At the end of last month, with the presidential election just weeks away, critics at the New York Times and the Washington Post fired off vigorous denunciations of “censorship,” decrying actions akin to those of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The outrage soon spread to Twitter. Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of the infamous Harper’s letter, objected that “Creators are being ‘pre-cancelled,’” while the Intercept’s Ryan Grim blamed an “element of the left” for the whole shameful affair. The real October surprise, it seems, is that there are quite a lot of Philip Guston superfans—from art critics to cultural commentators to political journalists. And they are super-mad that the artist’s retrospective, only the third since his death in 1980, has been postponed.
Yes, Philip Guston, whose cartoonish figures—knobbly and hairy, clutching and sucking at cigarettes, in a palette of bloodshot pinks and reds—are instantly recognizable; whose paintings can be found in the collections of every major American museum (and quite a few international ones); whose work is currently on view, in New York alone, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“Philip Guston Now,” the ironically titled exhibition in question, was originally scheduled to open this June at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and then travel to three more museums—Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston—before Covid-19 forced a year’s deferral. In late September, the four institutions released a joint statement announcing a further three-year delay: “We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming and . . . bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public.” Although unmentioned in the press release, at issue were a number of paintings that depict the Ku Klux Klan, in the artist’s usual darkly comic style, as well as more realistic drawings of lynchings, which reportedly led to objections from staff. The NGA’s director, Kaywin Feldman—who, like all four museum directors, is white—later explained in an interview, “Because Guston appropriated images of Black trauma, the show needs to be about more than Guston. . . . An exhibition with such strong commentary on race cannot be done by all white curators.”
The reaction was fast and fustian. Tate Modern’s own curator on the project, Mark Godfrey, posted an extended Instagram statement taking issue with the postponement, which he called “extremely patronising to viewers.” Next, an open letter demanding the show’s immediate reinstatement was published in the Brooklyn Rail, signed by more than ninety prominent artists, art historians, art critics, and art dealers.1 (A Google Doc is still collecting signatures, which now number close to three thousand.) “Museums must engage in a reckoning with history, including their own histories of prejudice,” avers the letter, before continuing more dubiously: “Precisely in order to help take that effort of reckoning forward, the ‘Philip Guston Now’ exhibition must proceed as planned.” But . . . must it?
Not much news from the art world pierces the mediasphere, and if it does, it tends to revolve around money—either ludicrously high auction prices or flashy new erections by starchitects. The Guston kerfuffle, on the other hand, has something for everyone cheesed off by the “Intolerant Left”: the beleaguered white male genius, the specter of cancel culture, mealy-mouthed PR-speak. But the idea that a museum’s sensitivity to employee concerns and the larger political moment is equivalent to censorship is absurd, while the charge that the delay is somehow an insult to museum-goers is an obvious displacement of anxiety.
If you can read through the turgid commentary, it’s easy to see that the reasons behind the show’s postponement lie not with the artist or the audience but with the museums themselves. A 2018 survey of US art museums found that only 16 percent of curatorial departments and 12 percent of leadership identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Meanwhile, over at the National Gallery of Art, the curatorial staff is 98 percent white, and the director’s office is, er, 100 percent white. Museum guards, largely BIPOC, have complained of racial discrimination and sexual harassment by white managers.
The Brooklyn Rail communiqué claims that museum leaders don’t want to present the Guston exhibition because it will “remind museum-goers of white supremacy” and thus “raise uncomfortable questions about museums themselves—about their class and racial foundations.” So how, then, should the four institutions address these “histories of prejudice”? In an impressive feat of circular logic, the letter proposes . . . that the Guston exhibition be held now. Almost as an afterthought, it concludes that “staffs [must] prepare themselves to engage with [the] public” and “do the necessary work to present this art in all its depth and complexity.”
It’s difficult to say which assertion is more perturbing: that the prejudice museums must reckon with is in the past, or that the only “necessary work” is to learn up. The latter is precisely the kind of “translation of Black suffering into white pedagogy” that Saidiya Hartman despairingly observed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Seeing this moment as just another opportunity for self-education, she argues, is a further symptom of the structure that produced his death: “The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ . . . What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.”
All of this misguided attention on Guston, and the subsequent hand-wringing hysteria, seem particularly galling in light of how this annus horribilis has unfolded in the museum-industrial complex. From the moment they closed in March, museums began firing and furloughing employees. Despite the buffer of vast endowments, billionaire trustees, and millions of dollars in PPP payouts, corporate mega-museums—which spend years fundraising for expensive and extraneous extensions—had no plan to protect their staffs.
As in so many sectors of the labor force, the racial hierarchy of museums was thrown into stark relief. Majority white administrators and curators kept their jobs and benefits, while predominantly Black and brown part-time and contract workers—in visitor services, facilities, and education—were cut loose. Younger full-time staff, more racially diverse than those at senior levels, were more likely to be laid off. By the first week of August, the Met—which has a $3 billion endowment—had reduced its staff by 20 percent; 48 percent who lost their jobs were BIPOC. At museums across the country, workers who remained employed organized mutual aid funds for their former colleagues, despite struggling with pay cuts. Meanwhile, museum trustees saw their stock market investments soar.
While many institutions began pivoting to online classes, MoMA—which has a mere $1.2 billion endowment and whose director earned over $5 million last year—decimated its education program. All contracts with freelance educators were terminated via a terse email: “It will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.” Compare and contrast with the museum’s mission statement, which declares MoMA was “founded in 1929 as an educational institution.”
This, then, was the landscape at the end of May, when the country erupted in protests against racial injustice. White museum leadership scrambled to claim solidarity by posting black squares and works by Black artists, dispatching emails that described racism as an external problem (of which they disapprove!). Understandably, this irked their BIPOC employees, as well as the tokenized artists. In an open letter to New York’s cultural institutions, thousands of past and present museum workers demanded structural changes in place of “performative allyship and virtue signaling.”2 Dozens of similar letters followed, addressed to institutions across the country. It’s illuminating to return to these now, and the crushing silence that greeted them, in light of the Guston farce.
Take #DismantletheNGA, for example, which lists “Anti-Racist Imperatives for the National Gallery of Art,” such as hiring more Black curators, trustees, and other leadership positions.3 Or the letter to the MFA Boston’s leadership from a collective of BIPOC employees, with a series of concrete “Action Items.”4 A few hundred artists signed a petition to the Tate, lending support to striking bookshop and café workers—the lowest paid and most diverse sector of Tate’s workforce—and urging Tate to use at least 10 percent of their £7 million government bailout to retain jobs.5
MFA Boston workers helped to draft Boston Arts for Black Lives, a statement calling for “an anti-racist, abolitionist, and decolonial ethics of care in our arts and cultural institutions.”6 This includes the repatriation of stolen objects, an end to museum expansions that contribute to gentrification and displacement, and the prioritization of BIPOC hires at all levels. It’s a far-reaching and transformative set of demands, and it got as much press coverage as Elizabeth Warren’s disability policy.
The same could be said about most of the social justice efforts at museums in recent years, from unionization to divestment, which receive little to no support from the art world’s establishment (blue-chip artists, eminent art historians, and other gatekeepers)—leaving precarious entry- and mid-level employees to wage these battles on their own. Since the summer, some museums have brought in diversity consultants and promised greater transparency, the results of which have yet to be seen. Immediate demands, such as hazard pay for public-facing staff, have been flat out rejected. More common is the trend for hiring union-busting firms as soon as employees begin to organize.
One of the few silver linings to emerge from the pandemic was the announcement, back in April, that the American Alliance of Museum Directors had relaxed its guidelines on deaccessioning. For now, museums can sell works to pay for operating expenses. Few have followed through, however—perhaps because art-world pundits, once again, responded with conservative alarm.
Immediately after the rules change, Sebastian Smee, art critic for the Washington Post, warned against “overly short-term thinking,” expounding, “They have been entrusted with the care of things that are, collectively as well as individually, of profound and lasting importance.” By “they,” Smee means museums, in a callous elision of the actual human beings who care for these “things”—workers who are not, in return, cared for by their employers, or cared about by the critical cognoscenti.
Note that most large museums only exhibit 5 to 10 percent of their holdings at any one time—and some work never goes on view. Only two years ago, the Five Million Dollar Man himself, MoMA director Glenn Lowry, spoke in favor of deaccessioning. “It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage,” he reasoned. His solution, of course, followed standard museum practice—more capital accumulation: Museums should sell work in order to “acquire more important works of art or build endowments.” But are we really at a moment in history when the eternal perpetuity of these heaving storage units, stuffed to the brim with imperial plunder and works by white male artists, should be deemed more important than the finite lives of their caretakers?
The latest scandale du jour is the Baltimore Museum of Art’s deaccession plans. While legitimate questions have been raised about the upcoming sale of three paintings, the castigation is redolent with racial privilege. In a particularly ghoulish piece of commentary (“As night follows day, natural disasters bring out the scammers ready to exploit public confusion and fear”), the Los Angeles Times’s Christopher Knight recently complained about “mission-driven” deaccessions—i.e., selling works to finance increased equity and diversity for both museum employees and audiences, by raising salaries, restructuring staffing, offering free admission, and expanding museum hours. Yet the alternative is ensuring that the office and the visitors remain white, while security and maintenance stay Black and brown. It is effectively an argument for maintaining white supremacy at museums.
The much ado about Guston reflects one of the art world’s most cherished delusions: Museums can only fight structural racism, and other social injustices, with exhibitions. The result is not unlike all those black squares and empty words back in June. Take MoMA’s response to Trump’s “Muslim ban” in 2017, when the collection was rehung with works by Iranian, Iraqi, and Sudanese artists (most of which had languished in storage since their purchase in the 1960s); the museum was simultaneously making millions from immigrant detention centers, thanks to trustee Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock. Or just last year, when the New Museum devoted three floors to Conceptual artist Hans Haacke—whose work charts the connections between money, art, and politics—at the same time that the museum administration was busily trying to crush its new union. This is where the liberal rhetoric of equity and inclusion meets the neoliberal bottom line of racism and exploitation.
Perhaps most industries have internal contradictions of this magnitude, but the events of the last year have made this incongruity—between representation and action—near unbearable. Let’s put it this way: If you think a museum’s responsibility begins and ends with the gallery space, then you probably consider the lived experience of the orcas and their trainers irrelevant to your enjoyment of SeaWorld.
Confronting structural racism requires, well, structural change. The true work of racial justice happens behind the scenes, not on display. As a museum’s priorities evolve, they will be reflected in everything the public sees. The real issue at the heart of the Guston fuss is that change must occur at the structural level first, so that an exhibition doesn’t suddenly get pulled for some last-minute tweaking. If these museums weren’t so racially stratified, would they even be presenting a monographic Guston retrospective in the first place?
Imagine what pressure could have been mobilized if the Guston letter and its famous signatories had called for significant actions: Hire BIPOC staff in senior positions, improve entry-level salaries and benefits such as health care and family leave, deaccession works to protect jobs, dial back expansion plans, divest from the prison and arms industries, remove problematic trustees, return colonial loot. . . . These are not impossible goals. But alas, at a time when art workers are calling for a total overhaul of priorities, art-world elites are fighting to maintain the status quo.