Laura Raicovich is a writer and art worker dedicated to art and artistic production that relies on complexity, poetics, and care to create a more engaged and equitable civic realm. Until recently she served as director of the Queens Museum and has held leadership roles at Dia Art Foundation, Creative Time, and Public Art Fund. She is currently working on a research and book project on the myth of neutrality in museums and cultural institutions.
The museum is one of the most trusted institutions in the United States. And yet, it is also being called upon to confront its own biases and exclusionary histories by the general public and activists alike. In this particular historical, political, social, economic, and environmental moment, it could not be more pressing to examine the ways in which museums and cultural institutions are a microcosm of the larger societies that surround them. Not only do these organizations replicate the structures that intensify the ever-widening wealth gap across the globe, but they also mirror society’s social biases. Further, as public spaces become increasingly privatized and surveilled, could museums become spaces we truly hold in common? Could they be spaces within which we struggle together to make change? Could we not use the museum as a place of embodied experience and interaction to seek greater justice and equity? And if we succeed in doing so, could the emerging methodologies provide an invaluable map to move the needle on our most challenging social and economic issues? So for 2019, I think museums, meaning the people who work at and support museums, should be asking themselves these questions, and committing to more intentionally connect their operations to their values.
Having spent more than 20 years working in contemporary art institutions, from prominent public art producers in New York, Creative Time and Public Art Fund, to among the most well-resourced and established arts organizations, like Dia Art Foundation and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and my most recent experiences at the Queens Museum, I have seen how museums and cultural organizations operate from the inside out. I have experienced profoundly the ways these organizations work with artists, the ways they interact with their publics and staffs, and the ways in which power operates within and around them. And through these experiences, I see how recent calls for greater inclusion and equity within the arts must begin with an examination and dismantling of a dominant force within culture: the myth of neutrality. While there are many initiatives to redress the effects of structural exclusion within cultural organizations, until this myth of neutrality is disassembled, there can be little hope for sustained change.
There is a deep need to examine the history of neutrality within museums and cultural institutions, to make visible its impacts, and to produce suggestions for its undoing, all in service of creating greater equity within the cultural sector—with the hope that if some change may be achieved within the arts, it might provide a structure for confronting societal inequities on a larger scale. To confront the myth of neutrality is no easy task as it is often so forcefully present and yet invisible, obscuring the systemic exclusion of people and artistic practices from consideration. This rhythm of practice began at the founding of museums, which in the US largely grew out of the academy, where collections were typically gifted by wealthy, usually white, usually male, philanthropists. Of course, these were naturally very personal collections, tied to taste, race, and class. And yet, these became the foundation of what “good art” looks like, and they evolved systems of connoisseurship and valuation that reinforced what was included as exceptional. And by omission, what was not included was deemed of lesser quality or value.
Museums have not only been used to consolidate personal power and reputation, but also have operated in service of nation-building. The founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, was important not only for bringing to the public its sprawling historical collections, but also for the ways it displayed the power of a young nation. Colonization and its impacts, including resulting wealth inequities, can be clearly traced within museum histories.
Today, the authority of the museum is being questioned not only in terms of what is collected and how, and what is exhibited and how it is shown, but also how decisions are made and who has the power to make them. There are ongoing debates around how certain collections were acquired and are displayed, and indeed whether they should be returned to their place of origin (if they were acquired via colonial looting—see Benin bronzes or “Elgin” Marbles). As well, activists are demanding that institutions be more transparent in their operations, not only as to who their board members and donors are (see Warren Kanders and the Whitney Museum, Saudi Arabia’s funding, post-Khoshoggi, of the Met and Brooklyn museums) but also questioning who is included on the staffs of these organizations and whether they are representative of the public at large (see Brooklyn Museum’s hire of a white African Art scholar to curate its African Art Collection).
The questions posed are big and deep and require examination of power and wealth in the context of how we might hold culture in common. In such a polarized moment, it is what we hold in common that will provide a space for civic discourse. And art and artists have extraordinary ways of confronting these questions in truly unexpected ways. I believe that the institutions that we rely on for the display of art can help us unpack some of the biggest social challenges we face today by asking us to prepare for the future, by inviting us to practice imagining alternative possibilities together, and by asking questions that may not have answers, but may lead to new questions we have yet to imagine. In this process, perhaps we can create together a more equitable future, not only for the arts and culture, but also for civil society.