The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World: 2023 Edition

In Hyperallergic parlance, “powerless” conjures a very specific status. Historically, our Powerless 20 list has shone a light on those who exist outside of an art world that lionizes the wealthy and the privileged, whether that’s because they’re persecuted by their governments, trapped in a rigged capitalist machine that spews riches for the very few, or just shit out of luck.

The idea is to offer a palate-cleansing alternative to the cheesy roundups of powerful collectors and “tastemakers” you might see circulating at the end of the year. (Heck, I bet some of the individuals on those lists had something to do with the misfortunes of the below.) We decry the forces that threaten people’s lives and freedoms, but we also poke fun at open letters (meh) and outdoor public sculptures that just can’t catch a break. As we always say … Here’s to hoping you’re not on it.

1. Cultural heritage Artsakh, Tigray, Ukraine, Gaza — From art galleries and mosques to residential buildings, civilian infrastructure and archaeological sites, the Israeli military has irreparably damaged art and cultural sites in Gaza over the past three months. Ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide continue right under our noses in locations like Tigray, where it is proving impossible to source independent reports to verify all the claims, but the world doesn’t seem to care. Since invading Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabkh), Azerbaijani forces have ramped up attack on monuments and cultural sites in the region. Ukrainian heritagecontinues to suffer at the hands of the Russian military as we approach two years since the beginning of the war. Tigray, Artsakh, and Ukraine were on our Powerless list last year, a sobering reminder that threats to their cultural heritage, accompanying immense displacement and destruction, have only escalated in 2023. This year, we’ve added yet another region facing extreme instability. 

2. Indigenous People Whose Ancestral Remains and Heritage Are Being Held Captive by Museums — We’ve long known about the Native remains and sacred artifacts in museums and university collections, but this year really blew the lid off the true scale of these holdings and the frankly horrific ways in which they were acquired. Despite these revelations and some progress in the sphere of repatriation, Indigenous people whose ancestors are gathering dust in institutional storage rooms are relatively powerless in the face of powerful entities doing everything possible to hold on to them — we’re looking at you, Harvard.

Palestinian citizens inspect the damage to the Al-Sussi Mosque and their homes following Israeli air strikes in the Al-Shati Palestinian refugee camp on October 09, 2023 in Gaza City, Gaza. (photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

3. Studio Assistants — Tom Sachs studio workers or former students of Brazil’s Atelier do Centro aren’t the only ones with stories of alleged abuse by a self-absorbed artist who thinks their cult is some kind of creative exercise. We know there are many people working in the studios of bold-faced artists waiting for their own big exposé to set the record straight. Sadly, most of them are being silenced with admonitions that they will never find work again in the field if they speak out — even if the truth is far more complicated and the threats of blacklists are usually overblown. Either way, you know where to find us.

4. Bad Outdoor Art Near Roadways in the American South — It’s not enough to be a subpar lawn statue left to gather moss and rainwater in some rich person’s “sculpture garden,” now you’re also at risk of being plowed over by a rogue driver. That was the fate of a $3 million Damien Hirst artwork in collectors Steven and Lisa Tanenbaum’s backyard (which honestly left a lot to be desired even before it was knocked from its pedestal). Two Wheeler Williams statues in Memphis and a rather tacky Hunt Slonem glittery bunny in Florida met a similar destiny. While we do not condone these acts, we can’t say we’re sad about one fewer Hirst sculpture out in the world.

5. Open Letters — So many open letters, so little tangible action. We’ve seen so many of them this year that we eventually began to wish for an open letter against open letters … The anonymous ones are the most eye-roll-inducing. 

Left: A tourist was filmed etching names into the wall of the Colosseum in Rome. (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic via Youtube); right: A view of the Colosseum (photo via Flickr)

6. Workers at Historical Sites Scrambling to Protect Art From Selfie-Seekers — Tourists’ tendency to treat cultural heritage with flagrant disregard is not a new phenomenon, but this year brought a wave of notably bizarre transgressions, from a woman canoodling with Copenhaguen’s iconic Little Mermaid sculpture for a photo to a man inscribing a declaration of love on the walls of the Colosseum. When will it stop? Please, people, Neptune just wants to rule over the seas — and decorative fountains — in peace.

7. Killed and Displaced Artists and Journalists in War Zones — The first 10 weeks in Gaza following Hamas’s October 7 attack have been the deadliest on record for journalists, per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has documented dozens of deaths from Israeli airstrikes. Reports of visual artists killed in the region continue to emerge as the total death toll surpasses 21,000. In the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani forces have displaced more than 100,000 Armenians, prompting accusations of ethnic cleansing by human rights organizations, while barring independent reporters from having access to the region. Artists, performers, and writers find ways to continue creating, from Afghanistan under Taliban rule to war-torn Sudan — currently the world’s largest displacement crisis, according to the UN — but it’s difficult to imagine a safe future for them anytime soon.

8.  Artists Who Aren’t Nepo Babies and Don’t Have Trust Funds — There are a lot of artists who have a leg up in the world, but the upcoming Alex Israel exhibition at the Broad Museum might be a new pinnacle for nepo plutocracy hubris. The son of wealthy art collectors, Israel is now exhibiting at the private museum of anti-public education billionaire Eli Broad, who has benefited greatly not only from the largesse of public institutions like LACMA but also his own museum, which receives tax exemptions and other nonprofit perks. This is what the ultra-wealthy ultimately want: to use public resources through foundations and take over museums that benefit from the collective purse to celebrate their mostly mediocre collections and children. Now, as many of us have noticed, these same privately held institutions are competing with public museums and artist-run nonprofits for grants and other funding. This isn’t going to end well, and makes you wonder whether some of those private museums should have their tax exempt status in the first place. I’m sure the Museum of Modern Art (probably their MoMA PS1 satellite) will toast him soon enough — I mean, he just did an event with Capital One in Miami. Nepotism is the art movement du jour for those in the high-end collector bubble.

9. Artists Whose Work Looks Like AI Art — If 2022 was the year of human artists being passed over for AI, 2023 portends an even bleaker future for artists whose work already looks like it was made by an image generator. One artist even had his painting banned from a Reddit subgroup this year, with the moderator bluntly telling him, “If you really are a ‘serious’ artist, then you need to find a different style.” Look around the “traditional” art world and you’ll see other examples of artists whose labored-over oil canvases have a hint of that uncanny fantasy-robot look. Ooh la la, is that a Midjourney original?  

Two supporters of Just Stop Oil address the surrounding crowd after taking safety hammers to the protective glass covering Diego Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus” (1647–1651) (image courtesy Just Stop Oil)

10. Protective Glass on Artworks — People splashing paint on you, gluing themselves to you, even trying to smash you with a hammer … as noble as climate activists’ intentions may be, this is no way to live for the sheets of glass covering famous artworks from destruction. Almost makes you miss the tomato soup (at least it was edible).

Zhou Fengsuo and activists display the “Pillar of Shame” banner in Times Square on May 7, 2023. (photo courtesy Zhou FengSuo)

11. Artists Silenced by Their Governments — In the dystopia we currently inhabit, expressing pro-Palestine views or even just engaging with related social media posts can have chilling repercussions. Particularly in Germany, whose crackdown on any criticism of the Israeli government has been downright draconian, we’ve seen everything from a show of Afrofuturism scrapped over its guest curator’s Instagram posts to a curatorial collective publicly shamed for “liking” videos of demonstrators chanting “Palestine will be free.” Likewise, 2023 was not a good year for dissident artists and cultural workers in nations ruled by autocratic regimes. A 23-year-old student in Hong Kong was sentenced to prison for attempting to show a banner marking the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in protests against the Chinese government. Cuban political artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara remains in a maximum-security prison outside Havana, where he’s been held for over two years for his participation in peaceful demonstrations on the island. In Turkey, a court upheld the sentence of life imprisonment for Osman Kavala, the arts philanthropist detained over his alleged involvement in the 2013 anti-government Gezi Park protests. Alarming instances of Israel silencing its critics, including creatives and academics, are being documented in real time.

12. The British Museum’s Reputation — The British Museum has long claimed that the Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes are better kept in its possession for their preservation and safety. Who believes the museum now, after it was revealed that one of its former employees allegedly pillaged the collection and sold precious items online? As if the institution’s public image hadn’t suffered enough, its leaders announced just a few days ago the renewal of a controversial partnership with oil giant BP. It really does seem like they’re waking up every morning and brainstorming what they can do that day to make this place more dislikable. (Hey, they’re doing a great job on that front!)

“Il Mare” (2023) installed at Piazza Rita Levi-Montalcini in Monopoli, Italy (image courtesy the Monopoli Times)

13. Voluptuous Public Sculptures — This year, the global urge to censor the female form also extended to sculptural representations. Residents in the Italian seaside town of Monopoli were incited by a public sculpture of an undeniably curvaceous mermaid endowed with a Kardashian-esque BBL that was installed across from a playground. Across the Atlantic, the return of Donna Dodson’s “Seagull Cinderella” (2012), a sculpture of an anthropomorphized bird with an ample bosom and a maxi-skirt, also ruffled some puritanical feathers in New Bedford, Massachusetts. To be fair, it’s as hard to wrap one’s head around a mermaid with a butt crack above her tail as it is to fathom a “Booby Seagull,” but people really need to stop being so afraid of what they don’t understand … or examine whether their objections are actually projections.

14. Everyone Picasso Was Shitty To — With all the fuss this year over Picasso, as museums across New York and the world commemorated the 50-year anniversary of his death, it’s easy to forget an important detail: Picasso was kind of an asshole. He was a misogynist and a womanizer with a healthy ego, to boot. Maybe he was a genius who changed the face of art, but let’s take a moment to commemorate all the people — known and unknown — who faced the arrogant wrath of a legendary jerk.

You’re gonna need a lot of quarters to visit the Guggenheim Museum, where non-member adults are expected to pay $30 for entry. (edit Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

15. Museumgoers’ Wallets — Museum visitors face long lines, sold-out exhibitions, and offensively uncomfortable benches, and now, they’re shelling out more for admission, too. Few major cities in the United States were spared the scourge of rising ticket prices; in New York, institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art are charging a whopping $30. (All while touting so-called progressive programming and fluffy public missions, and few opportunities for the press to ask questions while getting clear answers.) Things are not looking much better on the other side of the pond — the Louvre in Paris just announced a price hike of nearly 30%. Think of all the croissants you could buy instead …

16. Teachers Sanctioned For Showing Art — It feels like any day now, only certain abstraction will be safe to show in our academic institutions. Minnesota’s Hamline University failed to renew the contract of adjunct professor Erika López Prater after she displayed historical works portraying the Muslim Prophet Muhammad to her art history students. In a scramble to appear righteous, the school seemingly did not consider that the prohibition of such depictions varies by sect and that López Prater even gave her students a content warning. Down South in nightmarish Florida, a principal resigned under pressure after parents complained when an art teacher showed Michelangelo’s iconic “David” (1501–1504) to middle schoolers. Beyond the chilling effect this trend has on society, I also worry this will cultivate a generation with very bad taste, as the safest art is usually the most boring.

17. Drag Performers — Although only six of the more than a dozen bills introduced by states seeking to limit or ban drag performances this year have officially become law so far, the panorama is bleak. That’s especially the case for artists who are also trans and other LGBTQ+ people facing discrimination and laws curbing access to gender-affirming care. As Beneva Fruitville, a Florida trans woman and drag performer, wrote in an opinion for Hyperallergic: “When your entire existence is on the news every day and subject to legislation, it makes it extremely uncomfortable to exist in this world.”

18. People Who Didn’t Get to Attend the Vermeer Show — We all wanted to go, but only some of us got to make it to Amsterdam to partake in the visual feast — or haggle on eBay for a hyperinflated resale ticket. Life is just unfair. Or as the Girl With a Pearl Earring famously said: “Ha! You got screwed.” 

Georgia Lale, “Flag” (2021), donated bed sheets and sewing thread, 63 inches x 109 inches (all images courtesy the artist)

19. Flags — From the Greek Consulate’s removal of an artist-designed flag addressing femicide to a New York museum refusing to show an artwork with a Palestinian flag and Florida lawmakers looking to ban the Pride flag, it’s been a dismal year for those symbolic rectangles of fabric that are incredibly meaningful to the communities they represent. Of course, the individuals behind them are far more threatened.

20. BIPOC People in the Art Field — There’s a strange perception that BIPOC people benefited greatly from the new wave of consciousness-raising that came with Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, but alas, that’s a myth. Just look at the art hires in legacy media in New York City, where this year alone, the New Yorker and the New York Times’s culture sections both announced White male Ivy-educated hires in staff positions. It may not be snowing this holiday season in New York but it’s definitely a blizzard out there. The city’s legacy mediascape is a joke that supplements the White dudes with freelancers of color and hopes you won’t notice.

Honorable Mentions

Tamara Lanier — This year brought some signs of progress in Tamara Lanier’s case to reclaim the daguerrotypes of her enslaved ancestors held at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Still, the fight to free Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia continues onwards amid Harvard’s staunch refusal to return the photographs.

Galleries That Participated in the Hamptons Art Fair — Fancy a swim while you’re meandering through an art fair? Neither do we. Gallery testimonials dubbed the Hamptons Art Fair a “recipe for disaster” and a “garden variety shit-show” after a massive deluge for which the organizers appeared rather unprepared.

We Asked ChapGPT4 for “An Image of the Most Powerless Person in the Art World,” and well …

Let’s just say the upper-middle-class bias is pretty obvious, because I’m sure the most powerless have no greater struggles than that expensive, blank canvas in their large, sunlit studio. No rent, homelessness, or war to worry about. AI is so smart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *