Q: What are art museums for?
A: Museums serve the public through the preservation of art as emblematic of the belief that there are things from the past that are worth saving for the future. Engaged with that act of saving, there is supposed to be a research arm dedicated to knowledge production.
Ideally, museums should ask: What kind of knowledge do art objects have? How is knowledge activated by an encounter with that object? What kinds of knowledge are needed in any given moment? These questions open onto all kinds of ideas, feelings, politics and histories. If museums don’t have those conversations, then they don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Q: Museums are often promoted as secular cathedrals, places of enlightened cosmopolitanism and even progressive values. Now, they're being described by many as bastions of white supremacy. What has happened?
A: The museum is a fundamentally 18th-century institution that finds itself stumbling as it enters the 21st century. In this regard, it’s much like the library, the university, the newspaper — Enlightenment institutions that have all faced a reckoning. The museum as a structure of knowledge production is embedded in its colonialist past. What do you do about objects held in the public trust that have come as a result of looting? What do you do with objects that uphold the taste of a trustee class rather than the public’s? What do you do with institutions that are supposed to be knowledge generators but have succumbed to the language and metrics of entertainment: blockbusters, gate, populism?
Museums were not designed to hold those modalities. These forces converged at a time that has also produced enormous wealth disparity. The for-profit logic of the corporate world entered the not-for-profit space of museum boardrooms. This huge culture change happened over the past 30 years, meaning the power dynamic of museum staffing mirrors the wealth disparity you find in corporate culture in America at large. And we know historically that moments of great income disparity produce great cultural, social and political strife.
Q: Museums seem to want to change. How can they go beyond paying lip service to enact substantive change?
A: Some museums that tried to diversify their collections made great headway. That work is epically ongoing. There was an attempt, on the part of some institutions, to understand that the staff had to be diversified as well. But while there was a push toward diversification, there wasn’t a push toward diversification across all strata of the hierarchy.
To put it very stupidly, White leadership thought that if you diversify the table, then you could leave the table and the power structure in place. There are ideas that come out of feminism’s querying of power — particularly Black feminism — that were like . . . We need a new table.
Q: You trained in Baltimore. What did you think of the recent attempt by Chris Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, to sell — or "deaccession" — three works from the collection to raise $65 million to set up a long-term fund that would pay for increased staff salaries and diversity initiatives?
A: Deaccessioning has always been charged. Funds from deaccessioning are only supposed to be used for the acquisition of art. But if you have constant accumulation, you end up with a collection that is largely unshowable and loses focus. So you deaccession thoughtfully.
Recently, the Association of Art Museum Directors changed the rules and said that in this very trying time, it would give folks a two-year window for emergency need: If you have things from the collection that follow the previous criteria for deaccessioning — redundancy, lack of quality or it’s never being shown — then those things could be deaccessioned and that money could go for general operating costs.
The problem with the Baltimore situation is firstly, the museum is not in a situation of financial crisis, and secondly, the objects chosen did not fall within the previously understood set of terms that justify deaccessioning. For instance, if you have four Clyfford Stills, you could think about deaccessioning one. But if you have only one Clyfford Still, and he painted it specifically for your museum, you are breaking a trust with the artist and your public.
Marcel Duchamp once said you shouldn’t say anything about a work of art until it is at least 50 years old, because what could you possibly know about it? It’s way too soon to deaccession any of those three objects. We don’t know yet the fullness of the story we will tell about 20th-century art. Do we need the gay Andy Warhol’s “Last Supper,” made at the beginning of the culture wars, when America was having a vicious fight about how its educational and cultural institutions were becoming increasingly secular? You might need that painting to tell that story one day. And to say that you have enough abstract expressionism so you don’t need your one Clyfford Still, to me, is just an abdication of complex and intelligent art history.
But my biggest problem with the move is that I don’t believe in this either/or scenario: that you can either have this collection of masterworks or you can have a well-paid staff and a diverse collection. If you want staff diversity, equity and better wages, then the trustees sitting around the table have to get on board with that. I appreciate that there might not be $55 million sitting around the BMA trustee table right now. But that money exists and things can always be re-budgeted. Budgets reflect ethics — so redo your budget.
Q: Did the suspension of the BMA sale at the end of October stop a situation that could have gotten out of hand?
A: It put a significant speed bump in the road. The directors on the board of AAMD understood that if this went through, they were going to have trustees saying, “Why are you coming to me for $15 million? I don’t understand why we don’t sell the Rothko.” They understood that this was a straight-up monetizing of the collection and if the BMA got away with it, they would all be in untenable positions.
Q: BMA Director Chris Bedford has said that the museum doesn't exist to serve the objects, it exists to serve the community. What do you think?
A: Historically, museums have done a much better job of protecting objects than creating nurturing, loving, healthy places to work. However, redressing that imbalance should not come at the expense of the core mission of museums, which is to acquire objects for the sake of posterity.
When we care for objects, we’re not just caring for the objects. If we’re doing our job well, we’re caring for the person who made that object; we’re caring for the people who look at that object; we’re caring for the ideas contained within that object. In 20 years of acquiring objects for museums, one of the things I would always say is, “This isn’t for us now. This is for someone 100 years from now, that they might understand who we were.”
Q: In what ways has the larger political situation fed into the present crisis in art museums?
A: It’s deeply catalytic. Prior to the election of Donald Trump, most people who worked in museums were able to labor under the fantasy that their workplace was liberal and that all of the people in it, across board and staff, were, for the most part, politically and ethically aligned. The Trump election pulled the curtain back on that. Many people now know how many folks in these institutions are not liberal and not politically and ethically aligned. This division was absolutely already in place, but the Trump election meant that it could no longer be politely negotiated.
Q: How do museums need to change?
A: Twenty years ago, museums were worried that the audience for art was too old. They did a lot of things to encourage younger audiences. Many museums were successful, and their audience composition shifted in age. The demographics of the country changed a great deal in those 20 years, in so-called racial profile. Museums thought it would be a simple matter of “Let’s get younger people, let’s get more diverse people in the audience, and then we can keep on going.” I don’t think anybody really understood the degree to which younger and more diverse audiences would want different things. Everybody thought they needed a younger audience “just because.” No one ever imagined that in 10 or 15 years, if one was successful in doing that, that new audiences might have new desires.
Q: Is it a problem if some of those new desires push museums away from their core mission?
A: You hope for a few things. You hope never for the tyranny of the majority or the minority. You hope that changing cultural values and mores also holds within it some kind of through-line or continuity of expertise. That way, you can have really robust conversations about what is worth saving and why.
I’m not a huge fan of spectacle. On the other hand, having organized a show [“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry”] that was considered to be a blockbuster, I can tell you there’s a lot of pleasure in going into your galleries and seeing crowds who are clearly having a wonderful time. There’s also pleasure in going into a gallery and seeing only one person, very quietly, in rapt attention, in front of one thing. We’re human beings. We have the capacity for more complexity than this moment seems to suggest that we have.
Q: Will the virus and the impact on tourism have a longer-term effect on the hunt for ever-greater audience numbers?
A: Prior to the summer’s social uprisings, we were all whispering, “Hey, this slower, calmer thing is kind of interesting.” You felt guilty about thinking it, but it had implications that still need to be thought through. Part of it was realizing that museums had gotten really big, without much thoughtfulness about why things had gotten so big.
I think the Brits say, “When it rains, it’s a good time to polish the silver.” So, this is a good time for museums to dig deep into their working methods and their budget processes, their codes of ethics and engagement, rather than trying to rush to reopen and get back to a normal that was clearly unsustainable.