ST. LOUIS — Watching the Kelley Walker exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in St. Louis unravel in the span of a few weeks, from what the museum promoted as its most ambitious installation to date — taking over the entire museum for the fall season — to becoming a disgraced footnote in contemporary exhibition making, it’s clear that what we have witnessed is a failure of the idea of the institution. The artist, Kelley Walker, is of course at fault. As is the curator Jeffrey Uslip, the director Lisa Melandri, the unfortunate PR department left with the mess, and the Contemporary Art Museum more specifically. Yet that critique isn’t nearly deep enough. It skims off the surface, replaced as easily as another new wall, another non-collecting kunsthalle with a coat of fresh paint.
As someone who constantly considers the forces of institutions and their responsibilities, both from ‘within’ as a director of a nonprofit art space and as a writer thinking about the mechanics of the art world, the actions surrounding Walker’s exhibition Direct Drive read as a limit case of systemic rupture. The exhibition prominently features Walker’s controversial appropriations of images of black people and photographs from the Civil Rights movement, in which he smears toothpaste and other commercial materials on the images to occlude their content, and has been met with a well-documented boycott from St. Louis artists and widespread denunciations of the curatorial choices. The artist talk following the opening, in which Walker dodged questions about the intent behind his work and shut down dialogue specifically initiated by black artists, was just the tipping point.
What happened after, however, is where the bigger implications surrounding the institution lie — not only the question of what kind of institution CAM is, but what kinds of institutions we perpetuate more broadly. In Andrea Fraser’s words, “Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions[…] It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are.”
The exhibition’s failure became clear within days, but the institution’s failures are still unfurling. Rather than wondering how or why the exhibition took place in its final form, I am more concerned over why the institution was unable to respond transparently or decisively in the aftermath and, further, what this says about art institutions writ large. When faced with the boycott, which quickly went viral, the museum avoided taking a position for days after, speaking in the most generic terms emptied of force, while the curator disappeared from sight, cancelling talks and other appearances. When the museum’s black staff wrote a letter calling for a clear list of demands, there was no public response.
What specific factors made the museum unable to appropriately address the community’s concerns and is the reason unique to this context or is it generalizable? Is it actually the museum staff or board members involved — their biases, their inability to act — or is it the complex relations between the museum and its many partners, supporters and collaborators at stake? Is it the maintenance of the museum’s reputation within the art world itself, defined here as the spectacle industry of art fairs and commercial galleries, biennials and trickle-out economics? Or perhaps we have to admit here that the art world and its institutions are in fact constructed of mutually exclusive communities — donors and neighbors, corporate supporters and those seeking alternatives, the “diverse” demographics claimed in a grant report and those whom the exhibitions are actually organized for.
Where in this process did the calls for change get stuck and was it actually the kind of institution “we are,” in Fraser’s formulation, that stifled critique? Not just this artist, this curator, this director, this museum, but art institutions as a cultural construct, our institutions — the ones we’ve created. The ones we enable because, after all, they do show incredible artists, lend credibility to others’ work, have great openings, connect with the global art world, and circulate ideas that we are interested in. Though they do also perpetuate structural inequalities, tend to “artwash” the worst tendencies in our society, sometimes mount offensive exhibitions without apology, and even undermine the ideas proposed by some of those incredible artists. Is the Guggenheim’s value equal to its oppression of migrant workers? Was the Tate’s cultural value greater than the destructive extractions of its former lead sponsor, BP? Do these just cancel out in the end, or is there some remainder?
We love a scapegoat, a story with clean lines — here, the provincial museum that should’ve known better, the villain curator with the privileged blue-chip artist past his prime. When dismantling a hierarchy, those with real power always want to settle for plucking out a brick when it’s the foundation at fault, something in the water that was mixed in with the cement. Like water for chocolate boiling over. Like when “wait” means “never,” or negotiation means nothing.
So we can side with the voices that protest the work, agree that the outcry was warranted, sigh that the curator slipped out, that the show goes on. But these works are in someone’s collection, they are still sold in Chelsea, and they circulate freely. All our white cubes with Caucasian walls remain and we call it a win.
What is needed now, what I hope is happening now, is a kind of collective reexamination of the institution as a concept — a critique that happens in public. Our institutions and their structures need to be interrogated: Is power concentrated or shared? Are budgets supportive of the community and its stated mission, or a parade of inequities? Who, underneath it all, is the institution for? What kind of community is it trying to form?
The people who have brought direct actions to the museum from Occupy onward are already doing this work. Damon Davis did it in a late-night call for a boycott of Walker’s exhibition, as did CAM’s black staff members, De Nichols, Lyndon Barrois, and Victoria Donaldson, who put their employment and much more on the line. #DecolonizeThisPlace is in the process of this kind of critique alongside Artists Space, and Liberate Tate has helped to successfully remove BP from the museum’s sponsor list, while Casco Projects in Utrecht has initiated a longterm commitment to “commoning” the institution. This work is to reshape the concept of the institution itself. Injustice has no place within an institution. The new institution, as with the new artist, protests. We need a better model to live in rather than going on managing disasters like they are PR problems. Adopt the critique, common the structure, radicalize the space, lead the conversation. Elsewhere, I attempted to sketch out some semblance of a start, but it needs to be rewritten by us, collectively. Short of this, we’ll get past the boycotts, mount the next exhibitions, hire the replacements, but the cracks add up, connect, and splinter out. The museum concept may not be infinitely expandable, but here we are, spilling out into the streets, with so many movements within us.