New art exhibition documents the struggles of debtors in America

Opening November 10 at Stokes Library, the “Debt Collectors Series” art exhibition tells the story of the debt industry and the lives it has impacted.

Conceptualized by Frederick F. Wherry *00 *04, the Townsend Martin, Class of 1917 Professor of Sociology at Princeton, the “Debt Collectors Series” draws its inspiration from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-1941) and features re-envisioned artwork by Ari Riggins ’23 and Rachel Mrkaich ’21.

Rachel Mrkaich '21, Debt Collection Lab, 'No justice for debtors, no defense.'

Paying tribute to Jacob Lawrence, the students’ artwork maintains his bold color patches, partially illuminated spaces, and explicit links to sociological, anthropological, legal, literary, and ethnographic sources. Their paintings also continue his work of documenting the transformation of the debt industry, its alliance with the courts, and the day-to-day presence of debt collection in the lives of the truly disadvantaged.

In 2018, over 70 million U.S. adults had a debt turned over to private debt collection. Among those who were taken to court, less than 10 percent had legal representation. Very little data is currently collected about the debtors and their cases. Wherry’s goal is to use the arts to shine a light on this issue.

“My academic hero W.E.B. DuBois brought the arts together with the social sciences in his work on racial justice, so I am following his lead in my work on debt justice,” said Wherry.  “We’ve done other work on the arts and visualization in our DuBoisian Data Visualization toolkit, and our key partner in this work is the VizE Lab for Ethnographic Data Visualization.” 

Wherry continued, “it is one thing to tell people that about 70 million American adults, roughly 1 in 3, or that about 10 million are sued. It is quite another thing to show people what this looks like in the lives of debtors and their families.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the issue—people who already had trouble paying their bills saw those troubles multiply over the last 20 months, Wherry explained. The exhibition is part of the Debt Collection Lab, a new project helping to address a lack of knowledge about debt collection claims, the people involved and how their outcomes vary across communities.

Launched in May 2021, the Debt Collection Lab has partnered with January Advisors, a data science consultancy, to collect information from five states: Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Texas. It is an arduous task to collect the data—court systems lack transparency and both methods of data collection and kinds of information collected are inconsistent—but the project continues to work on expanding their data set.

Working with the Lewis Center for the Arts to help recruit artists for the project, Wherry conducted interviews over Zoom because of the shutdown. Art supplies were then mailed to the homes of artists Riggins and Mrkaich and weekly check-ins were held over Zoom to discuss sketches and concepts, and the readings the group was doing that informed the kinds of experiences they wanted to depict in the style of Jacob Lawrence.

Riggins and Mrkaich were both immediately intrigued by the project. “I got involved with the project because of my interest in art, technology, social justice, and the artist Jacob Lawrence,” said Riggins. “When I first read about the project I was very interested in the overall concept of making paintings about the debt collection process. To base it off of the Migration Series added another layer. The visual representation of these stories works to humanize these experiences, which have been mainly documented through data and statistics.” 

Fellow artist Mrkaich added, “My hope is that this series allows viewers to experience an empathetic, emotional reaction to the effects of the criminalization of private debt. I didn’t know much about this issue when I first heard about the project. It would be really rewarding if my participation in this series helps motivate audiences to learn more about the debt collection process, and even advocate for change. Art can often be more accessible than research reports and data.”

“Art gives us an opportunity to pause, to suspend belief, and to think anew,” said Wherry. “I hope that the art will help people think in new ways about the experiences of being in debt and ask questions about the people who are living with crushing debts, who find themselves pursued by debt collectors, berated in front of their children, and embarrassed and put in jeopardy at their places of employment. We should question why debt collection lawsuits are so often concentrated in Black and Brown neighborhoods and lower-income communities. And is all the suffering necessary?” 

The Debt Collectors Series, a collaborative project with the VizE Lab for Ethnographic Data Visualization, is an open-ended endeavor that will recruit poets and other artists to add and to deepen the stories told. “I hope to partner with others to recruit poets, vocalists, dancers, other visual artists, documentarians, and journalists who are willing to change the narrative about debt justice and to put a spotlight on debt collection practices that devastate too many families,” concluded Wherry.

The series will be on display through May 2022 at Stokes Library, lower level of Wallace Hall. It is open to Princeton University faculty, students and staff with building access. The paintings are also available online on the new Debt Collection Lab website

On November 15, Professor Wherry will participate in a webinar with the National Consumer Law Center to discuss the Debt Collection Lab tracker tool and the need for a more enabling environment for debt collection data. You can register for this event here.

Published November 8, 2021

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications