We talk about survival using words such as ‘resilience’, ‘adaptability’ and ‘flexibility’. Agile, active words. Yet there are other terms to accompany these—‘pressure’ and ‘duress’ are two that come to mind. Binding, stultifying words. We do not tend to think about survival unless there is the risk of its negation. These are the tensions we hold when we talk about climate crisis, pandemics, racism.
I began writing this article as a response to the effects of the coronavirus shutdowns on the practices of public art museums and galleries. I’m editing this article in a world once again being alerted to the heartbreak of racism. In these overlapping contexts, the question shifts from how to survive to what should survive. Or, to be less melodramatic: what we should prioritise, and what we can let go of. Let’s consider this, in relation to art institutions, through three different lenses. How to survive is most commonly addressed through an economic lens. This approach to framing an at-risk arts sector both precedes and is heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. We can say the same of the cultural lens—namely, the preservation and conservation of culture through institutions. This is particularly problematic when we realise that, far too often, we are demanding the fortification of a racially unequal cultural imaginary. So, let’s instead consider the question of what should survive. For this, let us direct our focus to a social lens.
There are two things to keep in mind. The first is that, with new pressures arising out of COVID-19 shutdowns, sociality—particularly digital sociality—has been at the forefront of our consciousness. The second is that art institutions have been increasingly implored to embrace their social role. We understand that museums and galleries, in how they choose to reflect society, are actively shaping society. Consequently, the conversation around art museums and galleries as spaces for activism has grown exponentially over the past few years. In this conversation, we move beyond the representation of artist-activists within these spaces. We build on this foundation to consider the space itself as a platform for activism, with the potential for the mobilisation of public agency. The social lens shifts our thinking beyond the economic survival of art museums and galleries, or the cultural survival of their artefacts and ideology. Instead, the question of the survival of art institutions becomes intimately tied to the question of how these spaces sustain us.
Today, with physical visitation out of the realm of possibility, art museums and galleries have proven generous in their digital offerings. These have encompassed comprehensive virtual exhibitions, interviews with staff and artists, taped studio visits, new commissions and—most relevant to the point of sociality—the uploading and sharing of user-created content, from the at-home recreation of paintings to the sharing of community stories. What these forms of digital engagement have highlighted is a willingness and capacity to include more voices. This in turn offers more potential to reconfigure the content of these spaces.
Art museums and galleries have long been sites of institutional critique, a mode of engagement that grew in strength in the 1960s and never dissipated. It’s possible to argue that the reason it never dissipated is because these institutions never changed. Yes, the art world is hugely problematic. Yes, many institutions are dismally slow to change and lack self-awareness. Here is another way of looking at it: these sites are important not only if they are activists in and of themselves but also because they are publicly visible sites for activists to engage with. Art museums and galleries have a habit of subsuming institutional critique into the fold, making way for new criticisms. In other words, they are spaces to enact institutional critique in a dynamic and often embodied way. The constant nature of this cycle shouldn’t be dismissed as demoralising. It is necessary to cultivate platforms for agonism where social demands and sociality coexist.
During #blackouttuesday, one of the main criticisms levelled at art institutions was the sense of disingenuousness—a kind of performative ally-ship by institutions whose claims of antiracism weren’t reflected in their programming, leadership structure or hiring practices. This isn’t a new criticism. But its reach has been amplified through our intensified reliance on digital media during social distancing. And it is a criticism that must be at the centre of what it is we want to survive and what it is we want radically transformed. For the art museum and gallery to survive, they need our attention. To transform, they need our contribution.
We are at a point now where we can think deeply about how the renewed appreciation of the relationship between sustenance, sociality and survival will be imagined once we are able to return on-site. Art museums and galleries are understandably concerned with remaining financially viable. Yet as restrictions for cultural institutions begin to ease around the world, art museums and galleries will need to show fidelity to their claim of value beyond their quantified metrics. And if museums and galleries are claiming social importance as a core value, then they must also display a commitment to values, namely redressing inequality on the basis of race—not for tourism dollars, not for tokenism in representation, but for this nebulous concept we call ‘social good’. As Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern, recently wrote:
As we begin to make moves towards reopening later this summer, as a newly vulnerable organisation working in conditions of extreme instability, we need to make sure we privilege what we really value. Many voices are telling us that lockdown is showing us that we can do things differently, at a societal level, institutionally and individually. As we move from survival to stability, we have an incredible opportunity to shift the way we work… We will need to consider art as a social space rather than as a marketplace. We will have to step up the call for artistic and culture-rich content in the educational curriculum and to build new forms of engagement and exchange with our visitors.
There is an unprecedented opportunity here for art museums struggling to move away from the criticism of museum-as-mausoleum, for galleries moving away from the blinkered whiteness of the white cube or their label as temples to commodity fetishism. This is the opportunity to create intimate encounters, where the relationship between people and art becomes a testament to living. So, when we talk about the survival of art museums and galleries, what are we saying is at risk? To challenge cultural authority and neoliberal policies, let our answer be nothing less than sociality and the enactment of our social rights.