Art museums will never be the same. That’s a good thing

Museums are having a moment of reckoning

Published August 8, 2020 12:57PM (EDT)

The "Women of Abstract Expressionism" Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (Denver Art Museum)
The "Women of Abstract Expressionism" Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (Denver Art Museum)

This article originally appeared on the MIT Press Reader.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many art institutions have expanded online programming, transforming themselves into what French art theorist André Malraux called "museums without walls." But moving beyond their physical galleries has not dissolved a second type of intractable barrier within museums: racial injustice. In the wake of George Floyd's murder, a flood of open letters and social media posts have shed light on such cultural boundaries, recounting both micro-aggressions and systemic racism among prestigious American arts professionals.

Museums are thus facing a double crisis: unprecedented limitations to their physical operations and vocal calls to redress their complicity in racial injustice. This has led to a moment of profound questioning: What exactly should a museum be, and what counts as diversity and inclusion in such institutions?

In this era of meager public funding for the arts, and the consequent dependence on private philanthropy, most American museums are supported by a small class of extremely wealthy donors. By and large, the more prestigious the museum, the richer the donors who serve on their Boards of Trustees. Consequently, civic responsibility and diversity are inevitably filtered through the lens of the one percent (or in many cases the .001 percent).

It is worth remembering that the modern European Encyclopedic Museum — the kind of institution that exhibits work across a broad spectrum of geographic regions and eras — began as a revolutionary institution meant to consecrate a newly republican social body. The prototype of today's European or American "Universal Museum," the Louvre, was founded in 1793 as the Muséum Français with collections appropriated from the secular and church ruling classes of the French ancien régime. This art was made available to all, as a way of insisting that the power to represent and to be represented is a basic right of citizenship. Analogously, in early 19th-century Great Britain, some theorists considered museums as companion institutions to libraries which together would afford the educational resources necessary to "improve" communities.

In my book, "Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization," I explore how, since the 1990s, museums outside the West have attempted to combat the Eurocentrism at the core of these once revolutionary Universal Museums by collecting and exhibiting aesthetic forms of knowledge that break down imperial and neo-colonial perspectives underlying their utopian claims. Such an emphasis on decolonizing has also been essential to recent American activism aimed at democratizing museums. An example includes the group Decolonize This Place successfully pressuring the Vice Chairman of the Whitney Museum Board, Warren Kanders, to resign on account of his company's sale of products like tear gas that had reportedly been used against migrants at the southern border of the United States.

But what do civic responsibility and diversity really mean in the museum today, and how do we dismantle structural racism within these institutions? I believe there are three dimensions that must be addressed: the program, thepatrons, and access for various constituencies. In "Heritage and Debt" I consider, for example, how some non-Western and Indigenous or First Nation curatorial strategies have sought to revise or decolonize museum programs, most promisingly by arranging for curatorial collaborations between community experts (such as knowledgeable elders in a Native American context). When it comes to patrons, Decolonize This Place, in its actions against the Whitney and other museums, reveals how the values of funders can pervert and contradict the stated values of an institution. Less attention, however, has been paid to the question of access by considering how the 21st-century "museum without walls" might suggest effective strategies for democratizing museums.

My first proposal is that, like libraries, museums should be free. The fact that admission to them is generally quite expensive in the United States has been so taken for granted that people seldom stop to consider it seriously. The standard admission price for the Museum of Modern Art is $25, children under 16 enter free, students pay $14, and those over 65 pay $18. Let's imagine a family outing with two adult parents, one 13-year-old child and one 17-year-old student, accompanied by a grandparent. This visit would cost $82 in admission — in a city where the minimum wage is $15 per hour. It doesn't take an economist to conclude that many working New Yorkers would be hard pressed to take advantage of MoMA, despite its tax-exempt status. Imagine having to pay $25 to enter a public library.

The closure of museums due to the pandemic has prompted a host of free programming, including Instagram talks and virtual tours; these are good things, but they are still directed largely to the art world. Imagine the changes in museology that free access would introduce — new, larger, more diverse audiences would compel changes in programming and installation procedures. But since it won't be possible to invite larger crowds into museums until the pandemic is under control, online programming — with all of the impediments that it entails, particularly access to the internet — can become a laboratory for how to engage a broader audience, not limited by the price of admission.

My second proposal is that access should lead to collaboration. Many museums have done a great service in digitizing their collections — which are largely held in storage away from public view — giving free access to information about their holdings. But access alone isn't enough. Access without interchange will never decolonize museums. As I mentioned above, Native American museology has spearheaded forms of community collaboration in which different kinds of expertise are valued as highly as academic art-historical knowledge.

Museums can be places — and should be places — where many kinds of experience and ways of knowing are given space and afforded equal legitimacy and authority. After all, as long as knowledge is understood as the exclusive possession of one group of experts or another, there will never be racial justice.

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David Joselit is Professor of Art, Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of several books, including "Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910–1941," "Feedback: Television against Democracy," and, most recently, "Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization."

By David Joselit

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