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A Cure for Toxic Museum Culture: Laura Raicovich’s New Book, Culture Strike

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Like many of you, I have a love-hate relationship with museums. While I adore seeing first-rate art in person—and this experience can verge upon spiritual transcendence—my joy is often undercut with frustration. Alongside proximity to culture, visiting a museum can also be about feeling excessively wealthy for a brief moment, being surrounded by the world’s most expensive objects and exquisite architecture, but if you don’t arrive already knowing the museum “code,” it’s easy to transgress and be reprimanded for breaking the rules.

The shame of standing too close to the art or carrying the wrong sized bag or attempting to sketch or sit down in the wrong place is acute because of the singular authority that museums have cultivated. Rather than ignorance or carelessness, this type of shame is based upon class distinction, where a large part of the population isn’t familiar with the opaque boundaries and traditions of a certain institution. It’s all very intimidating—and this is by design.

Admission-free museums have made a lot of progress here, in terms of welcoming more diverse populations and removing barriers, but even there it’s obvious that hierarchies around class and wealth are paramount, that certain individuals have special access and power, and the rest of us are expected to be grateful receptacles of culture in a top-down relationship.

Despite the profound connection to historic and contemporary works of art that museums offer, I often find myself distracted, wondering why powerful institutions insist on maintaining a complete monopoly on power instead of sharing it. I read the fine print on the wall labels and I continually find myself questioning why acquisitions are made to benefit the global art market, but not a local one that reflects the culture of a specific place. I find myself angry about public projects and initiatives at museums, purported to benefit members of the cultural and civic community, where there has obviously been very little community input. And, while it’s delightful to be surrounded by exquisite objects created by geniuses, it’s infuriating when museums spend absurd amounts of money on projects designed to resonate with a tiny proportion of the population that present barriers to inclusion.

I will admit that it is easy to play armchair museum director, to criticize obvious oversights and missed opportunities from the outside, and much more difficult to perform miraculous feats of institutional critique from within. In the top positions of leadership, museum professionals are crunched into a Game of Thrones-style crucible where the desires of wealthy trustees and patrons must be balanced with the needs of employees, the general public, paying members, government requirements, and in competition with other institutions.

It’s no surprise that museums are now moving at a breakneck pace, presenting a dizzying array of exhibitions and programming and new construction, generating more content than even the most devoted arts acolyte can consume, in order to attract more traffic, more press, more money. From a distance, it looks manic and unsustainable, like capitalism itself, where the eventual conclusion is a generic “big box” institution, where every exhibit features the same twenty or so globally anointed artists from the same blue-chip galleries, bestowing a ubiquitous idea of genius and taste upon the masses at the expense of authenticity, workers’ rights, and genuine hospitality.

Our current cultural reckoning combined with a pandemic offers a new opportunity for museums to rescue themselves from the zero-sum game of capitalism. We all know it’s time for structural institutional reform if they want to uphold publicly stated goals of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, rather than just create the appearance of it.

But how to do this? Where to begin? For anyone interested in solving this problem, it’s time to read Laura Raicovich’s new book, Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, published by Verso Books in June 2021.

 

In Culture Strike, the myth of museum neutrality is revealed for what it really is: a Western male colonial display of power, a historic myth of benevolent exceptionality, inevitable success, and the hierarchy of whiteness.
Cara Ober

Raicovich, former director of the Queens Museum in New York, has written a succinct institutional critique that is a must-read for any museum professional, trustee, patron, or artist who supports the International Council of Museums’ new definition of museums as “democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogues about the pasts and futures” which contribute to “human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being.”

Rather than offering hypotheticals or to-do lists, Culture Strike contains layers of honest observation from museum professionals, loving critique, historical context, and case studies that illuminate the best and worst in museum culture to offer a clear path forward. Raicovich truly believes that “undoing and redoing” museums can make them better for more people, but also pave the way for larger societal change, and that “art has enormous potential to shift society, [but] the institutions upon which it relies help hold systems of power in place.”

If you followed Raicovich’s resignation as president and executive director from the Queens Museum in 2018 after three years of critically acclaimed and popular exhibitions as well as doubling the museum’s fundraising capacityit’s disappointing but not shocking that even the board of trustees at a public museum located at the center of a public park in the center of one of the USA’s most diverse immigrant populations in New York could not tolerate their director’s sometimes controversial and politically progressive community-based approach. The ongoing controversy at the Queens Museum over Raicovich’s activism and her subsequent resignation speaks directly to the inherent structures of inequality, misogyny, insecurity, suppression, and secrecy which prevent museums from making the changes necessary to fulfill their public pledges to implement DEAI initiatives and enact the social justice agenda that so many want to claim.

Although museums are tax-exempt entities and therefore cannot endorse specific candidates or legislation, after Trump was elected, Raicovich offered public institutional support for museum employees impacted by DACA and created opportunities to protest against President Trump’s racist politics in a variety of ways, from hosting banner-making events to opening up museum restrooms to protesters. Raicovich’s veto of the museum hosting an Israeli government-sponsored event celebrating a UN vote establishing the nation’s founding, at which Mike Pence was a keynote speaker, created a public rift. (After an outcry, the event was later reinstituted and Pence attended.) Then the board took issue with Raicovich’s role as co-editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017), a collection of articles exploring the intersection between art and global boycotts.

At the center of Raicovich’s elegantly outlined critique: Art is not neutral and neither are museums, and the sooner we admit this the better. Historically, museums have claimed a cultural universality, where the objects they collect represent the world’s most profound global achievements, essentially writing our collective human history through exceptional objects. However, this universality has only ever been applicable to Western male audiences and it has been used to assert the inevitable dominance of the ruling class throughout human history.

 

In the last few years, the complexion of the collection may have diversified, but all you have to do is peel back the veneer to see who is in control: Museum directors are still mostly white men and so are boards of trustees. And the majority of those who benefit financially from museums’ acquisitions at galleries and auction houses are white men, as are most donors.

According to Raicovich, it’s essential to acknowledge that the ideals of universality were always a form of propaganda used to maintain power in museums, a false neutrality that continues to permeate all aspects of institutional governance, from leadership structures, board membership, hiring practices, exhibitions, accessions, and programming. And while recently a number of significant museums have publicly stated new commitments to a DEAI mission, they have made few (if any) changes to their top-down leadership model or to board membership, which is contingent not upon skills or experience, but on the ability to donate large sums of money, which presents myriad conflicts of interest.

In Culture Strike, the myth of museum neutrality is revealed for what it really is: a Western male colonial display of power, a historic myth of benevolent exceptionality, inevitable success, and the hierarchy of whiteness. One of the strengths of this book is its logical structure and timeline, which begins by explaining how and why museums were founded in the United States and in Europe. A dedicated community organizer and activist, Raicovich begins by comparing the foundation of museums with the public library system in the US, how both were founded in the same time period by the same type of powerful individuals (rich white male landowners) but veered into disparate paths: one centered upon accessibility and education and the other around exceptionality and wealth.

In the introduction, she writes, “Since my departure from the Queens Museum, I have been contemplating the history of how museums came to be in the United States, and how they operate today . . . . In a sense it is the expertise of the museum that makes it trustworthy; that it selects art and makes exhibitions that are educational, that instruct its publics.” But their structures of governance, treatment of staff, and curatorial choices are all “directly oppositional to any desire for diversity and inclusion.” Museums inherently privilege those of a specific class, race, educational, and social background, so how do we face this false neutrality and dismantle it?

According to the American Alliance of Museums, “museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofits researchers, the US government, or academic researchers.” Although it’s not surprising, this statement reveals the unbridled authority that museums have always been granted under the guise of universal values and accessibility. And with this power, their ability to consolidate wealth and reinforce entrenched systems of inequality is paramount. As numerous anonymous museum-callout social media sites proclaim, institutions have been free to enact systemic abuse upon low-paid employees, contractors, and collaborating artistic entities with zero accountability, except for the occasional written critique or protest.

Raicovich’s Culture Strike examines how neutrality, in a variety of institutional guises, manifests itself in the presentation of art, its selection and collecting, the public relations undertaken to shape messaging, where the funds come from to pay for culture, how these systems are governed, and how the operations of museums support systems of power. She also offers contrasting case studies of community-accountable decision making, forward-looking models for board membership, and an argument for why slowing down the pace of museum programming is the ultimate DEAI solution.

After reading this fantastic book, I spoke with Raicovich via Zoom, and the following is an edited version of our conversation.

 

How do we enact a propaganda towards mutual liberation that's separate from capitalism? How do you separate that from heteronormative patriarchy? There are so many questions and yet the enormity of the task can't make us stop trying. 
Laura Raicovich

Cara Ober: How did Culture Strike come about? 

Laura Raicovich: The idea for the book started off as a series of interviews with colleagues and friends and artists and cultural producers and other museum workers, shortly after I left the museum. It was therapeutic in a sense because there was a lot of personal investment that I had, and continue to have, in my work overall, but particularly at the Queens Museum. I wanted to tell the story in a way that was true to that, and reflected what I felt happened, but also expanded to tell other stories, hoping to make it useful in other circumstances. 

There’s so much that was embedded in that particular story that has subsequently played out in important ways across the field. As I explored the myth of neutrality, which was my central notion going in the interviews, it became overwhelmingly clear that for this myth to be debunked, for any kind of DEAI work to actually take place, there had to be a reckoning with those notions. That was where I began and I realized I had a great deal to say about it, but also that I really needed to do some digging into the history of the evolution of the museum.

For me, your historical analysis, especially connecting American modernism to the Renaissance and even earlier European pinnacles of Western art, was an ah-ha moment, thinking about the way beautiful objects have always been used to assert dominance.

When you think about the early major commissioners of art in Europe being the church and royalty, there’s this indelible connection between the consolidation of wealth and power and the commissioning of art toward that end. Art has always been useful towards that, in terms of education and storytelling, especially the ways in which Medieval and Renaissance churches were conceived as storytelling devices for a population that couldn’t read, or couldn’t read Latin.

This is what makes this discussion so difficult, though. Who doesn’t love beautiful objects? Especially objects that are complex and tell stories and inspire us. So on one hand, I’m very glad the powerful invested in art so that we have this legacy, but you also have to consider all the art and artists left out of art history and also where it’s brought us into this present moment.

I think it speaks to the power that art has, and the people who were seeking to consolidate power understood that in a way that was really profound. The makers were extraordinary and the storytelling that happens in so much of that work brings meaning into our contemporary life. What gives me hope is that art is part of the cure for the many misalignments and problems and challenges that we face in contemporary society. This is also why I wrote the book, because the model of the museum or the cultural space so closely mirrors the vast inequities in society, so it offers a mini version. If we find ways of transforming with that larger vision, museums could actually provide us clues as to how to work on a bigger scale, and that’s the potential usefulness of the book and my experiences. 

So your book is both prescriptive and personal.

Yes. I also just wanted to say certain things out loud that I know that a lot of folks are thinking about, and some of the issues that I write about in the book are things that people have been doing for years. It’s not groundbreaking, but I think there is something to be said for the building of realities and that we collectively need to build those from a common set of materials. That’s why I love this idea that Jonas Staal puts forward in his book about propaganda art, because propaganda has a bad name because it’s always been affiliated with consolidating power. But what if the propaganda is designed to engender liberatory thought and practices?

I believe that artists are the ones who have the power to do this through the ability to create compelling objects that contain the stories we need to understand. Artists can certainly “own” propaganda and shape collective thought.

How do we enact a propaganda towards mutual liberation that’s separate from capitalism? How do you separate that from heteronormative patriarchy? There are so many questions and yet the enormity of the task can’t make us stop trying. 

Even in this moment where I feel like the precarity of the world—financially, economically, and from a climate perspective, it’s the most intense that it’s been in my lifetime—I also see it as a moment of real opportunity, eighteen months into a global pandemic. Even just to see how challenging, but also how flexible we all are, how resilient . . . It’s really horrible what everyone has lived through, especially those for whom it’s been particularly a trying period, or who’ve lost their lives, or have lost family and friends, nevermind the devastation to many people’s economic lives . . . and yet this vast tragedy perhaps has also made a space to reimagine.

I think that the timing of this book is perfect for this kind of thinking. I was reading it last week, but also couldn’t stop texting it to all my friends who are museum professionals. I think a book club is in order to have discussions with people who are living this reality, and it seems like artists and culture producers and museum professionals, especially museum directors, are your target audience.

I hope it’s useful to all of you, and what you’re talking about is actually the intention of the book. I mean, I did write it for a more general audience than just art world insiders. I tried to write a book that folks who aren’t located anywhere near the art world would find interesting. I really hate artspeak and I try to keep myself from using it.

So many cultural decisions are still based upon that kind of professional language, along with the assumption of neutrality. Really, everything is based upon that assumption.

Even the definition of expertise . . . What I love about what you’re saying, about your kind of book club, is the point of the book: I don’t have the answers. The book says very explicitly that if we don’t do this collectively, we fail, and we’ve been failing because we have been following this very hyper-capitalist, individualistic, patriarchal model of the exceptional genius that delivers the new thing and the authority, and that is clearly not working for us.

I mean, it’s working for a few people.

For a few people, but it is not working for us collectively as humanity. I really mean it when I say we’ve got to figure this out together and on multiple levels. One of the things that I found most striking in the research, and thinking about Warren Kanders and the blow-up at the Whitney over Safariland and its production of tear gas, was that there were all of these efforts on many multiple levels, on scales that were internal and external to the museum. Some of them we don’t even know about. And who knows what the trustees were talking about? We don’t know. 

What’s interesting about it is that some of those initiatives were coordinated, but most of them weren’t. There were some overlapping figures, some people who were in Decolonize [Decolonize This Place], some who were on staff, and then the artists who were in the [2019 Whitney] biennial, but also artists who weren’t in the biennial. There were all of these layers and at the end of the day, that’s what made the change. It wasn’t about everybody being super coordinated because we know that’s never going to happen. What we do know is that it was organic.

Momentum was coming from all directions.

I think that, in a similar way, the so-called solutions or the experiments that we need to undertake are going to come from all different angles and be made manifest in highly diverse ways. That is the best way for it to happen because there aren’t specific things that the Met should be doing that are going to be exactly the same at a small cultural community organization that has one tiny half of a percent of the budget. 

However, it is about the way that these organizations interact with those who they see as their audiences. How they define those is different, and I’m not interested in flattening the diversity of different cultural spaces. However, it is about how we develop the principles through which equity provides counter-narratives to the dominant one(s). How do we actually enact this? Some of the bias is embedded in our storytelling, not only in the museum, so it has to be a simultaneous structural change across culture.

In Baltimore, we have a number of museums and cultural institutions of varying scale and they all say they want to enact a progressive mission, but how do you do this? They all still employ an embedded top-down approach and are in competition with each other for funds, so it’s challenging.

I am not sure, but the whiteness of museum spaces is overwhelming. And that has to shift, and how quickly or how radically depends on how the institution functions. There’s a lot of kneejerk tokenism that’s happening and it’s problematic.

It’s insulting to everybody because it’s so obvious.

From a hiring perspective, there are folks who get hired but aren’t provided with the support systems needed to make it work, because the change hasn’t actually happened internally. The systems of power are still white. How do you fix that? This is where one of the biggest recommendations of my book comes in and that is to radically slow down. We’re producing too much programming. It’s just too much. There’s never any time. It’s not like museum workers don’t know that this is an issue. It’s not like they didn’t know ten years ago. It’s just this treadmill of production that is this kind of late capitalist, grow or die, corporate mentality, like more is more, more, more. But less is actually more. And maybe then this other cultural work can happen in a profound way.

It’s a frenetic hamster wheel of activity and even the most devout art consumer cannot keep up with all of it.

I think that some art can be fast, but most art, in my opinion, is worth spending time with and will give much more when you spend time with it. There are all these studies that tell you how much time people spend in front of an art object in a museum, and it’s ridiculously low.

One of the major things that I bumped up against at the Queens Museum that was really interesting to me and I would’ve loved to have had a chance to work on more deeply before I left was taking a new tack on museum interpretation and what that means and looks like.  

There is so much linguistic diversity in Queens that we had this problem of translation and considering what it means to translate curatorial texts and to have the website available in multiple languages. On one hand, any translation you can do at all is helpful, because if a person’s first language is not the dominant language that’s on the wall text, it’s going to be really hard to have that entry point. 

It does seem that art language in particular is designed to be exclusive for a reason, so it has to be approached from multiple perspectives but especially considering class and country of origin.

One of the things that I began to think about was not only that translation of the curatorial text, but also how to provide texts and alternate registers, whatever language they’re in. Even if you write curatorial text in a straightforward language without that International Art English kind of vibe, it’s still going to exist in that register because it has to participate in a discourse. But there are other ways that we can understand the meaning that art produces that falls outside of that discourse . . . So for example, at the Queens Museum, we had the Queens Teens program. Most of them did not speak English as their first language, so I wondered what would happen if they recorded responses to their favorite works in the exhibition and made it easy for visiting folks to listen to them.

I think bringing younger and more diverse voices into the cultural conversation should be prioritized by museums, and also making people feel welcome and comfortable in cultural spaces through intentional hospitality practices. This should be essential in keeping museums relevant in the future because so many people do not feel comfortable in museums and this is not the visitor’s fault that they are intentionally intimidating.

When I was a first-year in college, I had a professor suggest that I apply for this internship at the Cloisters. I was a kid who grew up in a solidly middle-class home on Long Island, and my parents liked art. At least once or twice a year, we went up to the Cloisters or spent a day at the Met, so it wasn’t an alien space for me, but I had no idea until I started interning at the Cloisters that there were all these different jobs, that you could work in finance or conservation, that there are all these moving parts. I think that reality is not very clear to people in part because there’s a certain magic to the museum. It’s this incredible treasure trove, but at the same time, super intimidating and alienating in a way that can be useful for the drama of storytelling.

It’s certainly a superpower. It can be spiritual and mysterious and archetypal, and people love the feeling that they’re part of something larger. I think that can be useful, and people really want this sense of connection and ownership. The case studies presented in Culture Strike do a great job of unpacking that in different ways, especially considering what is a cultural space and who owns that. Also in determining who is comfortable in cultural space and whose culture is reflected? I just don’t want to be sold something, especially this one person’s exquisite taste, a person who happens to be a rich white guy . . . I feel that taste is subjective and limiting.

Taste is fraught too, in terms of what visitors like, but it all goes back to the founding of museums in the United States. Most museum collections began with an individual or a couple of individuals who were mostly white men of a certain class, race, economic situation, and educational background, who collected stuff that they personally liked, and the collections either got too big for them to deal with, or they died and their kids didn’t care about it, and so they became public collections that were then studied and, over time, viewed as definitive historic cultural achievements.

I don’t want to bash this, because they could have just sold all of that stuff and none of us would have access to it. I want to appreciate their act of generosity but also recognize it as an act of ego and dominance and privilege. 

A museum reifies that person’s taste, but it’s so arbitrary. What if the collector had never encountered something that they would have really loved? And, honestly, who cares if they loved it or not? Maybe it’s still great. And, all the stuff they ignored or the things that they just didn’t like, those objects have an important story to tell as well. 

Right now it is important to understand how we undo the universalism that has been associated with museums, to acknowledge that museums are built upon highly personal, biased, idiosyncratic collections. They’re not universal. There is no universal entry point, even looking at how much certain collectors were able to accrue, and to build more equitable spaces and archives.

Museums need money, though, and if not from wealthy donors, it needs to come from public sources, which have been cut drastically since the 1980s. Or museums need to cultivate networks of small donations to achieve more community buy-in, reciprocity, and feedback, and this is an incredibly labor-intensive undertaking. 

Without a federal, cabinet-level agency devoted to culture like every other country on the planet except the United States and without an actual funding body, not without tax allocations; the National Endowment for the Arts is so under-funded and embattled that it has become marginal. Museums and cultural spaces are essential infrastructure, as Rebecca Solnit has said; there are more people employed by museums and cultural institutions than there are in the coal industry. 

Every few years, in this country we have national conversations about coal miners, but nobody’s talking about art workers in election years, and that’s actually a much bigger population. I mean, there’s obviously a whole other set of politics in there, but nonetheless, there is a national conversation to be had about what culture is, what people desire from culture, what that means for institutions, and how it could become politically viable to actually include cultural infrastructure in a transportation bill or big infrastructure bill. It would take one speck of 1% to radically shift the balance and for the public taxpayers to feel as though they are invested in what happens in those cultural spaces. My argument in the book that you need a diversification of sources of funds is really important because of the influence that, whether you intend to or not, it just happens. It’s human nature.

In thinking about the bigger picture of museums and cultural institutions, what is the most important takeaway for you, now that you have written this book? 

Radically slowing down. I think that you have brilliant people working inside institutions and you have to hear them and there’s no way to make the space to hear them without slowing down because everybody’s got too much on their plate. I’m not just talking about the curatorial staff, it’s everybody on your staff. The very first step, even before DEI workshops and anti-racism workshops and other things that I think are really important and necessary, because if you’re not radically slowing down and making a space for that work to happen, it’s just not going to happen. It will never rise to the top of the pile if your pile is that big. And I recognize that it’s enormously difficult.

I believe that funders have to step in to fund that slowing down because part of the reason that everybody’s on this crazy hamster wheel is because they feel like they need to do more, to get more funders in the door. Believe me, I have been there and it’s incredibly difficult to do because you feel like every time you talk to somebody in the press, they’re like, what are you doing? What’s up next? And it’s an expected busy-ness, you don’t want to look like you’re not ambitious. And funders don’t want to support you if you’re not being ambitious enough and they want to feel excited [about] the next new thing. 

This makes so much sense to me, especially in the wake of everything we have experienced globally and personally over the last year and a half. We generate so much data and information, but I wonder if we’re moving too fast to understand and implement the data.

The question we’re talking about is how to actually reframe the data to make it meaningful to folks. And then, how to create a timeline based on that, connecting to other cultural plans and creating spaces where folks can continue to have these kinds of conversations and see what floats to the top. 

I think the work you’re doing is so necessary and that museums would really benefit from your presence and action.

It’s a difficult job and I love museums, so at some point I would like to try that again but with leadership partners. What if museums had a co- or triad directorship, so we’re not all just crushed by the pressure of being a museum director, where we can all bring our skills to the table and hold each other accountable in ways that are really different from the way it functions now? This would be my dream, because the position is really unsustainable as it is. 

 

 

For more information about the book club event around this book, email us at info@bmoreart.com and you can purchase locally via Greedy Greeds.

 

Header Image: Book Cover of Culture Strike, Verso Books, portraits of the author by Michael Angelo, with book images by Cara Ober

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