This week, protesters blocked the entry of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, recently reopened after a massive expansion project. They were calling for the removal of Steven Tananbaum from MoMA’s board, because his firm GoldenTree Asset Management owns US$2.5 billion in debt from Puerto Rico.
With their banners reading #CANCELTHEDEBT, they filled the lobby until the police came and the arrests began.
If all of this sounds familiar, it is because these protests followed other protests in front of MoMA only a few days before, against the involvement of trustee Larry Fink and the museum’s investments in private prisons.
You could also be thinking about the same kind of protests that recently took over the Whitney Museum for their association with Warren Kanders and his company Safariland, which produces “defense technologies” like the tear gas that was used against migrants at the US-Mexico border and protesters in Puerto Rico.
Or, you might be thinking of the protests that flooded the Guggenheim Museum with protesters led by legendary artist Nan Goldin for their association with the Sacklers, who founded Purdue Pharmaceuticals, who are responsible for the opioid crisis through their aggressive pushing of — and fraudulent claims about — the drug oxycodone.
These protests seem noble, but they are ideologically inconsistent. If the idea is to cleanse the art world of its ties to money created through suffering and oppression, then why stop with these singular figures?
The boards of each museum are still cluttered with billionaires who made their fortunes through defense contracts, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.
As Whitney Curry Wimbish documented for The Baffler, sitting next to Kanders on the Whitney board are men and women who created weapons used on Palestinians, sold military equipment to Pakistan and built drones. (Kanders did ultimately resign, but the other billionaires remain.)
These protests are often led by artists and curators, and there are some very good reasons why they do not call for the museums to remove all of the billionaires from their board or to divest entirely from unethical investments.
Some artists — the type who are selected for inclusion at MoMA or the Whitney Biennial or at least believe they might in the future have the opportunity to be — benefit greatly from their access to billionaire trustees and collectors, and while they might gain some cultural capital from showing off their social consciousness by singling out specific problematic individuals, they probably do not want to risk alienating all of the moneyed class.
Take the Whitney Biennial protests that began with an open letter from artists and critics Hannah Black, Ciar Finlayson and Tobi Haslett, asking the artists included in the exhibition of new work to withdraw their art in protest of Kanders’ refusal to resign from the museum’s board.
The open letter came months after the Biennial had begun, meaning the artists who were included had already benefited greatly from having their work be displayed on their prestigious walls and being written about in the promotional materials and the press surrounding the biannual event.
When some of the artists did withdraw following the protest, they got a second round of press, congratulating them on being so committed to their ideals. Indeed yes, they probably are, but it worked out well for them to benefit financially and in publicity both coming and going.
Only one artist, Chicago-based Michael Rakowitz, refused to participate in the exhibition from the very beginning, and there was significantly less coverage and social media chatter of his decision and the consequences for his stand than there was of the protests that followed.
The billionaires, of course, benefit greatly from their association with the museums, using their collections and their philanthropic work to launder their reputations. Stefan Edlis, a billionaire who created his fortune with the plastics that are now choking our oceans, being found in our bodies and killing dolphins and sea turtles, made a significant donation to the Art Institute of Chicago of 44 paintings by figures like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly.
While Edlis was heralded up and down the arts press for his generosity, less has been discussed about how he benefits. The gift was given with a guarantee that his paintings would be on permanent display for 50 years, and they must remain in the order selected by Edlis for the next 25.
Whether or not art museums need more Warhol should be up for debate (though they really do not). We should not let Edlis control what art and artists the next two generations of the Chicago public get to see.
While art museums around the country are finally taking pains to diversify their collections and display more work by artists of different genders, sexualities and races — in Baltimore the museum actually decided to sell their Warhols to invest in less high-profile, but significant artists like Amy Sherald and Jack Whitten — the Art Institute has been coerced into spending a significant part of their real estate promoting the same white men we have all seen a million times before. In the process, Edlis’ profile as a collector rises, the rest of the art in his collection would probably increase in value and he gets greater access to dealers, artists and museums. [Edlis passed away on Oct. 15.]
It would be easy to say that all money under capitalism is corrupt so what can we possibly do? Well, I do know one thing we could do. We could nationalize the art museums.
I know, it is crazy, utopian thinking that would not even work. The US’ National Endowment for the Arts has the budget of a nursery school, and a Republican administration would delight in shutting down the Metropolitan Museum of Art — their palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it.
However, having billionaires run our art and culture has real world effects.
Going to an art museum in any major city now costs you about US$25. That is how much it costs for the Whitney and MoMA, the Art Institute in Chicago and Lacma in Los Angeles. It is the same for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they recently got rid of their “pay what you can” policy of discounted tickets for anyone who is not a New York City resident.
The Art Institute has radically cut its schedule of free days and also only offers them now to those with ID proving Chicago residency. It is not just visual art, it is the opera, the symphony and other venues for the so-called “high arts,” too, that rely on massive donations and still charge exorbitant prices.
A large number of people are effectively shut out from participating in the art world as a result, even as an audience member. We have an art world created by billionaires and for billionaires, who use their wealth to manipulate the museums for their own ends and to increase the value of their private collections.
Why, then, would they care if members of the working and lower classes are unable to afford a ticket to spend an afternoon around great art?
If people are serious about removing the dark money from the art market and creating an ethical art world, the first thing that should happen is to put control of the museums, which were originally created as a public good, back in the hands of the people. When the US cannot even get national healthcare, it is hard to argue for subsidized art museums and opera, but a girl can dream.
Why would conservatives ever agree to raise taxes for decadent, godless artists? It is not just holdovers from the 1990s cultural wars — the younger generation in the alt-right talks a lot about how elitist and lacking in meaning the contemporary art world is.
Part of that hostility, I think, and I am speaking from personal experience as someone raised in rural Kansas by parents who thought things like art and novels were a waste of time, is the feeling of high art not being for us. Of feeling belittled and excluded by the art world, because, basically, we — the working class, the rural, the Red Staters — are.
Rebuilding the idea that art is for everyone, to create and to enjoy and to learn about, starts with access. Open your doors to the uncultured and the unwashed! Talk about the value of art in a language other than money! Allow someone other than the pampered children of hedge fund managers to write and speak about art! Nationalize the art museums! We have to start somewhere.
Jessa Crispin is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast.
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