Another year, another look at those who are rendered powerless in a system that favors the wealthy, well-connected, and famous. Since our inception back in 2009, Hyperallergic has been shining a spotlight on the issues and individuals that are impacted by this power imbalance (okay, sometimes we also like to poke fun at it), and this year is no different. Some may say the “art world” is only for the rich, but we respond to such silliness with: You clearly know little about art.
So, without further ado, come one, come all, and take a gander at what and who we’ve selected as the 20 most powerless in the art community. Here’s to hoping you’re not on it. —Hrag Vartanian
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1. NFT collectors — Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The man who paid $2.9M for an NFT for Jack Dorsey’s first tweet saw the value of his purchase plummet 99%. The same could be said of many art NFTs. It was a gimmick that caused a flurry of activity last year, while this year reality checks took place. Sure, we’ll probably have something that helps determine the provenance of artworks in the future, but most NFT art (like so much digital art) is just dull and boring, and while it’s great to see that this new financialization tool (let’s call it what it is) can help sell work that was previously hard to place on the market, it’s distressing to see so many art organizations clamoring to institutionalize this shitty system buoyed by venture capitalists and other investors as some new direction in art rather than just another way for the market to get their grubby hands on art and make it suck.
2. Piet Mondrian — He doesn’t need our pity, but it is hilarious that one of his paintings has been hanging upside down for 75 years, and now the museum will not hang it the right way because of conservation issues. What an upside-down world we live in.
3. Mummies — Another year of inaction on this issue as streams of tourists continue taking selfies and photos of dead bodies never intended for public display. Can’t we just leave the dead alone? Thankfully, some museums have taken this seriously, and you can see respectful displays of human remains in various institutions — often prohibiting photographs of the bodies — but it is far from the norm.
4. Artists in Documenta 15 — While a certain art publication thought it appropriate to bestow the top spot in their “Power 100” list to curatorial collective ruangrupa, that showed a weird callousness to the real issues at play in this year’s Documenta. Not only does it overlook the very real antisemitism and Islamophobia at play during the art event, but also the fact that many artists didn’t feel supported by the curators. As one artist of color told us, participants in the show were “really fighting for ourselves [and] left to swim in the racist seas.” While we don’t think all the criticism of this year’s Documenta was in good faith, we also don’t think the organizers took the gravity of this task and its real responsibility to the public (Documenta is almost entirely publicly funded) seriously either, acting as if they were curating some private museum event. Bravo to a fantastic and thought-provoking Documenta 15, but we hope the curators learn from this and recognize their responsibility to their artists, audiences, and the public.
5. Tigray’s cultural heritage — The Tigray region in present-day northern Ethiopia is home to 121 5th- to 14th-century rock-hewn churches, believed to be the single largest group of rock-hewn architecture in the world. And that’s not even including the important sites of Axum and Lalibela, which are also in the region. Back in 2021, there were reports (documented by Amnesty International) that Eritrean soldiers were deliberately targeting civilians and fighting had impacted cultural sites — for instance, one of the oldest mosques in Africa was damaged last year. While information about the state of cultural sites has been spotty since fighting began, this year there were reports of looted items popping up on online auction platforms like eBay. Now is the time to remember this cultural heartland and work to ensure the people of Tigray and their heritage are safeguarded from further destruction and looting.
6. Working-class artists — We all knew you were in a tough position, but damn … only 8% of British artists hail from a working-class background?!
7. Ukrainian artists and cultural heritage: Russia’s brutal invasion of their country turned many of them into refugees and others into soldiers. That’s added to ongoing misery and carnage, and the destruction of museums, art schools, and cultural heritage sites. Ukrainian artists have been on the frontlines of resistance, defending their homes and using their art to tell their people’s story to the world. We stand with them and with the call to end this war now!
8. Artist Fidaa Kiwan — While you’re planning your next summer vacation in Dubai, think of the 42-year-old Palestinian photographer and curator who was sentenced to death in the United Arab Emirates on charges of drug possession. Kiwan denies these allegations. But even if she were guilty, in what world is the death penalty a proportionate punishment for such a crime?
9. Museum workers — Always being asked to do more with less, there’s no wonder museum workers are unionizing in record numbers. Now they’re also being tasked with ungluing climate activists from art. Museum workers had some major victories this year, but the fight is far from over.
10. Artsakh cultural heritage — We’ve had this on our list since 2020 and the invasion of Artsakh (known in Russian as Nagorno-Karabakh) by forces of the Azerbaijani dictatorship, but things are getting worse. On December 12, a coalition of human rights and other groups, including Genocide Watch, American Friends of Kurdistan, Center for Truth and Justice, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, International Christian Concern, and others issued a statement warning that all 14 risk factors for atrocity crimes identified by the UN Secretary-General’s Office on Genocide Prevention are now present in the region. They stated: “The government of Azerbaijan has long promoted official hatred of Armenians, has fostered impunity for atrocities committed against Armenians, and has issued repeated threats to conquer not only Nagorno Karabakh, but also Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, by force.” We’ve long documented the cultural genocide aspect of this struggle for self-determination by the people of Artsakh, and it concerns us that things are not getting any better. And this comes shortly after independent US scholars confirmed that 98% of Armenian cultural sites in the Azerbaijani region of Nakhichevan were in fact destroyed, as was reported by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman on these pages back in 2019.
11. Human illustrators and graphic designers: Our heart goes out to these artists who are now forced to compete with all-powerful artificial intelligence (AI) learning machines that can produce an image within seconds, based on any random text description. For example, the DALL-E image below is based on the prompt “human illustrator without a job.”
12. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara — The Cuban dissident artist, long persecuted by the island’s authoritarian regime for simply making art and speaking his mind, is a regular on Hyperallergic’s yearly powerless list. This year, artists, activists, and human rights organizations watched in horror and disbelief as a Havana court sentenced Otero Alcántara to five years in prison on trumped-up charges of “contempt, defamation, and public disorder.” The artist has been held in the Guanajay maximum-security prison since the summer of 2021, when he participated in historic anti-government protests in Cuba. Despite repeated calls by international officials and nonprofits to release Otero Alcántara, rapper Maykel Castillo, and hundreds of other political prisoners, they remain behind bars.
13. Myanmar artist Htein Lin — Myanmar’s paranoid military junta locked up and later released the artist and outspoken pro-democracy activist and his wife, former British ambassador Vicky Bowman. The couple was detained for three months in an infamous facility in Myanmar where political prisoners have been incarcerated under various totalitarian regimes over the past half-century. They may not be in prison anymore, but they’re still not free.
14. Hubble Space Telescope — The Hubble was the “it” space telescope of the last few decades, providing spectacular images from the farthest corners of our galaxy. That’s until the James Webb Space Telescope — younger, more handsome, and equipped with better cameras — came to town. The Hubble is still up there in space, doing its job without fanfare while everyone is gushing over Webb’s glitzy hi-res images. Our advice to the Hubble: Upgrade your iPhone and get a new agent!
15. Iranian artists + Shahriar Siroos — Artists in Iran are not safe. In fact, they are endangered by a regime that routinely censors and jails artists, particularly those who challenge the political system. Sadly, all this isn’t new, even if the ferocity and scale may be. Back in 2015, artist and educator Shahriar Siroos, a member of Iran’s persecuted Baha’i community, was arrested in his classroom in front of his students. At the time he wasn’t charged with a crime and he remains in detention until today, as far as we know. While media coverage of recent protests highlighting women’s rights in Iran has been extensive, stories like that of Siroos continue to languish in obscurity. His profile remains on the websites of nonprofit advocacy organizations, like The Voice Project, but there’s been little news about him since his arrest.
16. Frida Khalo’s legacy — Frida Kahlo: She was a revered Mexican painter, a brilliant self-portraitist, an unrelenting feminist, a political activist, and much more. And now, thanks in no small part to capitalism, she is also … pins, stickers, lunchboxes, a Broadway musical, this fanny pack (nooooo!), and many more things that would have likely made her raise one of her iconic eyebrows. Adding insult to injury, this year the fast-fashion brand Shein launched a truly embarrassing new “Frida-inspired” collection, likely aided by the fact that something called the Frida Kahlo Corporation (FKC) controls 51% of the artist’s trademark. People, please, LEAVE FRIDA ALONE!
17. Mid-size galleries: They’ve been hemorrhaging artists to the blue-chip galleries, which end up reaping the fruits of their labor and investment. In this Reaganomics-in-drag art world, the big fish eats the little fish, even though the little fish does most of the work.
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18. Native rock art: In 2022, vandals scrawled over ancient petroglyphs at Big Bend National Park in Texas and irreparably destroyed 30,000-year-old rock art in Southern Australia. Meanwhile, stunning petroglyphs and pictographs in Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon are threatened by the exploration of natural gas reserves. Can’t rock art just catch a break? Many of these invaluable records of human life and artistry have spiritual significance for Indigenous people, who feel their loss profoundly.
19. -iennial artists — Sure, some of the OGs in the field are still relevant (think Venice, Documenta, and others), but there are so many biennials, triennials, etc. that we all have some form of -iennialitis. The slew of -iennials in New York over the last year or two alone were not very memorable as curatorial projects (frankly, they were yawn-worthy, even if some of the art was really good), and we feel really bad for artists paying out of pocket to be included in an exhibition that probably won’t impact their career all that much.
20. Independent art media — We’ve been at this game for over a decade, but more recently we’ve been concerned about the growing animosity towards independent media in the art community. Maybe it’s the legacy of Trump-itis, for lack of a better term, but galleries and auction houses are more than happy to publish their own online and offline PR rags full of useless articles no one reads while the lack of support of independent journalism is forcing some to close. We need robust independent media that challenges the powers that be in the art community.
Pyotr Voskresensky — Voskresensky founded the LGBTQ History Museum in Russia. He set up a pop-up exhibition in his home in St. Petersburg starting November 27 to oppose the new anti-gay law in the country. The museum included a portrait of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the composer historians widely agree was gay. Soon after the passage of the homophobic law, which was signed by Vladimir Putin on December 5, 2022, Voskresensky shuttered the show because people violating the law can be fined 400,000 rubles (about $6,185), while corporations may be fined up to 5 million rubles (about $77,320). We look forward to the day when Voskresensky will be able to reopen his museum. And queer activists are not the only ones being persecuted by the Russian state. Aleksandra Skochilenko, who replaced price tags in supermarkets with anti-war slogans, was also detained this year as part of what Amnesty International describes as a “wider clampdown on a network of feminist-led anti-war activists.” And let’s not forget the feminist protest group Pussy Riot and many others.
The Obama official portraits: If former President Barack Obama ever needs a last-minute license photo, he can just use his bizarrely hyperrealistic official portrait, made by Robert McCurdy. And if Disney ever decides to base a princess character on Michelle Obama, Sharon Sprung has already done the job for them.
Calgarians — This summer, we had one of those news headlines that one could only dream up in a fiction class. “The Wishing Well” sculpture by Living Lenses (Louise Bertelsen and Po Shu Wang) burned a hole in a visitor’s jacket as they stood there admiring the work. The city had to remove the piece until they did more testing, and now it’s back on view, with an added feature: You can text-message the sculpture. “The words from the messages get processed into braille text dots that play music, sounds and voices that can be heard by standing inside of the sculpture.” Sorry, Calgary. We have no idea what all this is about, but it sounds unnecessary. And we’re not going to even get into the whole racist park thing with artist Annie Wong. What the hell is going on in Calgary?