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The Narrowing of Museum Imagination

This is the first article in a series by Laura Raicovich, the recipient of Hyperallergic’s inaugural Journalism Fellowship for Curators, made possible by Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. Today, she connects Anand Giridharadas’s latest book on philanthropy and late-capitalism with useful questions about how cultural institutions function today.

Martha Rosler, "The Gray Drape" (2008), from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, new series (2004, 2008) (image courtesy Rosler Studio)
Martha Rosler, “The Gray Drape” (2008), from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, new series (2004, 2008) (image courtesy Rosler Studio)

Editor’s Note: Laura Raicovich is the inaugural Journalism Fellow for Curators at Hyperallergic, a position funded by the Emily H. Tremaine Foundation. Designed to demystify the curatorial field, the position encourages professional curators to engage with the public and discuss ideas important for their own practice while writing critically about the field as a whole.

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When, in the space of five days, five people I love recommend a book, I read it. Anand Giridharadas’s “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” is an important and scathing re-framing of the “doing-good-by-doing-well” adage. Giridharadas takes an unvarnished look at philanthropy, mostly in the United States, linking it inextricably with the evolution of 19th-century capitalism through to the present (i.e. robber barons to hedge fund masterminds); he identifies an international elite of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and “thought leaders,” that comprise “Market World” — also known as those who make decisions about where and how much philanthropic money is leveraged to make the world a better place. Giridharadas’s premise is that the anti-government vibe seeded by Ronald Reagan, was brought into sharp focus during the Clinton years, culminating in the election of Donald Trump, largely by a disenchanted populace convinced that government could not or would not help, and simultaneously hostile to the priorities of the private sector whose ways of approaching problems had never engaged them.

The Clinton years saw an emergence of the “public-private partnership,” a rallying-cry to solve social problems that governments didn’t seem to have the bandwidth or the desire to take on. Giridharadas interprets this alliance as the culmination of the rhetoric of government inefficiency fused with overconfidence in business know-how to solve social issues. Reagan’s trickle-down economics and small government cheerleading, followed by Clintonian business-friendly policies (read NAFTA etc.) evolved into a seemingly-unstoppable erosion of confidence that government, big or small, could contribute anything meaningful in confronting our most vexing social, economic, and environmental issues. And so, rather than vast public programs in the spirit of Great Society or the New Deal, faith was placed in the private sector. Seen from 2019s vantage, this outsized faith has clearly failed the very real needs of people and the planet, and it also provided fertile ground to divide groups that would typically share financial and social affinities based on a politics of “left-behind-ism,” political fear-mongering of the unknown, all in the shadow of governments shrinking the very programs that people, particularly poor people, need most in favor of “private” solutions.

Steve Lambert, "Capitalism Works For Me! True/False," aluminum and electrical, 9 x 20 x 7 feet (image courtesy the artist)
Steve Lambert, “Capitalism Works For Me! True/False,” aluminum and electrical, 9 x 20 x 7 feet (image courtesy the artist)

So, how does this all relate to museums? I would argue that institutions have followed a parallel trajectory that is inextricably yoked to the economic histories Giridharadas describes in his book, resulting in an ossified public imaginary of museums and cultural institutions. Giridharadas lays out how Market World debates are choreographed, or even “curated,” carefully coordinating the logics of confinement through the extraction of divergent positions and approaches to shared problems. The results are devasting: a truncated conversation, with relevant voices absent, and thus silenced. He describes a panel at the last Clinton Global Initiative wherein the topic was “the equality of women,” but “they seemed to be limiting the topic to jobs and the growth of their sectors. They were talking about feminism on the condition that they stick to the profitable wing of it.” He writes:

To keep disagreement out of one’s panels was not just an aesthetic decision. In some small way, it changed how the world operated because it shaped what ideas got talked about and what solutions got acted on when people left [the] room, and what programs got funded and didn’t, and what stories got covered and didn’t, and it tipped the scale in the direction of the winners once again, ensuring that the friendly, win-win way of solving public problems would remain dominant. People asking big questions about the underlying system and imagining alternative systems would not be attending.

This example emphasizes how, when the interests of Market World are taken as a given, it inherently limits the scope of the conversation, and the amount of conflict that might be tolerated, engendered, or even recognized, and even the range of ideas generated and potential solutions posed. Likewise, in the imaginary of the museum. If, to survive, the museum must be focused on perpetual growth (in its physical plant, collections, budget), the super-stardom of its director and curator, attendance and social media likes, maintaining its always-precarious financial position (extant regardless of scale), how can the limited human resources who make these organizations function even begin to think creatively about the what and the whys of the museum?

Mel Chin, "The Eye of the Beholder," 1 dollar denomination (image courtesy the artist)
Mel Chin, “The Eye of the Beholder, 1 dollar denomination” (1995), erased US currency, 2 9/16 x 6 1/8 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Of course the museum in late-capitalism has answers for this, the most tangible and de-rigueur of which is the strategic plan, with its objectives, strategies, tactics, and a host of business-world mechanisms meant to pre-answer questions of mission and vision so that museum workers can just focus on fulfilling checklists of to-dos rather than imagining, co-creating, and implementing projects that question our very moment, that invite the kind of actual discourse that could support a more engaged civil society and possibly even create space for structural and profound change.

The point that these exercises miss is one that is endemic to the over focus on high-profile individuals within the museum structure, rather than the fact that museums are inherently and profoundly collective enterprises, another impact of the late-capitalism on the museum. To survive, financially and otherwise, institutions have become dependent on central director and head curator figures to bring home the bacon on every front, while the “staff” keeps the place running on the day to day. Burn out is prevalent, as is disenchantment and frustration. Not to mention the extensive ubiquity of inequitable systems that determine who is even hired for these positions, and who controls the governance and decision-making structures.

The first step in recovering from this delirium is to admit that culture has a problem. Can we reconsider the museum as a collective enterprise? Can such a space accommodate a wider set of ideas of what art can be and how it is presented and interacted with? Can museums be spaces for collective cultural imagination that provide a training ground for listening to one another, speaking contemporary truths, re-evaluating the ways in which we understand history? Isn’t this our culture, with all its contradictions and paradoxes? How might we re-ignite a sense of possibility and elbow out the constrictions imposed by current ways of doing things?

In some senses, I suppose this is a call for a public cultural sphere, one that centers equity and imagination, our collective and individual humanity in all its complexity, and invites the polis to struggle together to see one another. There is a very real need for this kind of public space today, and because the cultural sphere is where I spend a lot of my time, I hope there is a way for us to enact it. This isn’t about institutions versus publics. We are both. We can reclaim our space.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018) by Anand Giridharadas is published by Knopf Doubleday and is available for purchase on Amazon and other online retailers.

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