Why Museums From The Louvre To The Guggenheim Are Facing A Reckoning

This analysis was originally published on CoBo Social on 14 July 2020.

With public museums in France, UK and even parts of the US reopening in July, their most pressing issue might be more than just about recouping tremendous financial losses incurred during the lockdown.

A survey reportedly conducted this month in the UK indicated that 49% of the public are “not very comfortable” or “not at all comfortable” with visiting an indoor museum or exhibition after coronavirus lockdown restrictions are eased.

Even the Director of Louvre Museum Jean-Luc Martinez predicted that visitor numbers will fall by as much as 80 per cent this year due to COVID-19 lockdown, travel restrictions and social distancing measures. Given that almost 75 per cent of the 10 million over visitors in 2018 were tourists, he remains convinced that attendance may not recover before 2024 which is when Paris will be hosting the Olympic Games. In response, the museum, which shut its doors in March and reopened on 6 July, is focusing on researching and anchoring the exhibitions programme to their permanent collections.

Martinez could possibly be prescient in doing so. The future of blockbuster exhibitions, the mainstay content we have come to expect from any credible museum of this day and age, is largely in question due to the exorbitant costs, extensive cross-border logistical arrangements and packed international crowds required to pull it off.

However, the blockbuster show has been a major point of contention in the art world, even before the pandemic hit. Given that success of a museum and its leadership is so intrinsically tied to attendance figures and ticket sales, major art institutions all over the world rely heavily on major loan mega-hit art exhibitions. Dubbed by Meta Knol, the Director of the Museum de Lakenhal in the Netherlands, as the “blockbuster addiction,” this has apparently been going on since the 80s, with no signs of abating till now.

In an interview with artnet, Knol said, “We have been offering distractions, but visitors are hungry for attention. We need to personalise the experience and it begins as soon as you walk through the door. You simply cannot do that when you are seeking the large, anonymous crowds that blockbuster exhibitions necessitate.”

It is not just attention and personalised experienced that we seek. Perhaps due to the intrinsic impact of living with a global pandemic, individuals and communities everywhere have become more raw and sensitive, for better or worse, to whatever is going on around us in our physical and digital realities. Almost as if the world came to a grinding halt and suddenly, we could no longer ignore the strong stench of social inequality and divisiveness that has been permeating the air for a long while now.

Public museums, being the power fuelled elitist social structures that they are, have been hit the hardest in the art world; taken to task for major issues such as lack of diversity and representation, enforcing socioeconomic inequality amongst staff with wide income gaps and layoffs, board members involved with nefarious corporate entities and individuals, and state governments wielding undue influence on museum leadership. Most of these issues have been raised pre-pandemic but now, with the clarity of our newly heightened perspective on life and society, these infractions have taken on a whole new intensity.

During the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the beginning of June this year, leading art institutions such as the New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (LAMOCA), Getty Museum and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) faced backlash for their tone deaf social media responses and existing practices of superficial inclusivity.

Online netizens pointed out that the Guggenheim has not had a full-time Black curator in its 80 years. Also, Chaedria LaBouvier, who was the Black guest curator for the 2019 exhibition of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, tweeted that her experience with the museum and its curator Nancy Spector bordered on toxic. At the end of June, the Guggenheim Museum’s curatorial department submitted a letter to management describing a work culture of “racism” and “white supremacy.” By the first week of July, the Guggenheim’s board of directors reportedly hired a lawyer to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding its Basquiat exhibition of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

At the end of June, current and former employees accused the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of “racist censorship” and “discrimination.” A week prior, the longtime director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Jill Snyder, resigned after apologising to the artist Shaun Leonardo for canceling his exhibition dealing with police killings of Black and Latino males.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) was also not spared when Keith Christiansen, chairman of the European paintings department, put out a since deleted Instagram post criticising protests over monuments and the Black Lives Matters movement on Juneteenth. Following widespread online critique, 15 Met staff members sent a letter compelling the museum’s leadership to acknowledge “what we see as the expression of a deeply rooted logic of white supremacy and culture of systemic racism at our institution.” By the first week of July, the Met released an Equity and Diversity Plan for its entire institution, promising to launch a US$3 million fund “to support initiatives, exhibitions, and acquisitions in the area of diverse art histories.”

This is a reckoning that is a long time coming and it is interesting to note that these US art institutions, for all its unyielding insularity and entrenched elitism, are attempting to take action and rectify past practices. Hopefully, this becomes a sustained and expanding movement in America and even beyond.

Most worryingly, in the past month or so, there have been more than a few curators, museum professionals and cultural stakeholders in Europe and Asia expressing outrage and disgust at such bad practices in US museums, without the slightest bit of awareness about the socially divisive cultures that exist in their own institutions and its surrounding networks of art collectors, gallerists, curators, artists, media partners and more.

Never mind the fact that most of the museums in UK and Europe comprise of artefacts looted from Indigenous cultures and barely employ non-White staff in their curatorial departments and management. Or that a fair number of major museums in Asia are helmed by White men and women, even if some of them had to be parachuted into the country for the job with no prior knowledge of the local and regional arts scene. Or that you rarely see minorities on panel discussions and talks organised by said museums in Asia.

The irony is that diversity is the key to museums worldwide being nimble and innovative, qualities they urgently need to make it through this volatile period. People from different backgrounds and cultures tend to have varied perspectives and approaches. This will inevitably translate into new and different solutions for any organisation and community which dares to engage diverse cultural stakeholders beyond superficial acts of tokenism.

So if public museums, especially in Europe and Asia, can finally take a long and hard look at themselves and what they have been doing to maintain the status quo of entrenched power structures and personalities, we might have the very real opportunity to use this unfathomable and historic time as a point of reset and redemption.

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