In 2019, the art museum became a public battleground.
From Decolonize This Place’s protests of Whitney board member Warren Kanders, to union drives at museums like the New Museum and Marciano Art Foundation, and curators calling attention to colonialist and racist museum practices, art workers, critics, and museum-goers are calling for an overhaul of the very idea of the art museum itself. Those actions strike at the very paradox of art museums; though exhibitions might have a progressive point of view and artists themselves might be making radical statements, as institutions, museums often possess retrograde politics, beholden to traditional forms of influence and power. But how can the traditional, “canonical” art museum—reliant upon wealthy donors, chained to private money, and often staffed via privileged pipelines leaving employees overwhelmingly white—change to better meet the needs of the community it resides in and the public it seeks to educate?
Jezebel spoke to organizers, activists, curators, and museum workers to answer one question: Does the museum model work? This piece includes the voices of people like former Queens Museum President and Executive Director Laura Raicovich, who stepped down from her role following an outspoken tenure in which she closed the museum down on President Trump’s Inauguration Day to the objection of board members; and Chaédria LaBouvier, the first black curator and black woman to singlehandedly organize an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, who says she was left out of key parts of promoting the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit she curated. “The Guggenheim has been using Black and Brown bodies as body shields for a lot of the extremely violent things that have happened behind the scenes of the show,” she tweeted.
It also includes the voices of organizers at museums like the New Museum and the Marciano Art Foundation, who are pushing back against dated hierarchies within museums by demanding fair pay and transparency; and the perspective of activist groups like Art Space Sanctuary, who want to redefine how museums can actually serve the communities in which they reside. In each of these interviews, there’s a path forward for changing museums to better meet the needs of their artists, workers, and communities, and as museum futurist and former director of inclusion of the American Alliance of Museums Nicole Ivy reminds us, many overlooked museums are already putting in that work.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chaédria LaBouvier, the first black curator and black woman to singlehandedly organize an exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in its 80-year history with Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story, as well as the first black author of a Guggenheim catalog
“This past year [has] really brought forth the reality that for museums to be relevant in the 21st century they have to really change. I think from security workers to art handlers to curators to the public, we’ve seen all of these people from different verticals in the museum world (and people tend to not think about the audience as being a part of that world) demanding that museums respect human dignity behind the scenes. I think we’ve seen that in the union organizing, I think we’ve seen that in the accountability that protesters and the public museum workers have demanded [in] increased reviews for how museums collect exhibit and promote work.
So much of this country’s lack of progress around race has been determined by what white people are willing to accept as a truth and what they’re not. People of color have always said that the narrators of the overarching ‘American Story’ are unreliable narrators. They’ve deliberately left parts out and deliberately left voices out. Part of this desire for celebrating what this country is, it’s about restorative justice and the history that we tell. You can’t do that without a reckoning of museums. Erasure is saying you don’t warrant an inquiry or even a look. You aren’t worth the time, effort, and the resources to acknowledge you. And this is what museums have to face: a history of telling entire swaths of people’s cultures, movements, generations, that they didn’t warrant their attention. There is an atonement that has to happen and I don’t think that museums cannot move forward without that atonement.
When museums haven’t done this work, you can’t fix 80 years, even five years, or even 10 years. In my situation, I think it was really shocking to people to watch a museum attack not just a curator, but a curator who did an immensely successful show and who was also a black woman. I think that that was just a very public spillover as to what happens when gatekeepers are not ready for change. We know theoretically that you have to allow expertise to come through and we also need voices that speak to that experience to come through, so those voices may be Latinx or Black or Native or Asian. But then there’s also the reality of are white people and white women ready for that? Is it realistic to expect people who’ve never worked with people of color in positions of power to actually know how to engage with an empowered person of color?
I think that the way that we think about expertise and how you acquire that expertise has to be totally revamped. I worked with people during the Basquiat show who had all of those things and more. But because they had never edited or edited with any consistency text written by a black person or about black artists I had to go and get a separate group of editors with the necessary expertise to edit my catalog. The PhDs, the internships, sure, but it’s not the only way. If you don’t have experience working with diverse material it doesn’t matter if you have two PhDs. Those degrees and the internships and the years cannot qualify you to do work that you literally never have touched. That’s really difficult for people to accept but it’s true.
The French have it right in that they consider a curator to be an artist from working with another artist’s work. There’s something really beautiful about being able to take the energy and life’s work of another human being and make something from that that we haven’t seen before. I think that that transformative energy can really help transform society when it’s deployed correctly. I think museums have a responsibility to be better not just for society, but for the art.”
“I love museums. I think they have some issues but I do think that museums, after all of the resources, human, intellectual, financial, that we as a society have funneled into them, I think they’re worth it. I say that because in part I would like to see museums take on more in a sense than what they currently do and be better for more people, which for me entails really deeply addressing the biases that haunt our institutions. That’s in part why I’m writing a book about museums and cultural institutions and the myth of neutrality because I think that there is this idea that museums and cultural spaces could be neutral, but they’re actually not.
Let me give you an example. The first [American] art museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, came out of a co-evolution with the university. The linking of educational systems with museums has always been kind of central in the United States whereas in Europe, for the most part, a lot of museums came out of either church or royalty. In the United States [museums] were largely founded as educational spaces from the outset. However, that doesn’t mean that the collections that exist inside those museums or the people who founded those collections didn’t have a perspective or a viewpoint. Largely white men of a very particular class and wealth collected art objects over a period of time and then decided to donate them to their alma maters which then made them into museums. None of that is bad, but you have to recognize that that is looking at what excellence through the tastes of a very particular race class sex of person.
I really think that museums are important spaces because they’re spaces where we tell our stories. That’s about who we are as people, as a society. That’s why it’s even that much more important to make them more inclusive and better for more people, spaces that tell amazing stories as well as speak on many different registers to a variety of folks. I think that if we’re going to start talking about the way that art can shift the way that we see the world around us, we also have to start talking about the way that the institutions that bear that art or tell those stories also reflect the inequities of the world in which we live.
From my time at the Queens Museum, it was certainly a very charged and difficult moment just after the election in 2016 given the rhetoric on the campaign trail that involved so much anti-immigrant rhetoric. When President Trump was elected there was a lot of fear embedded in the communities around the Queens Museum. I just felt like there was a responsibility in having engaged so deeply to actually reflect that and how we responded. I think that other institutions did that as well: MoMA put on a really beautiful show of work by artists in the collection who would not have been allowed following the so-called ‘Muslim ban.’ I do think museums do this sort of selectively and I think it’s important to talk about that. I think that what is harmful about this idea that a museum can be neutral is that if you don’t acknowledge your biases, we all have them, then how can you possibly deliver storytelling with integrity?”
Izzy Johnson, docent and organizer at the Marciano Art Foundation, where employees were abruptly laid off after announcing the formation of a union
“I guess the short answer would be no, and there are a lot of reasons behind that. One, I think that getting into any field in the arts has a prerequisite for either having a lot of experience in the art world through some other means, whether it’s through family members, working for nonprofits, or doing a lot of internship work. That already puts a cap on who can and cannot be in the art world. To elaborate more on the internship part, I think that’s also a messed up system because you’re essentially relying on free labor of kids who are either in college or just out of college. It sets you up for having really low expectations.
Either you have to be independently wealthy or have some other source of income, so you’re working two or three or more jobs or you have money already, which I don’t think is the right way to go about staffing museums. I’m mixed and I’ve noticed there are not many people of color who work in museums or if they are they’re either maintenance or security. It creates a kind of icky dynamic about who museums are actually for even if they’re a public institution.
[With unionizing] I think we just wanted to be part of the larger movement and the demands that art workers should be treated with respect and that they have some say over how much they’re paid, what kind of hours they work. A constant problem at Marciano Art Foundation was that we would have periods of pretty low attendance. Due to that, they would cut our shifts sometimes right out from under us. There was one night where I had a shift listed the next day, but when I woke up in the morning it wasn’t there.
There needs to be a redistribution of wealth [among] people at the top of the museum and the people at the bottom. A small example, at the Marciano Art Foundation: we had a cafe and the food in the cafe cost, for the most part, more than what we were making per hour. Sandwiches were like $16, which is ridiculous. It’s kind of like a slap in the face that we couldn’t afford to eat the food there. I think [museums] should be upfront about who the people are behind the scenes of the museum in terms of the higher levels, when it comes to people on its board. But I feel like up until recently, that’s been very secretive.”
Nicole Ivy, museum futurist and Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University
“The question, first of all, is what is the model of a museum? I think that’s still a question that is, you know, unresolved. Recently the International Council of Museums was trying to define what a museum is and it was so contentious that they had to table their discussion because it is so broad. I think there are some museums whose models have worked for a dominant culture for a long time. If we imagine that the role of museums is to, on a basic level, educate people about a given set of ideas and a time period, if we accept the traditional model in a limited space of reference, then, of course, it works for some people.
Part of this conversation typically goes like this: a major, predominantly white museum decides that it needs to change. So it decides then to hire a diversity consultant or hire some guest curators, that kind of thing. But in that conversation, I think part of what we miss is that there is a legacy of museums that serve more than just a majority-white audience. I think that conversation about self-determination falls out of our purview when on these large institutions, art museums, but also history and natural history museums. I think what I want to remind us of or what I’m increasingly focusing on these days is what about culturally specific museums?
Of course, the Studio Museum in Harlem is a good model of a museum that works in the sense that I think part of what was inherent in that institution from its founding was [for it] to be a place for practicing artists of African descent. As a model, it’s is extremely unique. I think the [now dissolved] Corcoran Gallery of Art had a similar mandate, but not too many museums really took seriously the idea of a museum as a place to house practicing artists and to be a resource back. [The Studio Museum] decided that it would use its space as a platform and a training ground, through internship programs, the teaching artist program, through curatorial training. That’s an example of a museum that does not necessarily use the traditional model of leading by acquisition, leading by scale, but thinking about what it means to make a whole museum a pipeline.
There are museums who get a lot of press in the museum field, but don’t get a lot of press in the art world that are doing really amazing work: the Underground Museum in Los Angeles co-founded by Noah Davis, an amazing artist who passed away at age 32, and what they do there is phenomenal. The Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles has a very small staff but they’re doing cutting edge work. I think it’s kind of understood and widely accepted that for a large swath of the most moneyed museums, of the most visited and major museums across multiple specialties, their traditional forms of working don’t meet the needs of a rapidly changing population.
Of course, the traditional model of the museum does not work, quote unquote, for so many folks. And across the 21st century marginalized people have known that and have been making museums that work. I think there hasn’t been enough work that looks that small, culturally specific places and also museums that have a kind of a lack of a better term hybrid practice. There are plenty of museums like the African American Museum in Philadelphia, for instance, that focuses on both art and history. I think sometimes in our discussion about diversity and inclusion specifically in the art world, but in museums more broadly, it’s very easy to apply the traditional forms of categorization to institutions that have had to be multiple things to a community. For artists of color or people who are trying to document marginalized lives, some things are both art and history.
“In my opinion, no. There are a lot of layers to this, the initial one for me being the inherent, exclusionary nature of the museum model. Who is this for? That’s often made clear by declaring entrance fees, by the art on the walls, who made the works, who are what they depict. For me, as a queer, Mexican-American, non-binary artist, I’ve never really seen myself represented with full understanding or nuance. And when I did it cost me $15 and not everyone gets to have that experience or can afford it.
There’s also the token element with the work presented. So who decided this was worthy over others? That’s usually white capitalist art critics. What factors play into those decisions in the art world? It’s usually where you went to school or who you studied under, and art school is expensive so it often excludes many marginalized identities like students of color, queer students, low-income students. That makes the institution incredibly rich and white, which makes it difficult for artists of color to feel comfortable and to succeed in those conditions. There’s an elitism that [keeps museums] from actually collaborating with and supporting the communities that give their work relevance and clout; they think that just by showing artists with marginalized identities that that’s enough.
With our MoMA DIVEST [campaign] we’re zeroing in on Larry Fink. He sits on the MoMA board and his company BlackRock has money invested in prison companies which have incarcerated black and brown folks for generations and they’re contributing to the detention of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. When we talk about the museum, and especially MoMA, we have to start asking what more can they be doing. They have money and they have resources, and they’re profiting off of pain.
I think we’re reaching a cultural point where we’re questioning the stories we’ve been told and the museum is one of them. Why do you have to visit a stuffy, uncomfortable place to engage with something that helps you? Why do you have to pay to see it? Right now we do have to work within the confines that we’re given until we can abolish these institutions and these inherently oppressive structures. One of the ways [museums] can do that right now is by returning agency back to these communities, by not having closed doors, by making their selection process public and making it something the community can be involved in. Ultimately, it’s not about art anymore. We’re kind of past that. We’re living in a crisis constantly. But as much as it isn’t about just art right now, it is about the power of art. Art is very powerful. It can move the masses. It can empower you if the mainstream media can’t do that for you. Art Space’s mission is really addressing the fact that art institutions do have a political responsibility.”
“The [museum model] doesn’t work. It’s utterly unsustainable and unethical—which doesn’t mean that there aren’t good people doing good work inside of museums. From my perspective, as one of the organizers of the New Museum and as one of the members of the bargaining committee, it’s unsustainable because of its conditions for workers within the museum. They’re by and large unlivable and deeply exclusionary salaries. There’s also the history of the museum as a civilizing enterprise, which is deeply classist and racist. And I think museums are like trying to find ways out of that now superficially, but I don’t think many museums are actually willing to commit to the fundamental restructuring that would entail. The funding model that museums have now, it’s effectively for rich people to sort of artwash some of their money and exchange it for social capital or prestige. I think the ways that people have been responding to particularly egregious donors has been exciting to see.
There’s a huge chasm between what museums say they’re doing to the public, and how they operate on a representational level, and then how they operate internally: how they treat their workers, how they treat the artists that do shows. That was a huge factor in our deciding to organize. I can’t speak to other museums, but we started having these conversations like, ‘how come the museum is talking about progressivism and diversity and equity and leading these workshops about getting a raise and they’re paying us like salaries they know we can’t live on.’
I think museums should be organized. I think organizing collectively is the only thing that will give workers power in museums, as in other workplaces. It’s not going to do everything. It’s not going to magically fix the museum model, obviously. But I think from that particular perspective, it’s a really important step. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how the art world picks up so many things and makes them make some cool for a second and then discard them. I don’t want worker’s rights to be one of the things that’s a trend. [Laughs] This needs to be something that people are thinking about continuously because it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of people who really don’t want things to change for workers on the lower end, even in the art world. I hope the momentum keeps going.”
Clarification: This piece has been updated to clarify Chaédria LaBouvier’s title.