Museum Resolution: Build Social Relations Over Property Relations
Skip to main content

Museum Resolution: Build Social Relations Over Property Relations

Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities of color. He is a co-founder of the Latinx Artists Retreat and is currently a Professor of the Practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.

Four suggestions for art institutions in the new year:

1. Relieve yourself of the burden of solving institutional inequity through superficial programmatic shifts that temporarily center excluded communities, their histories, and the sociopolitical effects of governmental policies that oppress them. Focus instead on developing long-term pathways for institutional investment. Developing a program or exhibition that reflects upon or invites dialogue on some contemporary social movement, such as Black Lives Matter, for example, is not the same as investing in the cultivation of black life. It is never a question of representation over resource allocation. Both should be happening at the same time. Programmatic shifts should be taking place at the same time as resources are reallocated to bolster your institution’s commitment to investing in excluded communities.

2. Recall that your institution is not part of some distant European colonial past but remains part of the ongoing project of colonial domination and that your function as a bastion of cultural legitimacy and valuation is predicated not only on your participation in the enduring colonial project of displacement and erasure but those of capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, ableism, and white supremacy, as well. Do not be defeated by this fact. Being a part of a history does not necessarily lock you into any one particular future. Your capacity to dream—and to act upon on those dreams—is all that prevents you from developing a better institution. This is no easy task. Colonialism imported much of what lies at the core of your institution including the twin ideas of property and ownership. Museums have always been about the care of property, material and intellectual, but what if your institution were to break from this tradition? What if your institution committed itself to building social relations over property relations?

3. Remember that you are not your institution. An institution is not an organism but an instrument, a tool. It may be a bloodied tool but remember there are no clean tools, only those that still serve a purpose and those that don’t. Just because a tool was invented with one purpose in mind does not mean it cannot be repurposed and work just as well or better.

4. Recall that you can invite in communities that you have ignored historically without asking them to serve on a committee, advisory board, or by putting them in a position in which they are being asked to over-perform their expertise as members of a given community while simultaneously performing uncompensated labor for your institution. Resource extraction (including excavating community knowledge and expertise) is NOT community engagement and should not be confused with institutional investment. This is not an argument against developing advisory groups but is instead meant to advocate for hospitality over extraction. Recall that acts of hospitality such as community listening events or communal meals are equally as important. A relationship which begins from a place of sincerity, care, and hospitality is stronger than one which begins with an ask.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.