Non-Participation: Essay in Art Leaks Gazette


Lauren van Haaften-Schick, January 2013.




Published in the Art Leaks Gazette, May 2013.

Full essay and select submissions to “Non-Participation” available at


In 2008 the Spertus Museum in Chicago prematurely closed their exhibition “Imaginary Coordinates,” which presented historic and contemporary interpretations of mapping the Israel-Palestine region. Although the exhibition was not politically aligned, religiously affiliated funders accused the museum of sympathizing with Palestine, and threatened to end their support. While the incident did not go unnoticed by the press, the museum attempted to continue business as usual, and later that year artist Michael Rakowitz, who is of Iraqi-Jewish heritage, was invited to create a newly commissioned work for the museum. His eloquent refusal of the invitation, later published in the journal The Exhibitionist, outlines the importance of Imaginary Coordinates for presenting works from both sides of the Israeli Palestine conflict, and lambasts the museum for their decision to close the exhibition early, thereby “serving the interests of those who seek to erase culture and memory.” Rakowitz’s letter concludes by declaring a simple yet often lost principle of the ethics of cultural production, that “what an artist refuses is sometimes more important than what he or she agrees to.”1

As evidenced by Rakowitz’s protest, there are many instances where producers choose to resist and refuse limitations on their practices, their freedom of speech, and reject contexts that do not present their work as it should be understood. In January 1969 the artist Takis removed his sculpture on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in protest of the museum’s poor contextualization of the work and exhibition of it against the artist’s will. The demonstration that ensued led to a series of demands presented to MoMA regarding the fair treatment of artists, and served as the catalyst in the founding of the Art Workers Coalition, who called for political responsibility among institutions and an assertion of artists’ labor and intellectual property rights. A member of the AWC, Lee Lozano’s “Strike” piece also from 1969 outlines her choice to withdraw from the art world in order to pursue “total personal & public revolution,” and declares that her future involvement in art will be strictly limited to efforts that further this goal.2 The  following year, a widespread “Art Strike,” initiated by members of the AWC and affiliates, called for museums and other cultural institutions to close their doors for one day to two weeks as an expression against the US government’s “policies of racism, war and repression.”3

For the Art Strike, Robert Morris ended his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella closed his exhibition at the MoMA for a day, Jo Baer, Robert Mangold, and Robert Smithson barred the Whitney from exhibiting their works in the permanent collection that month, and MoMA and the Guggenheim suspended their admission fees. In 1977-80 Gustav Metzger proposed another Art Strike, which was to last for three years during which time artists would not produce, sell or exhibit work, in the hopes that this refusal of labor would serve to cripple the hierarchical industry of art as it stands.4

Regardless of their explicit agendas, these acts of complete withdrawal highlighted the value of these artists’ participation by emphasizing the gap that was left when their work could no longer be accessed, and challenged established forces of control over the channels by which art may be transmitted and received. The concrete impact of these acts is up for debate however. As Stewart Home admits of his own Art Strike from 1990-93, although some artists will cease to “make, distribute, sell, exhibit or discuss their cultural work… the numbers involved will be so small that the strike is unlikely to force the closure of any galleries or art institutions.”5

Elaborating on this notion, Luke Skrebowski writes that because “contemporary art’s ‘value’ is decided primarily on the secondary market, a cessation of primary production would not be able to stop business… rediscovered figures from the past and/or previously unincorporated regions could be employed as vehicles for speculation” such that the market/institution as it stands will always be able to replenish its stock regardless of the contemporary artists’ participation, or lack thereof.6 These scenarios seem to only further a cultural climate that tends to encourage over-production and exhibition for the sake of attention, inducing a kind of “pressure to perform,” as argued by Jan Verwoert, where the political or conceptual motivations behind the act of making can override content and criticality.7 The promise of cultural capital as the payoff for precarious livelihoods make the automatic “yes” an obvious option for many. In the worst scenarios, the artist ceases to present alternative ways of seeing, of operating, and thus a core purpose of art is abandoned. Yet Homes continues to assert that the importance in the act of striking and of refusal lies in the ability to “demonstrate that the socially imposed hierarchy of the arts can be aggressively challenged.” Such statements also give voice to often under-represented positions, proposing a crucial alternative to accepting what is given, and what shouldn’t be. This optimistic assertion is an attempt at reversing the widely (and quietly) held belief among artists and others that the risk of not participating will diminish our cultural, intellectual, and financial value – in this opposite scenario, we may be empowered by it.

I am now compiling these letters of “Non-Participation,” as a publication and exhibition series. The content of these statements will remain un-edited, and they will be accompanied only by factual accounts. Letters received and researched thus far concern a diversity of issues ranging from the non-payment of artists’ fees, censorship of university courses and of art critics’ writings, to the cancellation of projects for various political reasons. In some cases, the artist is the one who is at fault and not the institution they are speaking against, and in other instances the true right or wrong is impossible to decipher. Regardless, these acts of resistance force questions and concerns deserving of consideration. It is the hope that this collection will serve as a broad reference, a guide, and at the very least a source of inspiration, revealing that opting out remains and will always be a viable and valid option.

The call for submissions is below, and is followed by a sampling of letters received.



1.“The Untimely Closing of Imaginary Coordinates: Letter from artist Michael Rakowitz to Staci Boris, Senior Curator at Spertus, refusing an invitation from the museum to create a new work for an upcoming exhibition,” The Exhibitionist, Fall 2008.
2. Lozano, Lee, “Strike Piece,” 1969, viewable at:
3. New York Artists Strike Against War, Racism, Repression, and War, “Art Strike,” 1969. Announcement viewable at:
4. Metzger, Gustav, “ART STRIKE 1977-1980,” Art Into Society/Society Into Art, Institute for Contemporary Art, London, 1974.
5. Home, Stewart, “About the Art Strike,” The Art Strike Papers, viewable at: Originally published in Welch, Chuck, The Eternal Network: a mail art anthology, London, 1989.
6. Skrebowski, Luke, “Working against (Art) Work” in Baldon, Diane, ed. et. al., “CounterProduction,” Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2012.
7. Verwoert, Jan, “Exhaustian & Exhuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform,” in Ohlraun Vanessa, ed., Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want, Sternberg Press, 2011.



Call for Submissions: Non-Participation


The project, “Non-Participation,” will be a collection of letters by artists, curators,
and other cultural producers, written to decline their participation in events, or
with organizations and institutions which they either find suspect or whose actions
run counter to their stated missions. These statements are in effect protests against
common hypocrisies among cultural organizations, and pose a positive alternative
to an equally ubiquitous pressure to perform. At the heart of the project is the
notion that what we say “no” to is perhaps more important than what we agree to.
Historic instances and examples include: Adrian Piper’s letter announcing her
withdrawal from the show Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975 at LA
MoCA, stating her opposition to Phillip Morris’ funding of the museum and
requesting that her criticizing statement be publicly shown; A letter from Jo Baer
to a Whitney Museum curator canceling an upcoming exhibition on the grounds
that her work was not being taken seriously because she is a woman artist; Marcel
Broodthaers open letter to Joseph Beuys questioning the relationship between
artists and exhibiting institutions; the withdrawal of John Baldessari, Barbara
Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha from the board of trustees of LA MoCA
in response to the leadership of Jeffrey Deitch and his dismissal of curator Paul
Schimmel; and public announcements by art writers Dave Hickey and Sarah
Thornton of their “quitting” the art world.

I am now collecting your letters of non-participation, which will be compiled as a
publication, with other activities surrounding the project to be announced.
Please send copies of your letters via email to
With your submission, please indicate whether or not you wish to remain
anonymous. All names and contact information can be omitted or made public,
depending on your preference.

Each letter will be accompanied by a factual account of the incident and/or any
other relevant information that could illuminate the situation, as you see fit.
There is currently no deadline for submissions.

In terms of my own work, Non-Participation is a natural extension of my last
exhibition, “Canceled: Alternative Manifestations & Productive Failures,” which
presented a selection of canceled exhibitions and the projects artists and curators
created in response. The idea for Non-Participation came up many times over the
course of the exhibition, and now I would like to see it come into being. Please feel
free to pass this along to anyone else you think may be interested.

And of course, let me know if you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions.

Thank you in advance.

All my best,
Lauren van Haaften-Schick