Why do we even have art museums? This was a question that Alexander Dorner began asking in the 1920s. He can’t have been the first to pose such a question, but as director of the Provincial Museum in Hanover, Germany, he was in a position to do something about it. In 1927, he commissioned Russian artist El Lissitzky to upend the conventional style of displaying art at the time by installing an “abstract cabinet”—a modular space that was flexibly responsive to the art on display but that also challenged the art with its own striped patterns and color. Dorner and Lissitzky’s experimental structure was provocative enough in the 1920s. But when the Nazis came to power in 1933, such ideas became heresy: The abstract cabinet was dismantled, and Dorner was forced to emigrate to the United States.

There, the question of art’s function in modern society continued to consume Dorner, who became director of the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1938. He wrote a treatise on the subject, “Why Have Art Museums?” It was intended for publication by the RISD museum’s press, but Dorner was dismissed by the museum board before it was published, accused of “carelessness with objects, lack of consultation about decisions with other members of the museum and school staff, disregard for donors, and the falsification of visitor numbers.” Yet the pamphlet raised a set of questions that still haunt museums today. Dorner accused the museum world of flattering and serving elites while dabbling in an incoherent eclecticism, thanks to an outmoded philosophy that, he argued, “prevents them from becoming a functioning part of an integrated working culture.” The museum, he proclaimed, needs to “change its character from a storehouse into an active, functioning molder of our future culture.”

Since then, museums have mostly remained the same; if anything, they are storehousing more than ever before. Worldwide, the number of new museums, and in particular those devoted to modern and contemporary art, has skyrocketed: In China alone, more than 1,000 new museums were constructed between 2000 and 2011. Existing ones in the United States and elsewhere have expanded exponentially as well. Consider the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Housed in temporary quarters after it was founded in 1929, it gained a permanent home 10 years later on 53rd Street, where it has continued to reside to this day. Over the past 50 years it has grown rapidly. A 1984 expansion by César Pelli more than doubled its gallery space, followed by another, completed by Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004, which doubled the space again, and yet another in 2017, with an additional 30 percent increase in exhibition space.

Museums have perhaps begun to accept their role as agents of change—if anything, they’ve been trying to write history in advance through their acquisitions of contemporary art—but in doubling down on sheer acquisition at the same time, they risk committing themselves to a future that never comes to pass. At least among those who have had the means to build them, the only question put to a museum has been “How much more and how much bigger?” Oh, and also “How much money can we get, and from whom?” “Raise a lot of money for me, I’ll give you good architecture,” Taniguchi apparently told the MoMA board before he received his commission to expand the museum. “Raise even more money, I’ll make the architecture disappear.”

How long ago and far away that expansionary era seems now. Today, Dorner’s question about the role of museums and whether they should, in fact, have any cultural authority is being asked more loudly than ever. In 1941, Dorner preached that “growing ambitions and responsibilities” had led museums to “their present crisis”—which finally seems to have arrived some 80 years later—and that they would survive only “if they are willing to begin a new chapter in their life story.” These days, museums don’t appear to have growing ambitions or responsibilities; they instead seem stricken by a deep malaise. Dorner, at least, still had great faith in his own supposedly authoritative analysis of what had made museums outdated. Those in charge of museums seem much less sure of themselves; museums and their curators are all on the back foot. They may continue to grow and grow in terms of their footprints, but their curators and directors no longer have confidence in their standing to make judgments of value.

Such a crisis is not primarily aesthetic or philosophical; it is above all social and political, and therefore also economic. Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remarked in the recent book Living Museums: Conversations With Leading Museum Directors, by the curator Donatien Grau of the Metropolitan, that when he was growing up, “the museum was that grand, neoclassical façade to that enormous building that projected a sense of authority, of luxury, of grandeur, and of a higher experience within.” It’s telling, and I think very true, that in the past—even the still recent past—“luxury” and “higher experience” were linked. That’s no longer true. As Peter-Klaus Schuster, former director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, points out in the same book, “Museums are no longer able to hide behind an authority, not even their own…. We have become more cautious, perhaps also more insecure, but certainly more thoughtful and calmer in relation to the masses of controversial opinions that public institutions today increasingly have to contend with.” He concludes that museums “have to be able to justify in detail what we do and why we do it.” The difficulty in doing this may be reflected in the fact that, as Artnet recently reported, 22 American museums are currently seeking new directors, and what they have found is, according to former Queens Museum executive director Laura Raicovich, “People really don’t want to be directors right now because the jobs are emotionally unsustainable.”

This loss of authority takes a number of forms. While I have been focusing mostly on museums of contemporary and modern art, the crisis goes far beyond that, encompassing institutions concerned with other periods of art and, perhaps above all, those that frame themselves as “encyclopedic” museums. Regarding the latter, there is a growing realization that their collections were to a great extent amassed by means that are now self-evidently disreputable, even criminal—in short, by (sometimes legalized) looting via conquest and plunder. While Greece’s calls to the British Museum for the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles continue to fall on deaf ears, the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin are—at the time of writing—making promising noises about the return of the Benin Bronzes, which were looted from the Royal Palace of Benin in present-day Nigeria in 1897. Closer to home, American museums (albeit not necessarily art museums) have for decades been working to return sacred artifacts (and even human remains) taken from Native peoples.

However late or little, such restitutions can only be applauded. I’d like to think the erstwhile keepers of those returned objects will realize they’ve been relieved of a moral burden. But there’s a deeper implication here: that European and North American institutions should no longer aspire to their long-held fantasy of universality. London, Paris, Berlin, and New York are rightly no longer understood to be the panoptic nodes from which all the world’s arts and cultures can be surveyed, systematized, and accounted for. Some things need to be kept close to home. Yet even at the more local levels, there is now a doubt among museums as to what they can properly display, so that the director of the Uffizi in Florence, Eike Schmidt, for instance, has floated the idea that devotional paintings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance might be returned to the churches where they formerly resided—that Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna (c. 1285) might be sited again in the church of Santa Maria Novella across town. But then the great churches of Florence already function more like museums than places of worship, catering more to art lovers than to the devout. Schmidt’s proposal is an admission that museums no longer feel up to the task of housing art and, more importantly, facilitating personal and critical experience with these objects and, in the process, expanding the range of their meanings.

The idea of sending the Rucellai Madonna back to the chapel where it used to hang evokes yet another historical issue—one that happens to resonate with contemporary concerns. This Madonna was not painted for the Rucellai, a Florentine mercantile family, or for the chapel they had built long after Duccio’s death; it hung in a smaller chapel in the same church until the Rucellai commissioned a grander one centuries later. But why were those Florentine merchants so keen on endowing chapels anyway? One answer is guilt: Their financial activities were dangerously similar to usury, which was condemned as a sin; and so, in order to assure a happy afterlife and respectability in this one, it was politic to spend lavishly on ecclesiastical architecture and art. Today this is called “artwashing”—using the cultural capital attained through conspicuous patronage to burnish one’s social image despite the harm caused in amassing the wealth that makes such patronage possible.

Today such artwashing is less readily passed over. Just ask Warren Kanders, who left the board of the Whitney Museum, of which he was vice-chairman, after vociferous protests from artists over his involvement with the institution when it became known that among the companies he owned was one that produces military and law enforcement equipment, including tear gas grenades that have been used at the border between the United States and Mexico, and allegedly also in Palestine and elsewhere. (Subsequently, Kanders announced that his company, Safariland, would divest itself of the part of its business that produces tear gas.) Then there’s Leon Black, who stepped down from his position as chairman at MoMA because of his ties to Jeffrey Epstein. And most notorious of all, the Sackler family, patrons of the Met, the Tate, the Louvre, and so many more, who disclaim all responsibility for the opioid crisis they fostered, which killed almost half a million Americans.

These are not just a few bad apples in an otherwise spotless system. Rather, the Sacklers and the rest have come to exemplify a world in which the unseemly and amoral ultrarich dominate museums. And while these may technically still be nonprofit educational institutions, they are governed according to corporate values and operate according to political principles that the artists whose work is exhibited in them tend to find repugnant. The artist Michael Rakowitz, who called for Black’s removal from the MoMA board, wrote, “I look forward to collectively imagining an ecosystem that does not enlist our content to go on display in institutions whose board members create the very conditions in the world that many of us are devoted to dismantling.” While there are few artists as ardently activist as Rakowitz, it is not a stretch to say that many believe their work embodies values that are in conflict with those of the people who hold financial power over museums.

Yet artists are not the only ones increasingly disaffected with the current museum ecosystem: Many of the people who do the hard work of keeping museums running are at odds with their bosses. Unionization efforts have been ramping up—and so has union busting. At the New Museum of Contemporary Art, one worker even compared conditions there to those of a sweatshop. Employees found, after a hard-won fight for a union contract, that layoffs and furloughs in response to the Covid-19 pandemic were aimed at workers who had been most active in union organizing. The rhetoric from the top remained the same: The New Museum was “a diverse, exciting, and creative space for experimentation for team members and visitors.” But the carefully professed and cultivated progressive image that it and many other museums hope to project was belied by the crushing hierarchy and inequality that defines these organizations.

Such a reality has made curators and directors the targets of protest, sometimes leading to their departure. In 2020, for instance, the Guggenheim Museum in New York faced a call from a group of current and former employees for the departure of its three top executives—the director, the chief operating officer, and the chief curator—on account of the institution’s “systemic racism.” The museum’s well-respected longtime chief curator, Nancy Spector, resigned shortly afterward. In a second instance the same year, another widely admired figure, Gary Garrels, the senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, resigned after making an aside that the museum would not be freezing out white male artists; his use of the phrase “reverse discrimination”—one that has a very bad history—turned out to be a terminal offense.

Are there any solutions to the malaise and crisis of authority faced by today’s museums? In many ways, such solutions have to come from outside the museum world first. Contrary to appearances, the problems museums face are not essentially internal ones: They have to do with the contradictions inherent in the museum’s relation to society at large, and there is a long history behind them. What has brought these problems to the fore is the ever-increasing inequality with which we live, in terms of both race and class, and for this reason, one answer to the problems of museums might simply be: socialism. Even if that’s not in the cards, however, anything to curb the power of the 1 percent will help.

But what can museums themselves do? It’s noticeable that young people, including artists, bring different questions, different demands, to artworks than do many of their elders. The change is deeper than it may seem—perhaps a tectonic shift in art itself, which will mean rethinking the very idea of the museum. Jacques Rancière, in his 2011 book Aisthesis, speaks of how an “aesthetic regime of art” began to dominate in Europe in the late 18th century, succeeding earlier representational and ethical regimes of art and leading to the emergence of museums such as the Louvre. This aestheticization of art, he argued, was the result of the French Revolution: The king had been overthrown, and his works of art now belonged to the people by way of the state. But many of these works were essentially visual paeans to royalty, and more still were devotional works, testaments to the power of the church, which the revolutionaries were determined to suppress. How could these royalist and clerical images be considered glories of a free and secular nation?

The solution was radical: These objects made to honor king and church were recast, simply, as examples of sublime art—that is, of beautiful form and transcendent skill. Precisely for political reasons, an essentially aesthetic vision had to prevail. “Only one solution was available,” Rancière insisted, “to nullify the content of the paintings by installing them in art’s own space,” thereby “training a gaze detached from the meaning of the works.” In other words, through what later came to be known as formalism, any subject, even when the content of the work was one that could no longer be supported, could be admired for the sake of art. And therefore art comes from art: “Painters, from this point onward, imitate painting.”

But today, that “aesthetic regime” seems to be receding—perhaps because the authorities that inculcated it seem less credible. I keep hearing friends who teach in art schools complain that fewer and fewer of their students are prepared to approach art as a matter of form, and the same thing from art historians about the students they teach. What young artists seem most concerned about is their subject matter, the message they want to convey—and likewise, in their appreciation of others’ art, these young people look for content that appeals to their ethical aspirations.

This shift in the sense of what art should be may represent a passing generational blip or, quite the contrary, a sea change of the sort that has not been seen for a couple of centuries. And it poses a considerable challenge for museums, which can no longer present themselves as neutral arbiters of the world’s wealth of visual forms. I don’t mind admitting that I hope it’s a blip, despite my wish for a more ethical role for museums. I’d prefer a greater role for those who have the highest stakes in both the history and the future of art—that is, the artists themselves—but I suspect my hopes are vain. What Rancière called the “aesthetic regime of art” and the art museum made each other possible, and no one knows how to have one without the other. What if today we are witnessing a return to a time when art is valued for its social utility, its edifying effect on the viewer, more than for its aesthetic valence? Art may turn out to be something very different from what it has been, and museums will have to become no less different—perhaps quite unlike those we know today. The malaise of the museums could be just beginning.