By Contributor on June 04, 2013

In what passes for warp speed in the U.S. institutional art world, two museums are conspiring on a bold response to the disaster that crushed 1,127 garment workers to death and seriously maimed another 2,500 in the rubble of Rana Plaza April 24 in Savar, a sub-district of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Manhattan's prestigious Museum of Art and Design (known as MAD) and the Museum of Wisconsin Art are summoning the world to West Bend, Wisconsin, starting on June 14, to see the MAD-owned 8 foot by 9 foot tapestry, "Portrait of a Textile Worker."

Almost overnight, private champions and concerned human rights activists covered the high costs of fine arts shipping and exhibition handling from New York City to West Bend -- not just to display the Portrait, but also to expand fund-raising efforts for victims in Bangladesh.

The institutional art world is accustomed to luring money from the clothing retailers who help drive the culture economy. Now, museums and galleries are lining up to show "Portrait of a Textile Worker," raise money for garment workers, and expose the injustice of the global apparel system.

This push is not yet visible in the center of the U.S. garment industry and art galleries -- New York City -- though MAD owns the piece and specifically bought it to display as part of the celebration of its move into its magnificent new four-story Columbus Circle museum in 2008.

But current exhibition of the work reflects a significant turnabout, exposing considerable agitation behind the scenes in the art world.

The turmoil, East Coast curators privately concede, was deepened by the highly publicized resistance more than a dozen major U.S. brands put up to joining a binding legal accord to improve worker conditions and building standards in Bangladesh.

In a perfect world, visionary art can lead and illuminate mankind in a way journalists can only envy. But Bangladesh at first left the big art institutions looking flat-footed. Caution is built into the DNA of most museums. They are not FEMA, or some other relief organization speeding to the sites of disasters. They are meant to be reflective and contemplative, which too often translates into rationalizing exhibit choices or catering to an entrenched upper class. Plus there is a genuine need for long lead-time in planning and for courting conservative business financiers to underwrite provocative displays.

In a recent interview, the artist who created the tapestry, Terese Agnew, displayed both understanding and impatience with the dilemma that locked her work in Brooklyn storage and only put it on display for "one month in the last two years."

That was not the original intention when MAD bought the piece to inaugurate its new home in Columbus Circle, but the international economic downturn halted plans for exhibitions including London, as confirmed by one of the planners, Glenn Adamson, noted author and art expert at the Royal College of Art.

"I don't think MAD realized it had actually bought into a social movement as well as a work of art," Agnew recalled, "because thousands of ordinary citizens joined wealthy patrons in helping MAD fund the purchase. It was an outbreak of backing from people who added small bits of their own cash to the thousands of clothing labels cut with scissors out of their own closets."

The MAD interim director who took over this January, David Gordon, was one of those donors to the MAD purchase when he headed the prestigious Milwaukee Art Museum that owns other Agnew works.

2005 exhibit of Portrait of a Textile Worker at the Wilson Center in Waukesha
At the opening 2005 exhibit of Portrait of a Textile Worker at the Wilson Center in Waukesha, patrons crowded up to the tapestry, fascinated with impact. Photo by Dominique Paul Noth.

"Portrait of a Textile Worker" began when Agnew heard labor-rights leader Charles Kernaghan on radio speaking about the grueling 17-hour-a-day life of a typical Bangladesh sweatshop worker.

Later, Agnew walked through Milwaukee stores seeing Disney, Calvin Klein, Kohl's, and Gap clothing brands. She began contemplating how they were made and who made them. At her request, Kernaghan sent Agnew some 300 photos, many taken secretly in Bangladesh sweatshops.

One image haunted her of a woman at a sewing machine, somehow melding in her mind into the average shopper's unthinking support of an apparel system that thrived on impoverished, desperate, and abused workers, most of them women.

Featured in the 2012 PBS "Threads" documentary as one of America's four most important craft artists working in fiber, Agnew re-created the photo image as an enormous quilt made only out of clothing labels, incorporating the same brands whose involvement in Bangladesh is now making world headlines.

The artist's aim back then and now was to make clothes wearers think of the role we all play in these factory deathtraps, spurred by our desire to save a dime on a blouse or 50 cents on a pair of trousers.

Somehow her vision transcended party politics. In 2005 "Portrait of a Textile Worker" debuted as part of an Agnew retrospective in a conservative heartland: Waukesha, Wisconsin.

The Sharon Lynne Wilson Art Center attracted crowds of right-wing donors and Brookfield matrons along with dozens of former union garment workers.

One observer at the time became education and visual art director for the center, Anna Helgeson, but she still recalls vividly "the powerful impact it had on everyone who saw it." Among the viewers was an Elm Grove grandmother who swore to this inquiring reporter that she would from this point forward "demand to know from every store the lineage" of every piece of clothing she bought, so moved had she been by Agnew's art.

I took notes from another spectator crowding toward the piece. It turned out to be Mildred Freese, a longtime business reporter and consumer columnist for The Milwaukee Journal. Freese, who died in 2008, told me then: "Like many others I felt mesmerized. The work didn't seem like much from the back of the gallery, a sort of muted photo of a woman at a sewing machine. But as I moved closer, I saw that every detail leaped out in color with the brand names I wear. I wanted to touch and feel the thing, which the rules don't permit."

A similar reaction was described at the New York City MAD showing in 2008 by Joe Fusaro, a teacher, artist and TV producer for the award-winning "Art21":

"I saw two people approach this particular work from across the room and their facial expressions went from wonder to surprise to a focused, silent stare. One woman began to cry. The more I stood and contemplated the labels that represented so many young lives, the more I felt like crying myself. Clothing labels arranged in a cute pattern can't have this effect on people. It's about transformation."

Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, texted on a flight to Bangladesh in May that the Portrait "is even more relevant now than ever before as we face the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry." But given his focus on helping workers, he confessed: "We (labor activists) are out of our league here. We have no idea how to shake up the art world. Agnew's work should be on exhibit, as a testament to what garment workers go through and to their humanity."

Apparently, though neither Gordon nor his staff would confirm on the record, MAD has been deluged with calls and emails from wealthy patrons, everyday gallerygoers, journalists and art figures to make the Bangladesh crisis a Manhattan art world concern, one email even suggesting that MAD should create a "Bangladesh wing" to take advantage of the Agnew work it possesses and add some of the innovative art and journalism that now are drawing millions of views online -- such as Bangladesh photographer and exhibition veteran Shahidul Alam's unforgettable image of a man and woman in death embrace in the collapsed Rana Plaza.

West Bend director of collections and exhibitions Graeme Reid and executive director Laurie Winters were reportedly the driving forces on the arrangement with MAD to display the work in June. Said Reid, "When I heard about the Bangladesh tragedy, the first image that popped into my head was Agnew's young woman at the sewing machine. How could any museum not move instantly to show it?"

His Museum of Wisconsin Art quickly adjusted its inaugural plans and decided to display the work.

Playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner ("Munich," "Lincoln") has spoken of the loneliness and importance of visionaries in the arts, who combine a sense of history with leaps forward. "The ability to see things that no one else can see, on one level, is a blessing," he told NPR. "It's certainly a blessing for the rest of us when something is made of it -- but it also must be a kind of curse, because it seals you up" until others see it. What Agnew made visible nearly a decade ago was a forecast of a disaster too long unheeded. It finally exploded into world consciousness as Rana Plaza crumbled.

It could explode again.

The carnage followed decades of abuse and corruption neglected by the public -- fires that killed hundreds in sweatshops immediately replaced by even more sweatshops.

Bangladesh, despite all the disasters, has as many as 5,000 garment factories employing more than 3.5 million in 60 hour workweeks. The real number could be much larger since corruption and under-radar employment make it impossible for government statisticians or human rights workers to itemize.

Nearly 80 percent of the workforce is women, most poorly educated and from rural villages where farm work is paid even less than urban garment sweatshops. The minimum garment wage of $38 a month -- combined with substandard workplace safety -- is actually a raise from what existed until workers took to the streets in protest in 2010.

Notes Elizabeth Cline, author of the current nonfiction Overdressed, "The minimal living wage in Bangladesh should be twice that -- $64 a month. It's a brand's responsibility to pay the price for good work rather than lean on excess profits." Cline's book explores how the U.S. consumer is hooked on cheap, disposable clothing and that has become the justification for unscrupulous behavior by a giant international network of manufacturers and retailers.

Much of the apparel industry now seems embarrassed at the natural consequence of the extraordinary profits that took advantage of low wages and inadequate or nonexistent safety standards.

Bangladesh's reliable but cheap laborers were crowded haphazardly into rickety factories to the point that exports in the ready-made garment industry represent 80% of the Bangladesh economy, making the country the world's third largest exporter of garments (behind China and India) in a $1 trillion apparel industry

Despite warnings that the five garment factories at Rana Plaza were built illegally and literally on sand, and despite inspector demands it should be immediately closed, the collapse sent 1,127 people to their deaths. In the ruins it exposed labels from such outlets as J.C. Penney in defiance of the brand's own self-imposed production standards. Owners -- such as motorcycle-riding political gang leader and probable drug lord Sohel Rana -- were belatedly arrested. Thousands of grieving relatives and citizens took to the streets in protest of the conditions.

Western apparel consortiums moved to agree to binding legal accords to reform building standards, improve wages and enforce safety.

But Disney -- already in denial when the company's labels were pulled out of the ashes of fires last year -- is pulling all its massive garment work out of Bangladesh. It claimed the withdrawal was a matter of "financial feasibility." While 40 giant retailers from all over the world agreed to a binding comprehensive plan to reform in Bangladesh, Wal-Mart, the Gap and a dozen more U.S. brand names balked at participating, citing concerns that unions would gain too strong a legal voice.

It was a view the large European concerns scoffed at.

Anna Gedda of H&M, the Swedish company that buys the most apparel from Bangladesh, openly told news outlets that this was a "narrow concern" for U.S. garment companies and that "a legally binding accord was not a big issue for us." More bluntly, Philip J. Jennings, leader of Uni Global Union, the world's largest federation of garment employees, called the US attitude "a straw man" created by squads of lawyers.

Only two large American concerns -- Abercrombie and Fitch and PVK, part of Calvin Klein -- are going along with the Europeans. Wal-Mart, Gap and others say they'll create a self-monitoring internal system, much like the ratings code functions for movie patrons.

American garment workers, many of whom lost their jobs decades ago when sewing migrated to foreign shores, understood Agnew's concept instantly and were among the artwork's earliest supporters. But what's remarkable is how viewing the Portrait moves people across all classes, political parties and incomes.

Ordinary people can't absorb head-on the scope of horrors in Bangladesh. So imagine instead how many fellow human beings, dead, living, ill, young, old, abused and dedicated, we carry with us on our backs onto the dance floor or into the mall. Terese Agnew did.

Agnew will give a public talk in front of the Portrait at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 11, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend.

For more information on the Agnew portrait human-rights fundraiser, go to: https://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/677/t/10607/shop/shop.jsp?storefront_KEY=749.

Terese Agnew
Terese Agnew with PTW a few years ago. Photo by Dominique Paul Noth.

Dominique Paul Noth served as senior editor for all feature coverage at the Milwaukee Journal after decades as its film and drama critic, then was appointed special assistant to the publisher and the company's first online producer. For the past decade he was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.

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