How you feel about museums likely says a lot about you. It can speak to your interests, your amount of free time, who your parents were, and a whole host of other indicators.
I’m someone who ended up being an artist, so it should be unsurprising to learn that museums were a formative part of my childhood. Museums are probably why I became an artist and continue to be the spaces where I form new ideas. I rarely visit a new city without checking out the museum; they’re my embassies, and in addition to the artwork there’s normally a good library and decent coffee.
Between February and early March, I was able to visit three different museums across the Midwest. A music event took me to the Art Institute of Chicago, a space I was first brought to as an infant and got to know well as a college student living three blocks away. Next I visited Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center for the very first time. Most recently I spent a short morning at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In 2019, amidst an era of reconsideration and analysis, it’s impossible not to question what these spaces mean to us in the very tumultuous now. In the last month, I remembered the Sister Wendy quote shown above. As a tween in the early 2000s, I watched her American Collection (probably another sign I was destined for art nerd-dom) and remember loving the idea of museums I enjoyed so much being pillars of democracy. In that short series she actually highlighted two of the museums I most recently visited, The AIC and Cleveland.
That quote felt so much like the product of another era that it really struck me. As she says that line, you literally see a shot of her against the background of the World Trade Center. The idea that what is good for society is this thing that you already love feels like a very outdated sentiment. That’s not to say that I disagree. I believe that museums are a mirror of our democracy, but what we see in the reflection is our own very flawed capitalist system with all its colonialism, classism, racism, sexism, and greed forming a foundation through which actually meaningful work still manages to shine through. The artwork itself can still be a means to freedom even as the greater museum system that supports it slowly erodes those freedoms.
If you need examples, there is no shortage. How about the fountains outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in new York that have donor David Koch’s name inscribed in gold lettering? That feels like a good one.
Behind any great museum in the US there’s a donor list with some darkly troubling names. Beyond that, museums have long been a huge component of a system that canonizes male genius after male genius to the exclusion of all others. This also can continue even after those artists have been accused of sexual assault or violence. Museums are still about 85% white & male.
With all that said, it is worth noting that last year for the first time ever, museums in the Los Angeles area held more solo shows for female artists than male artists. And by a lot, 11 shows by women and six by men. While there are many different factors for this, it’s hard not to view it as a moment where the culture was able to push institutions toward change.
Since I was able to visit some pretty excellent museums, I also saw a concerted effort in all spaces to engage children and families and provide genuine educational resources. At the Walker I was able to visit their library during one of their “Free Saturdays” and skimmed a book called The Museum as Muse while children screamed and chased each other among the stacks. I won’t call that a great moment, but it was emblematic of an institution trying to open its doors and shake off some of the dust of elitism, even while I may have longed for the quiet of exclusivity.
At the Art Institute I watched as fans of acts like Panda Bear, Slowdive, Grouper, etc. complained that they couldn’t take their drinks into gallery spaces full of ancient sculptures, but instead could only imbibe in designated spaces between sets. While I think the stupidity of this particular complaint is pretty undeniable, I will admit to getting a thrill walking through one of my favorite museums lightly buzzed, a joy that I suppose Chicago’s wealthy have experienced for generations. Even at the time I questioned why the AIC would sanction an event that came with such obvious risks to the work before realizing the obvious and undeniable reason that a museum does most things: money (remember, I was buzzed).
How these spaces will evolve depends on us as an audience. The exhibitions we show up for & the museums we visit regularly have a better chance of both thriving and representing normal people (by which I mean non-billionaires). And as in all other areas of our society, people whose strong preference is to stay on the sideline may be pushed to advocate for what they want these public institutions to look like.
And even if we do all of these things, we still will have to view art through a sea of bored children, men explaining the artwork to their girlfriends, and teenagers laughing at nudes. This is America.