Interviews

A Unique Program Pays You to Visit Museums as a Guest Critic

A conversation with Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu, the founders of Look at Art. Get Paid., a program that pays people who wouldn’t otherwise visit art museums to visit one as guest critics of the art and the institution.

Artist Maia Chao pays a guest critic $75 in cash at the end of a 4-hour visit to the RISD Museum (photo by Jay Simple)

Critique is a hallmark of the art field, yet the vast majority of cultural critics, curators, museum leadership, and museum visitors are affluent and white. What is critique without diversity? What possibilities and truths are we missing?

I was fortunate to meet artists Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu, who launched the pilot of an ingenious way to approach these questions called Look at Art. Get Paid. (LAAGP), in 2016 at the RISD Museum. The initiative is a socially engaged art project that pays people who wouldn’t otherwise visit art museums to visit one as guest critics of the art and the institution, flipping the script between the institution and its public, the educator and the educated, the paying and the paid. In the next year, they will embark on an expanded campaign to launch LAAGP simultaneously across a regional cohort of three to five art museums in the US.

We talked about LAAGP’s roots, the ways its worked and their plans for its implementation at additional institutions, what museums can learn from people outside the field, and the ways to identify the real, and sometimes unexpected, stumbling blocks to access and engagement (a topic of extreme interest in most museums today). This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

RISD Museum staff watch a documentary made by Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu to showcase the guest critics’ feedback. (photo by Maia Chao)

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Hyperallergic: What is the origin story of LAAGP?

LAAGP: We started LAAGP when we were both students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). We were grappling with the relevance of our chosen field to our wider communities. We believed in art making and cultural critique as vital sites of collective meaning-making and world-building, but felt frustrated by how access to the majority of resources and infrastructure to sustain ambitious projects was constrained to a (mostly white and affluent) initiated few. We asked each other, what would a critique environment look like if you didn’t need to be an insider to be in the room? We were curious to test out how we might use our institutional access and artistic license to move funds that would normally circulate within RISD out into the community. We launched our pilot in 2016 at the RISD Museum.

It’s important to note that LAAGP came out of a deep and sustained partnership with the RISD Museum, and staff who devoted considerable energy in shepherding this work.

H: What are the guiding values of LAAGP?

LAAGP: The piece names and compensates the labor and costs that can be involved in attending an institution built to center white and affluent visitors. We assert that the people whose vision is most needed to help re-imagine and reconfigure art museums can’t be expected to donate their time or to assimilate in order to get a seat at the table.

Paying people in cash to visit a museum names the elephant in the room: wealth, specifically the wealth accumulated by beneficiaries of the transatlantic slave trade, and the way this wealth continues to shape whose cultural production gets prioritized.

Two guest critics view a David Hockney’s “Plastic Tree Plus City Hall” (1964) (photo by Jay Simple)

H: What did the critics from LAAGP’s pilot have to say?

LAAGP: As with any group of people, some enjoyed their experience and others didn’t. One critic took a picture of her favorite painting on her phone to get printed at Walgreens and hang it up in her living room. Others found the experience reaffirmed their assumptions that museums are boring.

But beyond like and dislike of the experience, there was a general feeling amongst critics that the museum is “addressing a certain kind of person” — namely white people and people with money. Throughout our conversations, the topic of belonging featured prominently, and one critic said, “maybe this place isn’t for me.” Another critic articulated that they just didn’t feel like they had “bandwidth for another white space.” When discussing what changes the critics would like to see, most agreed the museum would have to better represent POC [people of color] in their collection, improve language accessibility, advertise in their neighborhoods, and make the experience less intimidating.

However, there were some critics who felt energized to help the museum. For instance, one critic, a sign-maker, said he’d love to help the museum improve their signage. Another critic — an organizer from Direct Action for Rights and Equality — suggested having cookouts at the museum. We’ve been working with these critics to commission local artists to engage these ideas. Our goal is not to convert people into museum-goers, but to facilitate community-led initiatives for those who are interested in participating.

LAAGP critics took detailed notes on their impressions, questions, and assessments during their visit to the RISD Museum. In collaboration with designer Lukas Eigler-Harding and guest critic Stephan McCants, LAAGP produced a free Chrome Extension that overlays the guest critics’ notes onto the RISD Museum’s website. Visit risdmuseum.org/edit to download this free extension.

H: What did people say about being paid?

LAAGP: By paying the guest critics, we communicated that their opinions and their time is valuable. One critic reflected, “I think anytime you ask for somebody’s critique … it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s a nice thing to be asked.’ It made me feel important. I feel like — especially since I was being paid — that helped a lot.”

H: What has been the most useful comment that a guest critic has provided?

LAAGP: There were plenty of pragmatically useful comments that can be easily addressed by institutions. But for LAAGP the issue is not so much that institutions don’t know what to do. It’s more of an issue of whether it’s a priority — whether it feels urgent enough that it’s at the top of the list, not just in theory, but also in the budget.

Critic Samanda Martínez said, “Están cuidando más a las imágenes que a nosotros/They’re taking better care of the paintings than they are of us.”

It’s one thing to know that a space isn’t welcoming to another person, but it’s another to hear directly from someone who has felt unwelcome. In general, our goal as artists is to make that experience legible and valid, in order to create more urgency and disrupt usual practices that need to change.

Staff who don’t often interface with the public told us that it was especially valuable to hear from the critics. For example, one staff member said that, for the first time, she was re-considering her decision to paint all the mannequins white. After hearing from our critics, she realized that this decision she thought was neutral — to match the white walls of the gallery — was sending a message she didn’t intend.

A guest critic explores the RISD Museum during the pilot of Look at Art. Get Paid. in 2016. Sessions were hosted in English and Spanish (photo by Jay Simple)

H: What responses were most common from the critics, and have you seen institutions pick them up and adapt?

LAAGP: Critiques were wide-ranging, but many critics discussed the lack of effective signage; the silence and stillness of the galleries; their desire to touch the art; the arbitrary and stiff social codes for looking at art; their general discomfort in the space; and their acute awareness of being surveilled.

We’ve seen real changes. It’s important to preface that the changes we’ve tracked at the RISD Museum are the product of many ongoing efforts from within and outward from the institution. LAAGP is one piece of the puzzle.

Representation was a major area of concern for guest critics. The museum is now making an explicit effort to acquire more art that does not center whiteness. Language issues came in really strong. In April 2018, RISD published museum guides in Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. Advertisement was also a big topic of discussion. As of (at least) March 2018, RISD Museum advertisements have gone up on the Southside in Providence, where 12% of the population is non-Hispanic white and 64% of school children speak a language other than English. Critics also questioned the ethics of acquisition. The RISD Museum has started the restitution process for a bronze sculpture looted during colonial violence.

The project was advertised in public buses and received 200+ inquiries. A final 41 guest critics were selected, with priority given to people who hadn’t been to a museum, POC, and people with low-income. (photo by Josephine Devanbu)

H: Tell me about your upcoming plans and hopes. What kinds of museums are you planning to work with?

LAAGP: We’re now developing plans to launch across a cohort of art museums in Massachusetts in 2019-2021, in partnership with the Massachusetts Cultural Council. By launching across multiple museums, we’re interested in the possibility of cross-institutional pollination and movement building. We aim to spark conversations in the art world and in popular media about knowledge politics through this temporary, city-wide subversion of power, knowledge, and capital.

We now know that the cohort will be comprised of Massachusetts institutions, but in the past year, we’ve met with various museums in different capacities, from formal staff presentations to informal lunches. The types of institutions interested are wide-ranging, from the Tate Modern to the Queens Museum and the ICA in Philadelphia.

H: Why are these museums interested in LAAGP?

LAAGP: They usually have some fairly specific goals in mind, including to evaluate recent changes that have been made; to become more experimental and nimble and to participate in iterative learning; to kick start a recent commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) and engage their staff in these priorities; to publicly communicate stated values; and to make a gesture of humility and respect for community knowledge.

H: What are the obstacles?

LAAGP: We are in a moment where addressing histories of exclusion is in vogue and where pressure to be responsive to community is growing. Still, for the most part, equity and access are budgeted as an add-on rather than as necessary groundwork to fulfill the institution’s core mission. There are increasing exceptions, but in the majority of cases, the resources within a museum are marshaled toward preserving the status quo. If we look at a budget break down of a given museum and compare the amount of money spent on maintaining and building the collection versus reaching community members, the priorities are apparent. There are departments within the museum that are working overtime to bridge this gap — often public programs and education departments. But typically, the funds and freedom to undertake bold, experimental ideas are more commonly wielded by directorial and curatorial positions.

H: What would LAAGP look like if it became successful beyond your wildest dreams?

LAAGP: For us, LAAGP would be a success if we are able to receive, position, and present our critics’ knowledge as expert and change-worthy through the authoritative medium of documentary video. Also, the publication of their critiques and the orchestration of unlikely forms of exchange — for example, critics being able to speak with museum staff, present at art conferences, be published, and see their experiences taken seriously. It would be a dream to help populate the gap in arts criticism with writing produced by non-insiders of the art world.

We want to spark a sense of possibility by engineering an unlikely scenario to hold cultural institutions accountable to their missions. We hope to normalize the process by which an institution is held accountable by the people who are marginalized by it, and normalize the method of paying community members who are not served by an institution to offer their expertise as an “outsider.” Our dream is to reverse flows of knowledge and capital and shift norms within and beyond art institutions about who has the knowledge needed to forge ahead with envisioning the future.

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