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Going On Strike
ART TIMES December 2007

HOW ABOUT THAT —Broadway dark just before Thanksgiving and sit-com re-runs on the T.V. What a luxury it must be for some creative people to go on strike! Sure, there’s an uproar from the public. Who wants to watch favorite programs — again? Who wants to travel all the way from Topeka to the Big Apple to take in a Broadway show only to find lights out and doors shut? But think about it, all ye painters and sculptors out there. Going on strike! What do you think would happen if you stood outside your studio with a sign that reads “Brushes down mean brushes down!” or “Chisels down mean chisels down!”?  Think you’d get the same public outcry? At most, you might get a snicker or a raised eyebrow. Who’d care if you decided to stop painting, stop carving? I mean, other than you — and perhaps your family (who might only secretly raise their hopes that perhaps now you’d get a real job. You know, something that would put food on the table and a roof over their heads). As unlikely as it may seem, the idea of artists going on strike was floated once, you know. Yep, back in the days when the idea of an equal footing among creative people was hammered out in the form of Artists Equity by Yasuo Kuniyoshi and a handful of others who thought that artists were just as important as, say, writers or actors, for example. On November 15, 1946, Kuniyoshi, along with Leon Kroll, John Taylor Arms, Henry Schnakenberg, William Zorach, William S. Hayter, Eugene Speicher, Frank Kleinholz and Joseph Hirsch met at the office of Hudson D. Walker, President of the American Federation of Arts in New York City, to discuss the broad outlines of such an organization — namely, an artists’ union with the power to strike. It was a good idea and Kuniyoshi, an energetic activist and dynamic leader, as well as a fine artist, thought that its time had come. Well, they almost got it off the ground — the right to strike, that is. True, Artists Equity still exists and a fine organization it is. However, one of the things that Kuniyoshi and his fellows insisted upon was the artists’ right — like everyone else — to strike if conditions proved to be unfair. They wanted an even playing field. Their argument ran something like this: Gallery directors, museum curators, administrative and office help — even the guards and janitors — got paid. Artists — for whom supposedly the galleries and museums existed — had not only to pay for their materials, do their own framing but even had to, at times, pay to get into a show. Kuniyoshi and his pals asked — and rightly so — “How fair was that?” So, they postulated, why don’t we — artists — strike against a gallery or museum that does not agree to pay them (other than in such tokens as “purchase prizes”, small awards or honoraria) for their efforts? After all, without artists making work for exhibits, what would happen to galleries and museums? Going on strike, then, would give the artist some clout, some equal standing with their fellow creative spirits. Yeah, right. It was a good idea — but who do you think sabotaged the plan? Yep — you got it — the artists themselves. Well, the second tier, anyway. The up-and-comers. When the top tier, the “known” artists, decided to boycott the Corcoran, say, guess who rushed in to take their places? Hell, it gave every wannabe the ideal opportunity to get his or her own foot in the door. The great irony — and, let it be said, shame —for the artists was that if their colleagues didn’t get the message, the galleries and museums did. Dealer and museum representatives who attended the meetings — the “Woodstock Conferences” as they were called back then since they were held in that town at the Art Student League of New York’s building where they offered summer sessions (and where Kuniyoshi was a teacher) — organized by the budding Artists Equity were eager to protect their rights, and organizations formed on their own behalf sprung up overnight. Well, we all know how strong they’ve become — we all know who has the right to shut out who. And now, not only writers but even stagehands got the message. On strike — what a luxury, indeed!

Raymond J. Steiner

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