No longer just a place to exhibit art and artefacts, museums have increasingly become sites and objects of demonstrations demanding accountability, responsibility and diversity.
When Frank Lloyd Wright started the design work for New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 1943 to have “a clear atmosphere of light and sympathetic surface”, he could not have foreseen how his vast rotunda might illuminate more than art. Enter activists from Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), who packed the institution on the evening of 9 February this year, draping its spiral hallways with banners and showering its atrium with a hail of flyers.
Led by photographer Nan Goldin, they lay prone on the floor as part of a die-in. It was a demonstration inveighing against the Guggenheim for its ties with the Sackler family, who’d raked in a fortune pushing narcotic painkiller OxyContin, precipitating the opioid crisis in the US.
“It’s time, Guggenheim,” chanted protesters. “Take down their name.” Facilities at the Guggenheim include the 8,200-sq-ft Sackler Center for Arts Education, a “gift” from the family.
PAIN was not the first and will not be the last group to take their fight to a museum. After all, where better for their voices to be aired than in a space intended for edification and education? As historian Mark Lilla wrote in 1985, “The museum is an ‘empowering’ institution, meant to incorporate all who would become part of our shared cultural experience.” And if museums are repositories of mortal achievement — the seat of the muses, per the Ancient Greeks — their responsibility to society hangs heavy. They’ve drawn admirers as much as dissenters, strongly and often creatively protesting what’s on exhibition, who’s exhibited and whence the funds flowed. And they might as well. Turns out, the museum, symbolically and physically, is a forum ready not just for exhibitions but interventions too.
It’s not every day you get a crowd gathered outside a museum wielding, of all things, bananas. But 29 April was one such day at the National Museum in Warsaw, when hundreds of demonstrators arrived to oppose the institute’s removal of artworks by three female artists. In particular, Natalia LL’s 1973 video Consumer Art, in which a young woman is shown suggestively eating bananas. Despite the work having been on display for years, museum head Jerzy Miziolek recently deemed it might “irritate sensitive young people”. At this, protestors amassed, ate their bananas, and in a week, Consumer Art was reinstated.
Museums’ curatorial decisions draw ire all the time. Months before #bananagate, a Christian action forced Israel’s Haifa Museum of Art to take down Jani Leinonen’s McJesus, a sculpture featuring a crucified Ronald McDonald. In 2017, Indonesia’s De Mata Trick Eye Museum was compelled to remove a waxwork of Adolf Hitler, because obviously. Since these institutions consecrate our history and culture, what goes on or off their walls is forever a matter of public concern. Curation matters, but so should exhibitions serve as living conversations between the institution and the community. We, the people, have a stake in this. As Kathleen McLean, principal of Independent Exhibitions, emphasised in a 2011 essay, “Visitors are just not interested in monologues.”
Or hell, take a cue from Banksy, who between 2003 to 2005, bypassed all manner of curation and stole his works into Tate Britain, the Louvre and London’s National History Museum.
“To actually go through the process of having a painting selected must be quite boring,” he told The Guardian in 2003. “It’s a lot more fun to go and put your own one up.” The vandal strikes when no one listens.
Visitors roaming the halls of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhatten at the tail-end of 1970 might’ve stumbled upon a tampon or an egg idling in between canvases. Was it art? No, but part of a demonstration staged by the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee against the male artist-dominant Whitney Annual. This was what committee member Faith Ringgold, in her 2005 memoir, called “loud and clear messages that women artists were on the Whitney’s case”.
Ad Hoc wasn’t alone. The stunning lack of diversity in museum exhibits spurred groups from the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition to Guerilla Art Action Group to intervene with defiant gestures throughout the decade. Then there was artist Joanne Stamerra, who in 1976, stealthily scattered the Museum of Modern Art’s galleries — devoid of the work of female artists — with erasers stamped with “Erase Sexism at MoMA”.
Come the ’80s, the exclusionary art world had to contend with a fiercer force: the Guerrilla Girls. In its lifetime, the anonymous collective has poster-bombed institutions from the Guggenheim to the San Jose Museum of Art, in addition to being involved in countless ongoing street actions protesting discriminatory collections. That the GG’s “public service messages” always come backed with hard-boiled data and statistics only burnishes their cause. Take their 1997 postcard campaign, directed at Margit Rowell, chief curator of the MoMA show Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life, that raged: “3 White Women, 1 Woman of Color and No Men of Color — Out of 71 Artists?” The real controversy here? Those numbers.
As PAIN demonstrated, it’s never just about what’s on exhibition, but who’s backing it. That’s why, in 1996, filmmaker Tony Kaye ordered a massive black canvas to be draped across from MoMa’s facade, objecting to Philip Morris’ sponsorship of a Jasper Johns exhibition. “Look at Jasper’s pictures,” blared its white block letters. “Smoke our cigarettes and die.” Earlier this year, hundreds gathered at the British Museum to protest a BP-funded exhibition. And in July, Warren Kanders, CEO of a company that manufactures law enforcement products, was forced off the board of the Whitney Museum. Toxic philanthropy is a real thing.
But the idea of ethical patronage is a tricky one. For ages, museums and exhibitions have been supported by questionable sources from prison proﬁ ts to gentrification gains. And as artist Hans Haacke underscored in On Social Grease, his 1975 installation of six plaques featuring quotes from business and art world figures, the exchange between museums and corporations is enduringly cast in metal. Of course, funding matters but hey, so does a social conscience. Making that balance work is an unenviable, if necessary, task. Plus, the fact that the Sackler and Kanders names have since been dropped from museum walls also means that it’s achievable. Take it from Decolonize This Place (DTP), the activist organisation behind nine weeks’ worth of demonstrations at the Whitney, whose literature reads: “Maybe when Kanders and others like him are gone, the museum does indeed look like a very different place with a different system of accounts and different relation to the city in which it is embedded.”
Also asserted by DTP is the idea of the museum as a safe space, untouched by censorship, violence or dark money. It should contain light and yes, sympathetic surface. Accordingly and quite literally, on 7 August, Hong Kong’s Space Museum was lit up by a forest of laser beams. The spectacle was in response to the police brutality that dogged the anti-extradition rallies in the territory, particularly the arrest of a student activist for possessing the most dangerous of weapons: laser pointers. In a trolling move, demonstrators duly arrived at the museum armed with laser pens and directed an impromptu laser show on the side of its planetarium. Dancing and singing ensued. In contrast to the teargas-blanketed protests happening elsewhere in Hong Kong, this was a celebratory testament to the city’s abiding hope and humour.
Which is the point of a museum. Back in 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright might have supplied Guggenheim its dimensions, but it was curator Hilla Rebay who advanced its raison d’être. Writing to the architect with her wishes, she insisted, “I want a temple of the spirit.” It’s a request that’s completely aspirational, demanding less museum and more monument. But time and again, such temples have been built and — thanks to the agitators who’ve stormed and rattled their galleries — realised.
This story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of A.