I came across the Art Workers Coalition (AWC) 1969 Open Hearing documents by chance. They consisted of a stack of photocopies of handwritten and typewritten statements about the position of artists in society, particularly in relation to events of the time such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

There were some very frank critiques of the artist’s dependence on market and state patronage, and the role of both in the military-industrial complex (such as museum trustees connected with corporations that were directly or indirectly involved in the Vietnam War). The AWC arose out of meetings among artists in New York, and was catalyzed when George Takis tried to remove a sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art because he had no control over the conditions in which it was shown. The Art Workers Coalition presented the director of MOMA with a list of thirteen demands, one of them being an open hearing on museum reform. They were refused, so they instead held the meeting at the School of Visual Arts (where the statements were read).

The AWC also existed at a time when avant-garde art practices such as Minimalism and Conceptual Art (with a few exceptions) were just beginning to engage with specific political issues (as against the formalist modernist credo against propaganda) out of a sense that making art about art was to fiddle while Rome burned. It was a very interesting historical juncture: where the social transformation of the late 60s coincided with a radical questioning of the autonomy of the art object, the artist, and the discipline of art. The Open Hearing statements reflected the tensions and contradictions of the era: rejections of a mainstream art world that served the wealthy and powerful were made alongside calls for better representation for women and minorities within it (including a wing of the Museum of Modern Art named after Martin Luther King). The demands ranged from reformism (exhibition fees and resale rights) to calls for “total revolution.” Contradictions also existed around the figure of the artist, who was seen by some as a solipsistic and rather arrogant figure, and by others as oppressed and in need of liberation. It was because of these tensions and contradictions that the AWC did not last long (it ended after several years).

However, it functioned as the catalyst for many different organizations, some of which still exist today. I was drawn to the AWC Open Hearing documents because of the frankness and idealism of their language. As most of the statements were handwritten and typewritten, all the edits and corrections were visible. This gave them a certain emphatic quality; while some of the statements seemed naïve and still others were offensive (sexist or homophobic), I was struck by how less cautious they seemed: there was no hedging or endless qualifiers of the “it’s all so complex” variety. I also saw the AWC as an experiment with the forms and methods of organizing that did not take the familiar forms of an exhibition, art space or festival.The Open Hearing statements raise the question of the difficulty and necessity of organizing artists—a relevant if not an urgent question. It is a truism that there is a great degree of exploitation in the art world. The economic sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger has written about the “exceptional economy” of the arts (Menger: 1999 and 2005) whereby a few artists are very successful while the majority struggle.

The informality of many relationships in the art world (through which opportunities often arise) and the assumption that everyone shares the same ethos means that to disclose exploitation is to betray trust, as well as the assumption of the inherently progressive nature of the field. One arts administrator I interviewed for another research project told me that she once circulated e-mails about joining a union; she received a deluge of angry responses, many along the lines of “this is a great work environment, why are you complaining?”

Many of these contradictions around organizing artists, I would argue, center on the question of artistic autonomy. From this perspective, organizing is too much work: too many meetings, too much bureaucracy, and, above all, too much time spent away from one’s own work. Political organizing is associated with aesthetic dogmatism, either around form/medium (that artists should stop making saleable objects) or content (that all artists should make explicitly political work).

This dogmatism was present in some of the Open Hearing documents. I am not arguing for these conventions as timeless universals—the history of the avant-garde is full of attempts to challenge them. However, it is important to ask why they have persisted for so long and whose interests they serve. For example, in my experience art education is still in many ways based on the essentially individual nature of creativity and the exemplary figure of the artist. The market appetite for young artists and the consequent pressure on art education to produce the next big star entrenches these conventions. The history of collectivism is also largely unknown, especially within art history courses. It is largely written off as a series of aberrations and failed experiments.Another question I would like to raise is whose interests are served by our incredible resourcefulness and adaptability. While I am not claiming that only artists are resourceful or that conditions for all artists are the same, I also acknowledge that one of the skills many of us learn is to create work and organize events with little to no budget.

On one hand this allows us to make do and continue to be active in difficult circumstances. From a certain perspective, this can function as an anti-consumerist stance, as it involves the trade-off of money for time. On the other hand, questions have to be asked about the sustainability of the lives many of us lead—how possible this is for those with children or other family responsibilities, and also how much this depends on the welfare state, for those of us lucky enough to be living in one, and how this is mediated by questions of race, gender, class, and immigration status. Another related issue is the prevalence of free labor in culture: the unpaid internships, the self-organized art spaces and magazines run on volunteer time. I have been involved in many self-organized initiatives that could not function without unpaid work. But what happens when this becomes a larger structural condition—when major institutions or even profit-making enterprises assume that everyone must be unpaid or underpaid, because there is just such an overwhelming interest or enthusiasm to be involved in culture?

Interestingly, Menger, Hans Abbing, and others use language connoting excess: there is an “oversupply” of aspiring artists and arts administrators for available positions; this oversupply is seen to be the result of mass arts education. So we need to ask whose interests are served by our unpaid work. Another, perhaps unavoidable factor in the difficulty of organizing artists has been the dominance of celebrity culture in the art world and society in general (exemplified by the huge prices paid for the works of Damien Hirst and others). I see this as an entrenchment of capitalist social relations in art: career success becomes the primary goal, meaning that the kind of self-organizing that the AWC were involved in is a pointless exercise, as it is much more efficient to leave the conditions of one’s practice (where one shows work and under what conditions) to gallerists, curators or other arts managers.All these contradictions around money, time, free labor, autonomy, and security existing in the art field have also become evident through changes in society over the past forty years. Andrew Ross illustrates this phenomenon, in No Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs, through the story of a wildcat strike at a car factory in the US by a group of young factory workers who were involved in the hippie counterculture. They protested the quality of work, a demand not traditionally recognized by trade unions, which historically focused on wage gains and full-time employment (Ross: 2006, 5). In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello term this phenomenon “the artistic critique”—the demand for meaningful work and a more authentic life.

They argue that this was a missed opportunity for unions and one of the factors that led to their current impasse (where they have a difficult time recruiting younger members, particularly those in atypical work situations and those working in the service industry). Instead, according to the authors, this demand was taken on by management, particularly through the new management rhetoric of the nineties. The trade-off of freedom for security or meaningful work for a living wage has become a form of workplace discipline. Ross describes how the business world took on the conditions associated with artisanal-scale production: small scale, flexible hours, casual work environments, and the merging of the roles of employer and employee.

My position is that artists need some form of collective organization more than ever, and because trade unions missed a historical opportunity does not mean all is lost. This does not mean that they must be “modernized” in the neoliberal sense, but that they must become more imaginative—an imaginativeness of organizational structure and practice that can be learned from experiments such as the AWC. For artists, it means asking the kind of hard questions asked by the AWC, which still have not gone away.


Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, 2006).
Pierre-Michel Menger, “Artistic Labour Markets and Careers,” Annual Review of Sociology, 1999.
Pierre-Michel Menger, Profession Artiste: extension du domaine de la creation (FNAC, 2005).
Andrew Ross, No Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (Thompson/Gale, 2006).

Kirsten Forkert (1973) is an activist, artist, and writer. She is involved with several collectives in London, including Micropolitics, Rampart Social Centre, and London Housing Action Now! She is also involved with University College Union (a trade union for academic staff). Kirsten is in the second year of a PhD in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College.