Essays

Considering the Role of University Art Museums on #J20

It is powerfully symbolic for those institutions who decide to close, just as it is powerfully symbolic for other institutions to deliberately choose to remain open.

A view of ICA Philadelphia (image courtesy ICA Philadelphia)

Editor’s note: This part of a series of essays commissioned by Hyperallergic about the #J20 Art Strike, whose purpose and terms are articulated in a letter signed by dozens of critics, artists, curators, and gallerists. The #J20 Art Strike is proposed in solidarity with other #J20 actions taking place across the country that demand business does not proceed as usual on inauguration day. The art strike asks individuals and institutions to close or otherwise observe the day of noncompliance.

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Last week, several items came to my attention at the same time: the New York Times coverage of a call for an art strike in solidarity with a general strike on Inauguration Day, Adam Weinberg’s response to this call, and a steady stream of emails requesting additional signatories to the open letter from artists associated with #J20. Conversation inside and beyond the museum ensued.

For 10 years, I directed Visual AIDS, the organization behind Day With(out) Art. So the idea of shuttering museums, galleries, and cultural institutions in “action and mourning” and “in solidarity” (specifically with “people living with AIDS and their caregivers” to follow the language of early DWA) makes certain sense to me. A strike is a tactic among tactics and Visual AIDS evolved DWA into an opportunity to unite the art world(s) around the ongoing crisis, the history of art AIDS activism, and the work of HIV-positive artists. With this in mind, I am buoyed by the current call to strike, the willingness of artists to issue it publicly, and by the need to respond.

Critics of #J20’s call to action can consider a colleague’s offhanded response to the claim that the strike will be ineffectual: “If you work in visual culture and don’t understand the power of symbolism, you’re in the wrong business.” It is powerfully symbolic for those institutions who go dark to do so, just as it is powerfully symbolic for other institutions to deliberately choose to remain open.

Given this context and history, on Friday, January 20, 2017, the Institute of Contemporary Art will be open and, as always, will be admission-free.

We will be open on January 20th because openness is one of our principal guiding values. Our role as a public space on the campus of a private university in a city as rich in history and heart as it is impoverished in equity and resources remains crucially important. We work in recognition that political activism cannot and should not be disentangled from cultural institutions. I believe ICA’s program shows this clearly.

Now is the time to double down for institutions and also to hold institutions accountable, especially those providing space for artists and publics, for the unknown, the unimagined, and the overlooked. In times of great conflict, every action and word has greater significance. This we take seriously, as is our responsibility to art, artists, and audience. ICA, alongside many contemporary museums and cultural organization nationwide, will continue to make space for discourse and collectivity, for dissent and for the imaginary, for reflection and for action, on January 20th and beyond.

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