Is It Time to Abolish Museums?

Is It Time to Abolish Museums?

From problematic funders to union-busting, museums around the world have been beset by controversy. Can reform actually change these institutions?


It’s been a tumultuous few years for the art world. In the United States, the election of Donald Trump served as a moment of political awakening for many: Well-intentioned artists began to make explicitly political art—some of it quite moving, more of it not—and initiated or joined various organizing efforts. Institutions exhibited artists from communities further marginalized by Trump’s policies—the Museum of Modern Art’s 2017 rehang featuring works by artists from the Muslim-majority countries affected by Trump’s travel ban being a particularly visible example—and issued tepid statements celebrating diversity. More recently, last summer’s Black-led uprisings in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others by police set off a wave of public call-outs of (and clumsy, face-saving apologies by) art institutions for their discriminatory policies and the racist behavior of some among their leadership. And the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified many of the art world’s most frustrating contradictions: Ostensibly committed to progressivism, museums nonetheless laid off or furloughed tens of thousands of staffers across the country, squeezing even more labor from the few employees they have retained.

Laura Raicovich’s Culture Strike aims to take stock of this upheaval, focusing on a handful of recent controversies and contextualizing them within a brief history of the museum. Raicovich, who most recently served as the interim director of New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, had been the president and executive director of the Queens Museum from early 2015 until she stepped down in 2018. Under her direction, the museum issued a statement of values, participated in the Trump Inauguration Day strike, continued an existing program that hired organizers to connect the museum with local communities, helped develop sanctuary-space guidelines, and attempted to decline a rental event by the Mission of Israel for which Mike Pence would be the keynote speaker. Yet the museum’s board members were angered by the Inauguration Day activities, rejected the sanctuary guidelines, and insisted that the Mission of Israel event take place following an outcry about Raicovich’s alleged “anti-Semitism.” (The conflation of anti-Semitism with opposition to Israeli policy is all too common in the art world—see, for instance, Texte zur Kunst’s shameful “Anti-Anti-Semitism” issue from September 2020—and well beyond it.)

Informed by this experience, Raicovich considers a number of other political controversies that have shaken the art world over the past few years. Several concern particularly problematic museum funders and trustees: She details artist Nan Goldin’s efforts to hold major museums—the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, the Louvre—accountable for accepting vast amounts of funding from the Sackler family, mega-donors whose pharmaceutical business was a key driver of the opioid crisis; she dedicates much of another chapter to the controversy surrounding Warren Kanders, who profited from the sale of tear gas and other so-called non-lethal weapons used against migrants and protesters around the world. (Kanders stepped down from the Whitney’s board in 2019 following sustained organizing efforts by museum staff, artists, and others.) Raicovich also alludes to ongoing controversies like the British Museum’s refusal to repatriate the Benin bronzes, artworks looted by British soldiers from what is now Nigeria in the late 19th century, using this history to draw out the residues of colonialism and imperialism that continue to haunt museums in the West.

I admit approaching Culture Strike with some skepticism. As one of the organizers of the New Museum Union who was then laid off—not, museum continues to claim, as punishment for unionizing but as a result of the pandemic—I’ve been directly involved with and impacted by one of the art world’s recent controversies. New Museum management bitterly fought our unionizing efforts and continued to push back and retaliate against union supporters throughout negotiations for our first contract, all while framing the museum as a space of diversity, collaboration, and even leftist politics. Given this experience, I’m wary of museum leaders’ claims to progressivism and their willingness—or at least capacity—to effect meaningful change within their institutions. As I read Culture Strike, I found myself agreeing with Raicovich’s position on the various crises she discusses and yet frustrated by the analysis she extrapolates from these events. She writes that “we need to…consider the reality that art and museums already shape (and are shaped by) society” and “collectively imagine a path toward (re-)making the spaces we want to experience”—vague suggestions that echo institution-led conversations headed nowhere. Raicovich is right to see these crises as the result of long-standing structural issues; why, then, are the solutions she proposes hardly structural?

One of the core conceits of Culture Strike is neutrality: The museum, Raicovich argues, is conceived as a blank backdrop on which artworks independently convey their own meaning, a framing that elides the complex social, political, and economic forces that have shaped it. The presumed neutrality of museums, she writes, arises from Enlightenment-era universalism and “results in the disenfranchisement of artists or publics that may engage in debate within its walls because the institutions’ very power structures, historically and operationally, nullify concepts of civics to maintain a neutral position.” It’s a critical point—the museum certainly is shaped by conventions and norms designed to welcome some people and alienate others—but it’s not a new one. The non-neutrality of the exhibition space has been written about extensively, from artist Brian O’Doherty’s seminal Inside the White Cube (1986) to Marxist art historian Carol Duncan’s writings on the origins of the museum in ritual and its service to state power. From Raicovich’s perspective, the presumption that the museum is a neutral space “neuters political action, or at minimum does its best to defang its impact.” Believing, rightly, that the museum is an inherently political space, she argues that this non-neutrality should be made visible as a prerequisite for progressive political activity.

What exactly is the corrective for this presumed neutrality? For Raicovich, the answer appears to be plurality, the coexistence of various positions and opinions with the acknowledgment that these are often weighted differently. “Rather than a space of abstracted expertise,” she writes, “the cultural sphere should be understood by the public as a zone in which to negotiate issues we may not necessarily agree on.” Throughout Culture Strike, Raicovich looks at various structures on which a better museum might be modeled. In the first chapter, she discusses libraries as an example of a more welcoming cultural space: Locally situated, easily accessible, and (crucially) free to enter, libraries provide “a public spirit that most museums lack.” This is a result not solely of museum ticket fees and inadequate arts funding, as Raicovich suggests, but also of the way the art market functions—as a marker of and mechanism for wealth accumulation, tax avoidance, and gentrification. (I also think of how libraries serve as spaces for houseless people to spend time and access resources, and then struggle to imagine a houseless person being welcomed in a museum lobby or cafe.) In short, museums lack “public spirit” because museums are capitalist institutions, and capitalism is incompatible with a real, thriving public.

Throughout Culture Strike, the elision of capitalism as the driving force behind so many art world controversies makes a number of Raicovich’s proposed solutions ring hollow. “Is there something the nonprofit world can learn from for-profit boards?” she asks at one point, as she attempts to account for the actions of certain trustees (like the Sacklers and Kanders) and the private philanthropy that undergirds art museums in the United States. She castigates the neoliberal model of growth at all costs that has seeped into museum administration—in no small part thanks to corporate board members—and yet proposes looking to the corporate sector for solutions to structural injustice, as though we could solve the problems of capitalism with more capitalism. Her advocacy for providing human resource departments more control in museums similarly frustrates: HR is employed by management and thus will always prioritize protecting the institution over supporting employees’ grievances (a fact borne out by my own experiences at the New Museum). As Raicovich herself suggests, follow the money.

Beyond her accounting of the Whitney controversy—she publishes in full the staff’s letter to management demanding a response to the revelations of Kanders’s business dealings—surprisingly little space is devoted to questions of labor within museums. Culture Strike does attend to some of the untenable conditions—“burn out…disenchantment and frustration…inequitable systems that determine who is hired for these positions, rampant pay inequity, and who controls the governance and decision-making structures”—that have driven thousands of museum workers to unionize in the past few years. But, overall, Raicovich focuses more on the strata of well-known artists, museum directors, and major philanthropists that currently hold decision-making power than on rank-and-file art workers and their issues.

The union drive at the New Museum in January 2019 and the subsequent wave of unionizations (at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and many others) has dramatically transformed the art-institutional landscape in the United States, so it’s somewhat surprising that Raicovich devotes only a couple of pages toward the end of Culture Strike—a book about crises and organizing in the art world—to it. She supports unionization, calling it “a radical act that can make a museum better,” but she also “recognize[s] the complexities it brings to administration.” Perhaps this equivocation is only to be expected from someone who has worked in leadership at art museums.

For all the thoughtful structural critique in Culture Strike, it is Raicovich’s very commitment to museums as they currently exist that inhibits her proposals for improving them. Bemoaning the lack of federal cultural funding in the United States, which results in extensive private-sector funding and the dirty-money controversies the book details, she writes, “My argument is not for a public takeover of cultural funding, but for a rebalancing of culture’s sources of funds.” She acknowledges the pitfalls of philanthropy—that it depends on the whims of the rich and lets the state off the hook—and yet ultimately advocates (citing the “political courage” of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax) the implementation of “a very small tax on vast wealth,” which would “simultaneously raise significant tax revenue, and leave behind wealth that is only slightly less vast.” This is a fundamentally reformist attitude, one that utterly ignores the destructiveness of wealth accumulation—billions of dollars stolen from workers, from the public (through tax evasion, an art world speciality), from Black communities through racist inheritance laws—and presumes that with some changes, museums can exist ethically under racial capitalism. “Can we reconsider the museum as a collective enterprise?” Raicovich asks at one point. Yes, but simply thinking of it as such—without redistribution, repatriation, and the abolition of ownership—won’t make it so.

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