Art museums will never be the same again. This is a good thing.

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Faced with unprecedented limitations on their physical operations and vocal calls to redress their complicity in racial injustice, museums are having a moment of judgment.

Many New York workers would struggle to take advantage of MoMA, despite its tax-exempt status. Photo: Jamison McAndie, via Unsplash

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many art institutions have expanded their online programming, morphing into what French art theorist André Malraux has called “museums without walls”. But going beyond their physical galleries has not dissolved a second type of insoluble barrier within museums: racial injustice. Following the murder of George Floyd, a deluge of open letters and social media posts have shed light on these cultural boundaries, recounting both microaggressions and systemic racism among America’s high-profile arts professionals.

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

In this age of meager public funding for the arts and consequent reliance on private philanthropy, most American museums are supported by a small class of extremely wealthy donors. Overall, the more prestigious the museum, the wealthier the donors who sit on its board of trustees. Consequently, civic responsibility and diversity are inevitably filtered through the prism of the 1% (or, in many cases, the 0.001%).

It should be remembered that the modern European encyclopedic museum – the kind of institution that exhibits works from a wide range of geographical regions and eras – began as a revolutionary institution intended 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 appropriate collections from the secular and ecclesiastical ruling classes of the French. old rdiet. This art was made available to all, as a way of emphasizing that the power of represent and to be represented is a fundamental right of citizenship. Similarly, at the beginning of the 19andBritain of the last century, some theorists saw museums as complementary institutions to libraries that together would provide the educational resources needed to ‘enhance’ communities.

Civic responsibility and diversity are inevitably filtered through the prism of the 1% (or, in many cases, the 0.001%).

In my book,Wealth and debt: art in globalization,” I explore how, since the 1990s, museums outside the West have attempted to combat Eurocentrism at the heart of these once revolutionary universal museums by collecting and exhibiting aesthetic forms of knowledge that shatter imperial perspectives and neocolonialism underlying their utopian claims. . Such insistence on decolonize has also been central to recent American activism aimed at democratizing museums. An example includes the group Decolonize this place with success lobby Whitney Museum Board Vice Chairman Warren Kanders to resign over his company’s sale of products like tear gas that were allegedly used against migrants on the US southern border.

But what does 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 need to be addressed: the program, the patrons, and to access for various constituencies. In “Wealth and Debt”, I examine, for example, how some non-Westerns and indigenous or First Nations conservation strategies sought to revise or decolonize museums programs, most promising in arranging curatorial collaborations between experts in the community (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 funder values ​​can pervert and contradict an institution’s stated values. However, less attention has been paid to the question of to access considering how the 21stThe “museum without walls” of the last century could suggest effective strategies to democratize museums.

My first proposal is that, like libraries, museums should be free. The fact that admission to the United States is generally quite expensive has been so taken for granted that people rarely stop to give it serious thought. The standard admission price for the Museum of Modern Art is $25, children under 16 go free, students pay $14, and those over 65 pay $18. Imagine a family outing with two adult parents, a 13-year-old child and a 17-year-old student, accompanied by a grandparent. This tour would cost $82 in admission — in a city where the minimum wage is $15 an hour. It doesn’t take an economist to conclude that many working New Yorkers would struggle 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 slew of free programs, including talks on Instagram and virtual tours; these are good things, but they are still largely aimed at the art world. Imagine the changes in museology that free access would introduce – new, larger and more diverse audiences would force changes in programming and installation procedures. But since it won’t be possible to invite larger crowds to museums until the pandemic is brought under control, online programming – with all the hurdles that entails, especially internet access – can become a lab on how to engage a wider audience. , not limited by the price of admission.

The fact that admission to museums is generally quite expensive in the United States has been taken so for granted that people rarely stop to seriously think about it.

My second proposition is that access should lead to collaboration. Many museums have done a great service by digitizing their collections – which are largely stored away from public view – giving free access to information about their collections. But access alone is not enough. Access without an interchange will never decolonize museums. As I mentioned above, Native American museology has spearheaded forms of community collaboration in which different types of expertise are valued as much as academic knowledge of art history.

Museums can be places – and should be places – where many kinds of experiences and ways of knowing are accorded space and 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.


David Joselit is Professor of Art, Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of several books, including “IInfinite Regression: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941,” “Feedback: television against democracy“, and, more recently, “Wealth and debt: art in globalization.”

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