for—as a professor at Cooper Union, he had helped organize the faculty union—and would be happy to support us. Only, it would have to be after the opening of his show because he had people coming from across the country—and even from outside the country—for the exhibition. If we went on strike before or during the opening, he said, sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to help us. I swallowed, blinking back tears. To wait to strike until after the opening would be to sacrifice any leverage we might have with the museum; it would be pointless. Management didn’t care about us, but they did care about their big-name artists and their public image. I couldn’t believe it: there I was in Le Pain Quotidien with Hans Haacke, legendary proponent of institutional critique, and he’d just told us he would cross our picket line
(published in The Bafler, No. 59, September 2021)