Art Workers’ Coalition Documents

Title Art Workers' Coalition Documents
Location New York
Publisher Art Workers' Coalition
Periodicity 1 issue
URL AWCD at Primary Information
Published Since 1969
Indexed Holdings 1969


The Library of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Primary Information's PDF

Periodical's Overview

"The Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC) was a loose group of artists, writers, and members of the creative community formed in January 1969 after the artist Takis protested the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) by removing his sculpture from their exhibition, “The Museum as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” In the case with Takis, the artist was concerned with his ability to control the exhibition of his work after it had been sold (the Museum had exhibited his work against his wishes because they owned it and felt that their right of ownership superseded his rights as an artist to control its exhibition).

This initial protest was a spark that ignited the coalition—which gathered members and concerns exponentially throughout the early months of 1969. At the time, the Art Workers' Coalition was concerned with the responsibility of museums to artists and aimed their efforts at building a dialogue between themselves and MoMA. Another early issue was better representation of Black and Puerto Rican artists in MoMA as well as the other local museums.

As the coalition grew in membership, so did its concerns, which the Art Workers' Coalition sought to publicly discuss at MoMA. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, the coalition held an Open Hearing at the School of the Visual Arts on April 10, 1969, in which hundreds of people attended. Written statements were collected (some of which were read and some of which were not) and the proceedings were later transcribed. The statements were published in book form by the AWC under the name Open Hearing. At the same time, the AWC also published Documents 1 a collection of letters, press, and ephemera documenting the formation of the Coalition and its dialogue with MoMA."[1]

Selected Subject Headings

  • African American art - exhibitions
  • Art Workers Coalition (New York, N.Y.)
  • Artists - correspondence
  • Artists - United States - political activity
  • Artists and museums
  • Federal aid to the arts - United States
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Museums - political aspects - United States
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • Protest movements in art
  • Racism in art
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 - Art and the war


We write these notes in early 2013, almost a year and half after the Occupy Movement ignited a wave of protests in downtown Manhattan, unevenly spreading through the United States. Among the variety of working groups created under the movement’s umbrella, Occupy Museums, “an ongoing protest that calls out economic injustice in institutions of art and culture,”[2] staged a series of protests outside and inside the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 1969, the Art Workers’ Coalition also staged a series of protests outside and inside the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Art Workers’s Coalition Documents is a fascinating compendium in which we are able to follow via letters, flyers, internal memos and press clippings the course of the events ignited by an artist’s enaction of his own agency as a producer by removing his work from an exhibition in the museum. Reading the documents we can trace how this gesture developed into a series of protests and demands that were issued to the museum, but also how these demands converged with other cultural struggles in the City, especially struggles for the inclusion of cultural producers from a diversity of backgrounds, cultural, racial, and gendered.[3]

Nonetheless, the core of this compilation are the protests, demands and actions against the Museum of Modern Art and their local and international resonance. In terms of concrete results, the demands were dismissed by the institution, and if we were to believe the museum, the resignation of the then-director of MoMA, Bates Lowry, had no relation whatsoever to the Collective’s actions, but we learn that the events started in January 1969 and that Lowry resigned in May 1969.

Again, the year is 1969 and the United States is amidst a period of social unrest and protest against the Việt Nam war, but also a continuation of the Civil Rights struggles and other seismic societal shifts which were confronted with the State’s violent backlash culminating in May 4, 1970 in Kent, Ohio with the shooting of students in a university campus.

In this incendiary context in which the Black Panthers were hunted down, shot to death while sleeping and imprisoned by the FBI,[4] the demands of the self-designated “art workers” could erroneously be perceived as innocuous claims; yes, we agree with Michael Corris when he states that “we should seek clarity about whether a plea for local adjustments to what is essentially a capitalist market in art has much to do with political change on the level evoked by the phrase art worker,”[5] but if one were to move beyond designating terms and surrounding mystiques, we need to acknowledge that the AWC actions did raise pertinent questions that were to be continued in the 1970s by other collectives and publications,[6] during the 1980s’ culture wars and the National Endowment for the Arts's meltdown, and continue to our days, with its own mainstream branch of "engaged" art production: social practice.[7]

That these same questions are the ones we continue to be engaged with--i.e. how can artists have critical agency in a capitalist landscape, or if artists' critical agency in a capitalist landscape can ever bring about political change--could be perceived as demoralizing, but it also could be discerned that questions of labor, power, agency and struggle are inherent to the creative process if this is to have any impact on society.

Beyond the bourgeois myth of the struggling artist, the AWC Documents portrait a moment in which these questions--power, labor and agency--collided with an urgency that needs not to be forgotten.

For this reason, Primary Information’s attentive facsimile and generous distribution of the AWC Documents allows current attempts at rethinking the role of the artist in a changed economy to be grounded in a historical continuum.[8]

And of course, if we want to have access to the original Art Workers Coalition' Documents, oral histories and archives, we just need to make an appointment and consult the nicely safeguarded materials at the Library of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

To peruse the indexed contents of Art Workers’ Coalition Documents, please log into the database.


[1]James Hoff, Primary Information.

[2]Occupy Museums.

[3]Of note are the documents related to the proposal for the establishment of a Black Wing at the Museum of Modern Art in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Members of the proposing committee were, among others, Faith Ringgold and Tom Lloyd. The proposals is dated April 4, 1969. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968; a description of the event: "At 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, a shot rang out as King stood on the motel's second-floor balcony. The bullet entered through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, then traveled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder." Wikipedia.

[4]We are referring to FBI's program "COINTELPRO–BLACK HATE" started in 1967, the 1969's assassination of Fred Hampton while sleeping in Oakland, and Angela Y. Davis 1970s at large, fugitive status.

[5]Michael Corris. "The poverty of poetry: Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era." Art journal (New York), vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 111-115. Online version.

[6]We would like to highlight two related 1970s periodicals indexed in ccindex: The Fox and Red-herring.

[7]For a survey of this kind of art production as understood in the United States, please visit Living as Form exhibition's website.

[8]"The American Abstract Artists (AAA) group picketed MoMA in 1940 and issued a pamphlet—designed by Ad Reinhardt and authored largely by Harry Holtzman—that questioned the currency of the museum’s exhibition policies." Corris, ibid.; also, W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) is a contemporary attempt at addressing this and related issues. For W.A.G.E.'s timeline of its United States' antecedents, please visit their website.