fbpx

Museum Pessimism

To what extent is it possible to apply pressure to the capitalist class through museums?

Projection on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Museum protests, 2015 – 2022.

In the early summer of 2020, as protests and riots swept through each major American city, I found myself alone in my apartment, sweating through a meeting in which my coworkers and I spent an hour on Zoom writing a five-line email. The email, addressed to the director of the museum at which we worked, gently but firmly suggested that he convene a task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Recent events, we noted, had rendered the institution’s long-standing silence on these matters untenable. We called upon the museum — a small collection of old master paintings, sculpture, and decorative art housed in a Gilded Age mansion — to respond to the crisis of racialized police violence and urgently address our moment. Roughly twelve hours earlier I had been at protests in front of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where I saw the NYPD doling out their signature casual violence, shoving protesters to the ground, loading them zip-tied onto buses, kneeling on backs, and hemming the crowd into the plaza with bikes and barricades. Like the riot at the Third Precinct in Minneapolis, this protest had been largely spontaneous and inevitable, an outpouring of grief and rage. 

In the heat of the next day, the distance between the meeting and the riot felt egregious, even offensive. Despite having spent the previous several years deeply frustrated by my employer’s entirely apolitical nature, I could not bring myself to believe in our demand for action. It seemed absurd to suggest that this museum, or any museum, held any power to redress or even address the death of George Floyd and the uprising it prompted. The next three months, which were my last at the museum, were marked by this dissonance, as my professional and political lives came to uneasily occupy the same conceptual territory. Demands articulated at marches and in meetings reemerged shriveled and warped under the filtered gallery lighting of the art institution. It’s not that the museum’s response to the uprising felt disingenuous or hypocritical; it didn’t, despite its astoundingly rarefied Upper East Side character and its very white, very Western collection. Grieving, furious, and exhausted, I simply felt that my limited capacity was better spent elsewhere. 

But recent years have seen the museum, and especially the art museum, highlighted as a key site for protest and a critical space for political struggle. Actors within and beyond the art world have challenged the museum on the grounds that arts institutions perpetrate harm — not just in the galleries, and not only in the workplace, but on local, national, and even global scales. Many of these protests targeted decisions and actions clearly within the responsibility of museum curators, trustees, and administrators. Single works of art, exhibitions, and events have all come under fire, as have industry standards for employment and compensation. Other activists, meanwhile, have linked museums to concerns that lie further from the typical remit of arts institutions, such as the construction of a new jail in New York City’s Chinatown, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and extractive industry in the Global South. I, like many others who work in the art world, could rattle off a timeline of recent museum protests in my sleep. 

Beyond proving a highly durable news item, the topic has also been anthologized in book treatments, such as Aruna D’Souza’s Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts and Laura Raicovich’s recent Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest. In most such discussions, there seems to be little doubt that museum protests are timely and justified, constituting a much needed art-world reckoning. As is often noted, the United States has been in a prolonged moment of protest roughly since Occupy in 2011. Beyond police precincts and the streets of our cities, many sites have been conscripted as spaces for political action: courthouses, airports, Wall Street, the White House, Standing Rock. It may not, therefore, seem remarkable that American art museums — which conceptually and aesthetically are among our grandest edifices — should also come under fire. 


Museums, as symbolic institutions charged with determining what counts as culture and exhibiting it to us, have long been the front lines for fights over representation, appropriation, and cultural property. Such challenges date back to the 1960s at least, when groups like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition demanded that museums collect and display the work of Black artists. Similarly, the ongoing work of the anonymous collective Guerrilla Girls, active since 1985, is to stage media interventions and performance-style actions that draw attention to the failures of museums and galleries to collect and display works of art created by women. 

But more recent critiques of the practices of collection and display have placed greater emphasis on problematic inclusions than on the exclusion of work by underrepresented artists. Central to these critiques is the charge that artists and institutions have, in creating and displaying certain works of art, laid claim to histories and identities that are not theirs to represent. This revitalized era of scrutiny announced itself in 2015, the year I was hired for my first museum job, when the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston called off a series of kimono try-on events after protesters denounced them as Orientalizing cultural appropriation. Leadership at the MFA expressed their surprise at the controversy, initially issuing statements that defended the events. “We don’t think this is racist,” read a leaked internal memo.

The mandate “do what you love” perhaps has as its corollaries “protest what you love” and “protest where you are.”

Tweet

It is difficult to imagine such a defensive response today. In 2020, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC attempted to preempt such criticism by postponing a retrospective exhibition of work by the painter Philip Guston. The stated concern was that his cartoonish paintings of hooded Klan figures would have seemed, in the words of the Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, “tone deaf” during a moment of national protest against racialized police violence. Leadership at the National Gallery may have imagined that the decision would be uncontroversial or even applauded, but the backlash within the art world was quick and severe. A letter initially signed by nearly one hundred artists, curators, and critics demanded that the exhibition be reinstated. “The people who run our great institutions,” the letter read, “do not want trouble. They fear controversy. . . . And they realize that to remind museumgoers of white supremacy today is not only to speak to them about the past, or events somewhere else. It is also to raise uncomfortable questions about museums themselves — about their class and racial foundations.” 

While the backlash was unanticipated, the decision to cancel the exhibition reflected a climate of institutional caution produced by years of protest. Probably the most emblematic and widely covered conflict concerned Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting of the body of Emmett Till, which was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Protesters, artists, and journalists charged Schutz and the Whitney with the promulgation of Black death as spectacle, alleging that Schutz had appropriated the history of anti-Black violence and demanding the painting’s removal or destruction. That same year, similar critiques were leveled at Sam Durant and Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center over the artist’s speculative reconstruction of the gallows used in several high-profile US government–ordered hangings, including those of the abolitionist John Brown, the Lincoln assassination conspirators, and the Haymarket Martyrs, as well as, crucially, in the mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota. And in 2016, activists boycotted the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis during an exhibition of the work of the white artist Kelley Walker, whose large-scale silk-screen canvases reproduced the covers of Black magazines and photographs of the violent suppression of civil rights movement protests, the images streaked and smeared with either melted chocolate or toothpaste.

For protesters, the creation and display of these works of art constitutes exploitation, or, more severely, represents a form of violence, in the contemporary and expanded sense of the term. Museums are still responding to these critiques with varying degrees of sincerity and efficacy, developing antiracist strategic plans, putting on special exhibitions that address histories of race, and collecting and displaying the work of artists of color. Several museums, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, have committed to diversifying their boards, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has set the slightly ambiguous goal of “increas[ing] the number of minority- and woman-owned investment firms that manage the museum’s assets.” Despite these more or less meaningful reforms, the life of the museum continues uninterrupted. Indeed, many such demands have been subsumed into the mandates of arts institutions and reemerged in statements of purpose affirming that the mission of the museum all along was to welcome the broadest possible audience and to probe the pressing issues of our time. 

As arts institutions made public-facing commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism, their employees were bringing to light the exploitative employment practices that sustain these cultural functions. The past three years have seen successful unionization campaigns at the New Museum, the Whitney, the Tenement Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the Portland Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. Organizers at these museums were propelled into action by the low wages, paltry benefits, and limited job security that characterize museum employment, conditions cloaked by the rhetoric of passion and the supposed privilege of art-world proximity. Any remaining pretenses to the exceptionality of cultural labor evaporated in the early pandemic, when mass layoffs revealed the museum to be a workplace like any other, or perhaps worse. While unionization efforts have been largely successful, organizers have taken their institutions to task both for unjust employment practices and for aggressive union-busting campaigns. The former New Museum employee Dana Kopel has unflinchingly laid out the strenuous opposition she and her fellow organizers faced: captive meetings coached by the union avoidance consultancy Adams Nash Haskell & Sheridan, salary and overtime freezes, isolation, and abuse. 

What both the protests over content and labor issues share is the belief that it is possible for museums to do better: to show better art and practice a politics of visibility and display that reflects contemporary thinking on identity and engages with the communities whose histories and culture are represented; to offer higher wages, better benefits, and safe working conditions. Each wave of the Black Lives Matter movement trailed in its wake many institutional reckonings, often led by employees who demanded their museums diversify their staff, collections, and, through these efforts, their audiences. Museum labor organizers have been vocal about their desire to work in the arts and their belief that such labor is worthwhile. Members of the Brooklyn Museum Union posed for Instagram photos with signs calling for “fulfilling and vital careers in the arts” and pointing out that “more sustainable jobs will help strengthen the museum.” That recent protests suggest the possibility of reform aligns them more closely with today’s museums, and especially museum employees, than their organizers and participants might think.


Another tendency of museum protests has seen organizers, academics, and artists interrogating the financial systems that sustain the modern museum, uncovering and denouncing the ties between arts institutions and the oligarch billionaires who fund their collections, exhibitions, renovations, and expansions. These individuals helm defense companies and extractive enterprises, manage hedge funds and investment firms that finance luxury developments and detention centers alike, and reap profits from the debt of individuals and nations. It’s a critique that has its origins in the art world activism of the 1960s and ’70s, when artists and their organizations, such as the Art Workers’ Coalition, drew attention to museums’ connections to US imperial war in Cambodia and Vietnam. 

The contemporary revitalization of this tendency can be traced in part to the work of the organization PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), founded in 2017 by Nan Goldin, an internationally acclaimed visual artist who has been transparent about her own recovery from opioid addiction, and a group of other artists, pharmaceutical activists, and people living with addiction. PAIN targets art museums for their financial connections to the Sackler family, whose company, Purdue Pharma, authored the opioid epidemic through aggressive marketing and incentivization schemes that encouraged overprescription. But their primary goal has never been just to cleanse the art museum of the taint of big pharma. Instead, they hope to secure justice for the victims of the opioid epidemic by applying strategic pressure to the Sackler family and by publicly associating the Sackler name with the tragedy, pain, and loss of opioid addiction. Museums are just one target in this struggle, as PAIN continues to demand funds for opioid relief from Purdue Pharma through the court system and advocate for harm reduction strategies. 

In 2018, similar protests called for the resignation of Warren Kanders, then vice chair of the Whitney, whose police and military equipment company, Safariland, supplied tear gas and other weapons used to suppress protests in occupied Palestine, police the US-Mexico border, and quell BLM uprisings. The protesters included artists, employees of the Whitney and other museums, and activists associated with the New York–based group Decolonize This Place, which has organized anticolonial, anti-imperial, and antigentrification protests at museums and other cultural sites since 2016. In a mode of analysis that has come to characterize this genre of museum protest, the spread of charitable contributions from Kanders and his wife Allison — to the Aspen Art Museum, Brown University, and other art and academic institutions — became a map of these institutions’ imbrication with repressive technologies.

The union movement has the potential to ground critiques of the museum in the institution; it correctly identifies the relevant actors and their pressure points.

Tweet

Contemporary critiques of museum finance, as expressed by protesters, journalists, and arts writers alike, are often lodged within a historical framework that sees figures like the Sacklers and Kanders as the rule, rather than the exception. Such analyses name the colonial governors and slaveholders who preceded today’s donors and board members as museum founders and funders, identifying arts institutions as monuments to capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. From this perspective, the museum, founded on stolen land to house collections of stolen objects and charged with maintaining Western and white cultural hegemony, is perpetually and intractably involved with histories of violence against Indigenous people and other people of color. 

But in a faint paradox, the conceptual power of protests that target toxic finance at the museum depends upon the dissonance evoked by the mutual entanglement of arts institutions (good, at least in the abstract) and unchecked capitalism (bad), reflecting a knowing or unknowing investment in the notion of museums as institutions charged with an ethical responsibility to society. Critics who attempt to harness the symbolic power of museums, these quasi-sacred civic institutions and temples of art, are confronted by the deeply pessimistic understanding that the museum and its contents have always been the property of oligarchs past and present. 

In a subset of protests that unite critiques of museum finance with this pessimism — which sees the crimes of the museum as innumerable — demonstrators have taken up the language of the abolitionist imaginary, calling for museums to be dismantled and disassembled. “People are calling for museums to be abolished,” read the headline of a CNN article published during the George Floyd uprising. Rather than reflecting a positive investment in the museum or calling for reform, such demands attack the museum’s conditions of possibility. While the renewed demand to abolish the police has likely inspired museum abolitionists, it can’t be a coincidence that such calls came after a period during which these institutions were irrelevant to our limited social and cultural lives. Most museums closed to the public in March 2020. As they reverted to their original function as storehouses for luxury objects, museums, already on notice, seemed to further prove their superfluity. 

In the spring of 2021, a group of activists exemplifying this pessimistic tendency emerged with the name International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (a reworking of Fred Moten’s call for a “New International of Decent Feelings,” itself a reworking of Althusser). During ten weeks of action, the group targeted the Museum of Modern Art under the banner “Strike MoMA.” The protests drew attention to the ghastly crew that is the museum’s board of trustees: Leon Black, a private equity magnate who stepped down as board chairman and as CEO of the firm he cofounded because of his personal and professional ties to Jeffrey Epstein; Steven Tananbaum, the founder of GoldenTree Asset Management, a hedge fund that owns at least $2.5 billion of Puerto Rico’s debt; Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, which holds massive shares of both CoreCivic, a private prison company, and GEO Group, a real estate trust that contracts with ICE to build and manage detention centers across the United States; and Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, the wife of Gustavo Cisneros, who serves on the board of directors for Barrick Gold, a mining business currently operating environmentally devastating gold mines in the Dominican Republic. 

But the vision for “striking” MoMA extended beyond a critique of its board. The Strike MoMA “Framework and Terms for Struggle,” which was published online, identified the museum itself — its “blood-soaked modernity” — as an intractable problem. “Whether Black stays or goes, a consensus has emerged: beyond any one board member, MoMA itself is the problem.” From a museum abolitionist perspective, they called for an end to MoMA entirely along with an envisioning of “post-MoMA futures.” Their goals? Per the “Framework,” “disassembling the museum in light of its harmful history: determining the mechanics of divestment and transfer of assets, the redistribution of properties and the repurposing of infrastructure; establishing funds for reparations, rematriations, and Indigenous land restoration.” Such demands far exceed what MoMA, or any museum, or even any contemporary political institution, could ever possibly concede. Conflict at the museum is waged as if it were a proxy war in the larger decolonial, abolitionist, and anticapitalist struggle. In a broad sense, it seems that such protesters have chosen museums as an appropriate site for ruthless criticism of all that exists.

Although demonstrations that are focused on museum finance, like those staged by PAIN and Strike MoMA, are often sited at the museum, they are not about the museum per se. Unlike union campaigns or protests over art and exhibitions, they do not see an improved museum as an end in itself. This marks them as different from their predecessors of the ’60s and ’70s, whose critiques of museum and gallery funding sought primarily to reform art institutions for the sake of artists, art workers, and the museum-going public. Their critique of the money that supported museums and galleries was focused less on the problematic origin of that wealth and more on its undue influence on art production. (A document issued by the Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969 asks rhetorically, “Does money manipulate galleries? . . . Why do artists allow their work to be translated into money values?”) Instead, recent protests over museum finance treat the museum as a strategic node in a bigger system, a single pressure point in a broader project. They insist upon the intimate linkage between museums and historical events as they happen in real time around the world — migrants tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border, communities displaced by gold mining in the Dominican Republic, and, closer to home, gentrification and mass incarceration.

That protests focused on museum finance are not ultimately about museums is also suggested by the fact that their participants do not call for alternative funding solutions. If we concede that the private capital that supports arts institutions is bad (and I certainly do), then the solution is to find money elsewhere. Yet demands for public funding do not feature prominently. What accounts for this silence? It may be that the protesters who call out capitalist criminals are perhaps unlikely to see their collaborators and enablers in the US government as potential allies. A robust call for public funding may also sit uneasily with a belief in art’s capacity for countercultural critique, and especially critique of the state. How can performance art trouble hegemony if the hegemon is paying? I myself have trouble calling for federal money for museums as public housing crumbles and millions go uninsured. This is perhaps another unspoken reason why museums have become targets of protest: many feel deeply the injustice that great care is accorded to lifeless objects at great expense while human lives are thoughtlessly discarded. As we scrape for the crumbs that remain after the military and police get their billions, prioritizing housing and health care over arts funding is a regrettable necessity. 

In this landscape, it’s worth keeping in mind the right’s long history of engagement with public arts funding. In conservative rhetoric, such funding is both frivolous and dangerous, welfare for the snobbish cultural elite that pays for the production of depravity and pornography while also limiting artistic freedom by promoting political correctness. These arguments have been strategically marshalled to attack and deplete public support for museums and arts organizations. The supposed subversiveness of the National Endowment for the Arts, which has funded artists such as Andres Serrano, known for Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe, who was accused of producing homoerotic pornography, has made it a favorite target. Except for brief flurries of concern, most recently about Trump’s repeated attempts to eliminate the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, liberals, progressives, and those on the left have never been able to match the fervor of the right with arguments for the needfulness of the arts and museums. 

In some ways, the current protests, which are among the most visible expressions of left cultural politics and certainly the most prominent reflection of left attitudes toward the arts, go further than campaigns from the right. While conservative critics may have issues with the odd Piss Christ or erotic photograph, they don’t question the museum’s right to exist — only its right to do so on the government’s dime. The Heritage Foundation wrote in a December 2020 report that support for the arts is “something that is much better done by private contributions.” These consistent offensives on arts funding are in keeping with the right’s broader strategy of masking attacks on government programs with cultural arguments. Left critiques of museums and the sources of their funding need to be accompanied by a positive and programmatic vision for cultural institutions, lest we entirely surrender the territory of arts funding to the right. 


Why museums? Why have arts institutions been identified as political targets? The history of the museum suggests that arts institutions might have paved the way for their own critique. The modern Western museum emerged during the late 18th century, when Europe’s private treasure troves — princely and ecclesiastical collections — were transformed into public institutions, often as part of the period’s various nation-building projects. The Louvre, for example, was established in a seized palace with works of art confiscated from deposed aristocrats, becoming the first European museum to take on an explicitly civic function. While these new state and municipal collections served to cohere national and cultural (and racial) identity, for the next century or so museums in Europe and America remained just that: collections, whose primary charge was the acquisition and preservation of works of art.

But about fifty years ago, museums began to dramatically transform their orientation toward visitors and the public. In his 2002 book Making Museums Matter, Stephen Weil charts this transition through analysis of the accreditation handbook published by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). During the late ’60s and early ’70s, accreditation was awarded to museums on the basis of their capacity to manage their collections and maintain their facilities. But in the ’90s, a new mandate emerged. Museums, faced with depleted public funding, emergent global tourism, and the birth of the experience economy, began their transformation into what have been called “visitor-centered” institutions. Instead of evaluating the ability to appropriately safeguard works of art, the AAM handbooks from this period stipulate that the museum “effectively involves its audience in developing public programs and exhibitions” and “effectively identifies and knows the characteristics of its existing and potential audiences.” 

While in some sense museums had always been public, their publicness had previously hinged upon their capacity to serve as national and municipal repositories of symbolic and actual value. From roughly the ’90s onward, it rested upon their ability to capture the attention and participation of visitors. Alongside this redefinition of the role of the arts institution came a reevaluation of the types of knowledge that were relevant in the museum. Attempting to shake accusations of intellectual elitism, museums came to rely less upon specialized knowledge and established art historical schemata in interpreting their collections, instead prioritizing visitor-constructed meaning. Museumgoers were encouraged to engage with works of art through their personal identity and political perspectives by arts institutions that increasingly represented themselves as public forums where visitors could consider the challenging issues of our time. Simultaneously, the need to boost ticket sales prompted another form of populism, as museums prioritized blockbuster exhibitions of popular and well-known work, prompting critiques that they had abdicated their responsibility to show challenging art that encouraged critical engagement.

Despite the tantalizing whiff of democracy they seem to exude, museums are not democratic institutions, and never have been.

Tweet

In this new vision of the museum as a popular, democratic space, visitor participation became a moral and political good. From there, it was a short step to the idea that museums themselves could bring about social change. Academics and journalists took up this view — notably Chantal Mouffe in her 2013 Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, in which she argues that museums promote a culture of democracy by engaging the public’s critical capacities. Visitors, confronted with objects representing diverse regimes of power, are forced to contend with the constructed — and therefore contestable — nature of hegemonic ideologies. More and more now, museums echo this thinking in their own programming and marketing, seeking to narrate untold histories and challenge dominant perspectives through their curation, exhibitions, and programs, presenting this work as a form of political activity. 

Artists themselves have responded to this charge by creating social and political work that museums collect and display, as protest becomes a dominant note in the institutional interpretation of contemporary art. The Whitney in particular has made protest shows a hallmark: in 2018, the museum framed the work of David Wojnarowicz in terms of the artist’s activist identity, and then addressed the theme of protest more explicitly in An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection. Critics have argued that such institutional distillations dull the dissenting edge of protest art, as the members of ACT UP did when they protested the Wojnarowicz exhibition for its failure to adequately connect the artist’s work to his AIDS activism and involvement in the organization — he was a founding member. 

Beyond establishing art as a medium for protest against societal injustice (and, correspondingly, helping to establish museums as places where people can engage with that form of protest), artists have laid a foundation for the criticism of museums through artwork that takes these very institutions to task. An early work in this genre, which is known as institutional critique, was installed by the artist Hans Haacke in a MoMA exhibition in 1970. Above two transparent ballot boxes, a sign invited visitors to vote on whether the New York governor and former MoMA president Nelson Rockefeller’s failure to denounce Nixon’s policies in Southeast Asia would be sufficient reason not to vote for him in the November election. By staging this critique at MoMA (a frequent recipient of Rockefeller largesse where Nelson’s brother David served as chairman of the board), Haacke indicated a connection between the institution and the ongoing invasion and bombing of Cambodia. 

Yet institutional critique can operate ambiguously. The work of Haacke and his contemporaries is now comfortably defused and ensconced within museums’ permanent collections. Contemporary works in this genre criticize the museum while simultaneously promoting investment in its role as a political forum. Some even permit a form of institutional autocritique, thereby granting museums a degree of absolution, or at least allowing them to perform a strange form of self-awareness. While protesters gathered outside the Whitney during the 2019 Biennial, inside a video by the research group Forensic Architecture reported on the relationship between Vice Chair Warren Kanders and the Triple-Chaser, a type of tear gas grenade manufactured by his company Safariland and sold to the US Border Patrol for repelling civilians attempting to enter the country from Mexico. 

The notion of museums as popular spaces open to all has contributed to their identification as sites for political struggle. Yet it is perhaps an unsurprising irony that as arts institutions increasingly represented themselves as democratic, political, and civic spaces, they came to rely more and more upon funding from the private sector. Faced with proving their value as they competed for scraps of government money and for private donors looking to maximize their philanthropic impact, museums justified their existence by affirming their public mandate and social utility, advancing the narrative that art institutions are privileged spaces for political discourse. Individual grants, gifts, and bequests fund the diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion initiatives that open the museum to broader publics, and fuel the exhibitions, acquisitions, and rehangs that foreground artists and traditions beyond the Western canon. 

But despite the tantalizing whiff of democracy they seem to exude, museums are not democratic institutions, and never have been. That today’s protesters see the museum as a suitable point of access through which our ruling class may be addressed speaks to the almost complete depletion of real recourse elsewhere; the almost total lack of strategic pressure points from which to attack an ironclad and unimpeachable oligarchy. In particular, the global scope of the demands associated with museum protest reflects the difficulty of meaningful engagement in international politics from the metropole. Because the points of contact between the layperson and the multinational corporation are so limited, museum donors and board members — and the museum itself by extension — have been framed as targets in the fight against imperialism. This is how, in Strike MoMA’s framework, the museum becomes a locus in the fight against extractivism in the Dominican Republic. Both protesters and museum donors are proximate to the quasi-public space of the museum, which is perceived as a conduit through which our enemies may be accessed and accosted. 

This almost reflexive identification of the museum as a space for protests around international conflict seems to be the motivation behind a recent action at the Guggenheim. In early March, demonstrators launched paper planes into the rotunda from the museum’s spiraling gallery walk, calling for a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine — even though this would amount to the US declaring war on Russia. The protesters’ action has a clear precedent in a 2019 demonstration by PAIN, when activists blanketed the museum’s lobby with leaflets designed to look like prescription slips for OxyContin. PAIN’s reasons for staging their action at the Guggenheim were clear: the museum was home to several Sackler-endowed spaces. But other than the apparent beauty of the planes diving down Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral, the “no-fly zone” protesters seemed to have no justification for choosing the Guggenheim. The decision is especially odd considering the museum is only a twenty-five-minute train ride from the United Nations headquarters.


As someone who was employed in an art museum during the George Floyd uprising, the Bernie 2020 campaign, the Covid-19 pandemic, and throughout the Trump administration, I understand the desire to protest at the museum. We live in a moment in which opportunities for political activity are not only less and less imaginable but are being actively foreclosed. The challenge of political affiliation within a two-party system, an overwhelming atmosphere of atomized individualism, a culture depleted of organizations and opportunities for meaningful alignment, extended workdays, and undemocratic workplaces — all of this leaves us desperate for opportunities for action and spaces of possibility. Strong affective and personal attachments to art and arts institutions can also help explain the desire for engagement on that terrain, as can the significant overlap between contemporary artistic practice and protest. In a time characterized by the intense politicization of every aspect of our lives, artists and arts workers are perhaps particularly likely to identify with their work and therefore to identify the art world as a site for political action. For those of us who feel an imperative to respond to these staggeringly awful times, the mandate “do what you love” perhaps has as its corollaries “protest what you love” and “protest where you are.”

Left critiques of museums and the sources of their funding need to be accompanied by a positive and programmatic vision for cultural institutions, lest we entirely surrender the territory of arts funding to the right.

Tweet

So far, the impact of these protests has been uneven. Demands that fall squarely within art institutions’ remit have proven most successful. At the Walker, after a month of protest led by Dakota activists, Scaffold was dismantled and buried by Dakota elders, with the participation of the artist. In St. Louis, the Contemporary Art Museum left Kelley Walker’s work up but screened it with temporary walls, offering visitors the choice of whether to view the show, or not. The string of successful unionization campaigns at museums speaks for itself.

But to what extent is it possible to apply meaningful pressure to the capitalist class through museums? Financial system protest at the museum seems to suggest that arts institutions can serve as access points for class enemies, centralized hubs for war profiteers and climate criminals. Strike MoMA, in identifying the museum as a space for action, emphasized what they called the “interlocking directorate,” tracing a network of connections between board members, the companies they invest in and lead, and the other causes they support, naming the New York Police Foundation and the Birthright Israel Foundation in particular. The museum thus becomes a space in which sidling a few steps closer to the capitalist class appears possible.

Such an analysis, though, runs the risk of misrecognizing the distribution and relations of power in our society. It is precisely because we don’t directly consume their goods or use their services that our power to influence BlackRock, General Dynamics, and Safariland is limited. Protesters might argue that this is a reason why we should approach them obliquely, through the museum. But this approach doesn’t reflect the reality of the relationship between protesters and the museum. Boycotts, tuition, rent strikes, and, of course, job actions are all tactics that rely upon the strategic defiance of social and labor relations and the withdrawal of cooperation by consumers, students, and workers. At the museum, though, the most relevant relationships for the exercise of power are not with visitors or the public — the categories to which most protesters belong. Structurally, museums are simply not accountable to members of the public in the ways they are to their boards and donors. Not only will most Americans never even visit an art museum, but museum admission supplies a minuscule proportion of revenue: between 2 and 7 percent for museums that charge an entry fee. A full 45 percent of US art museums charge nothing at all. These facts diminish the potential effect of any withdrawal of financial support or visits on the part of the public. 

This absence of strategic leverage is borne out in the impact of some of the protests that marry their critique of arts institutions with calls for broader societal change. A year after Strike MoMA, the museum seems to have emerged relatively unscathed. The movement certainly served as a rallying point for prominent artists and intellectuals, and it generated substantial coverage in art world publications, but all the targeted trustees remain on the board — including the Epstein enabler Leon Black, although he did voluntarily step down as board chair. While demonstrations at the Whitney secured Kanders’s resignation as trustee, it took another protest to prompt any kind of change at Safariland. In June 2020, after reports emerged that the company’s tear gas was used on protesters calling for justice for George Floyd at the White House (while former president Trump notoriously posed for photos with a Bible outside a nearby church), Safariland put out a press release claiming they would divest from the manufacture of chemical weapons. But recent reporting reveals that Kanders’s company continues to supply tear gas and other munitions to police departments across the country.

Museum protesters can’t reasonably be charged with failing to dismantle a munitions manufacturer or bring about the end of capitalism. Still, some protests calling for broader social change, like PAIN, have delivered more consequential effects. The Sacklers have been widely and thoroughly discredited in the public eye for the active role they played in encouraging overprescription. Major museums, including the Guggenheim, the Tate, and the Met have rejected the Sacklers’ donations and removed the name from their galleries, wresting away the cultural capital that the family had secured through their ill-gotten gains. But crucially, PAIN’s achievements have extended beyond the museum. In March of this year, the Sacklers were confronted in court for the first time by the victims of their profit-seeking — both people who were formerly dependent on Oxy and the family members of those who died of overdoses. PAIN was instrumental in this outcome by working alongside other advocacy organizations toward litigation and reparations. These more clear-cut victories in the movement for opioid justice suggest the role that museum protest can play when undertaken as part of a broader political and organizational movement. 

Significantly, the most successful victories of the protests making structural demands have been won through the interventions of those closest to the institution: not visitors or the public, but museum staff and artists with work either on view or in museum collections. It seems unlikely that PAIN would have achieved what it has without the involvement of Nan Goldin, an artist whose work is represented in virtually every major museum collection of contemporary art. And at the Whitney, it was only after eight artists withdrew their work from the 2019 Biennial, answering a call published in Artforum by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett, that Kanders finally stepped down. Kanders’s involvement with the museum was first challenged by the Whitney’s staff in November 2018, in an open letter demanding that the board “consider asking for Warren Kanders’s resignation.” 

The recent flurry of successful union campaigns across the country will give museum staff the power to make similar demands. In contrast to the Whitney workers who put their names to the resignation demand years before they formed a union, unionized museum staff can act with less fear of retaliation. While such workers have been rightfully focused on winning their first contracts, organizers have already suggested that democracy in the museum workplace might eventually extend beyond compensation and conditions and into institutional funding and governance. The union movement has the potential to ground critiques of the museum in the institution; it correctly identifies the relevant actors and their pressure points. Unlike demands for sundry diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and even demands for just representation, it cannot be co-opted — and the degree to which museums can absorb and deflect challenges is astounding. Union campaigns can be defeated, but the legal structures that uphold the right to organize, however shakily, mean they cannot be entirely ignored — unlike many protests.

Together, museum staff and artists could exert significant pressure on museums in order to influence both their cultural functions and their financial structures. In the summer of 2020, a group of workers at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, delivered two open letters to the MCA’s director. In them, they outlined the mass layoffs, precarious and inconsistent scheduling, and inadequate workplace health and safety measures faced by museum employees. Their demands for just compensation, fair hiring practices, and the implementation of Covid precautions went largely unacknowledged by the museum. A little under a year later, six artists and one artist collective, acting in solidarity with the MCA employees, withdrew their work from the exhibition The Long Dream. The exhibition, titled after a novel by Richard Wright, claimed to offer “ways to imagine a more equitable and interconnected world.” Shortly thereafter a majority of the exhibiting artists signed a second open letter reiterating the demands expressed by the workers. While the abrupt Covid-related closure of the museum not long after the exhibition’s opening forestalled future organizing, the episode reveals the potential power of artist–museum worker solidarity. As the MCA workers wrote in their open letter, “The MCA is not yours, as director — it is all of ours as workers; it belongs to the public; it belongs to the artists, including numerous BIPOC artists, without whose groundbreaking, visionary, and radical work the institution could not exist and could not endeavor to be relevant.”

In a left landscape that is moving in starts and stumbles from Occupy-style demonstrations to organization, institutions, policy, and governance, museums can play a strategic role in broader struggles for justice and liberation. To get there, though, the museum must be recognized for what it is — and for what it is not. The prominence of arts institutions as repositories of symbolic value should not be discounted. But in a moment when the boundaries between symbols and statements and political activity are often blurred, symbolic action needs to serve a strategic role and shouldn’t be understood as a stand-in for politics wholesale. The museum can serve as a symbolic point of focus, but identifying the museum itself as a primary enemy in our fight for a better world shifts the blame from its rightful targets. While tracing the involvement of arts institutions in predatory capitalism has so far identified the museum as target and culprit, this relationship could equally frame the museum as victim. Like hospitals, schools, public housing, and the rest of our public institutions and social programs, museums are afflicted by decades of neoliberal funding cuts that have forced them to rely on private capital. They are sick with the same disease that plagues the rest of society. The fight against the Sacklers and the Kanderses of the world and the struggle to end the dismantling and privatization of public spaces and services is not only the cure for arts institutions, but for society as a whole. Read within such a framework, the museum can be a terrain, but not a target.


If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.


More from Issue 43