Right to Breath as Shibboleth: How the uneven distribution of the right to breathe has revealed hollowness of museums’ egalitarian rhetoric
How to Take Down a Monument, (2020). A poster by Decolonize this Place. Instructions by Sarah Parcak as @indyfromspace on Twitter
Part i: "What I say now may not be true tomorrow"1
I picture us like a PacMan macroverse. 7.8 billion Inkies, Blinkies, Pinkies and Clydes swarming, munching dots, dodging boogie-ghouls until a glitch freezes our hubbub at random. Liminal transitions suddenly feel like forever positions.
But in reality, that's a view of privileged malaise. With two 00's like nostrils through which to inhale and exhale, 2020 is the year of reckoning the relative right to breath as a shibboleth dividing the global populous into two classes. The 'essentials' who bare the heaviest risk of infection and are disproportionately low-paid people of color, and the 'non-essentials' who are asked to stay shut-in based on the hope that one day a tomorrow will arrive when we can step out to a so-called "new" normal. Meanwhile collective, but highly uneven, sacrifices of financial health are being made for our bodily health and for that of our neighbors. It would be remiss to not acknowledge that 'crisis' is 'profit opportunity' by another name, so some will leverage this unprecedented health crisis into unprecedented windfalls. These will be the noblesse collectors and patrons of art after-covid. Museum and gallery directors know this. But for now, they must trim costs, bring their organizations to a social-media-active version of business hibernation, and wait.
In February 2020, I was commissioned to write a text framed around this question: "Are we at a tipping point of institutional change?" As originally conceived, this prompt implied reference to board reform; questions around moral imperatives in evaluating the source of donated funds; progressively more neoliberal managerial philosophies; and the way in which institutions absolve reputations and consolidate value of works in private collections.
As the third month of lockdown comes to a close, the sense is taking hold that this pathogenetic asphyxiator is more an accelerator than a game-changer. Situated in the winner-take-all modus operandi of the 21st century and the art industry, it has poured suddenly cheap gasoline on fires that were already burning all around. While questions that this essay was commissioned around still hold, the stakes of the context in which they are situated have become nearly unfathomably higher as the twin specters of death and destitution have settled in as perpetual companions.
Roughly on the reopening-side of the crest off the pandemic's first peak, the question around institutional change darkens into something more abstract because 'institutional change' as conceptual construct as much as practice quickly becomes porous. Are institutions public museums? universities? galleries? the generalized art industry? capitalism itself? The virus has shown a light on how interconnected and vulnerable our globalized systems are and the art world is no exception. We can't think of museums, universities, or galleries as isolated structures because their survival depends on public policy, private wealth, public health, and the art industry as a system. However, the fact remains that public museums' role as arbiters of historicization of culture makes them a keystone species and de-facto leaders in the balance of private, academic, and political interests. With reports that an estimated 30% of US museums will not survive the virus-induced recession2 and that galleries are losing on average 72% of revenue,3 it is clear that a substantial outcome of the pandemic's toll will be a culling of the organizational and human bodies that will be left to reconsider the shape of art and culture and their role in post-pandemic society.
We are living in accelerated times. The rapidly evolving landscape of information and the uneven response of nations and municipalities to the Coronavirus pandemic continues to shift the sands under our feet. The slippages that seem to define our day-to-day are the natural cumulative effect of millions of uncoordinated responses to local public health realities. Maddeningly their continuing evolution individually and together renders many of the nuances of our new reality frustratingly evasive.
As Black Lives Matter protests mobilize mass assemblies across the globe, they make clear that we are overdue for institutional overhauls. In hundreds of cities around the world the message is clear: fear of viral suffocation does not outweigh fear of social suffocation that takes among its expressions wage theft, lack of access to health care, education, nutrition, militarized policing, and affordable housing. As community leaders, general populace, and even corporate brands express solidarity and publicly pledge to adhere to plans of action, cultural institutions have set themselves apart with relative silence and unwillingness to hold themselves accountable. It has not gone unnoticed.
The volume of the perpetual state of emergency seems to keep getting louder. From botched bail-out implementations, to clumsy nationalistic healthcare strategies, and blatantly opportunistic political maneuvering, the bellwethers of the post-outbreak life that are beginning to emerge are signaling that much collective suffering will likely go unrewarded. While post-pandemic life will certainly be superficially different—no large gatherings, more masks, minimal travel, contactless greetings—it is fair to suspect we will be disappointed to find that our economic and social structures will remain grounded in the same short-term profit driven value system of pre-outbreak days. Worse, investment time horizons could contract further, facilitated by fin-tech and fueled by capital's need to extract value and grow at any cost. Arundhati Roy says that covid is a portal.4 Banks, politicians and economists say that covid is a war. My sense is increasingly that covid is a mirror.
Part ii: Museum without bodies
Frieze New York 2020 opened to the quarantined public in May. While the freedom to rub IP addresses with the actual customers from the comfort of sweat pants, admittedly represented a certain improvement on the fair-going experience, the relative convenience of online viewing mixed with a persistent fear of sharing public space, and fatigue of both, made one wonder if the digital intermediary's social deficiencies will lead us back to IRL mass public viewings.5
Online fairs like Frieze and Art Basel serve as bellwethers for the future of museums post-covid on more than a few levels. While they evidence that online platforms don't make up for the social buzz of in person viewing, they also emphasize that there are two publics who are prioritized differently: the VIP collectors who often sit on museum boards and everyone else who does not. Whether or not either of these publics will feel comfortable returning to sharing public space, we can be certain that when museums reopen they will do so with reduced general admission access and that the risk of infection will be unevenly distributed both among staff, leadership, public, and VIPs. So, while the pandemic is already drawing New Deal comparisons as we scratch our heads and wonder about what art can offer in a public health emergency, it's hard to avoid the evidence that cultural institutions have always structurally replicated the societal ills that their egalitarian missions allege to eschew.
I keep thinking back to a line from the Whitney Museum staff's 2018 letter regarding the museum's relationship with the Safariland Industries,6 "Leadership choosing not to give a public (or even internal) statement displaces the labor to our visitor-facing staff, who are, generally speaking, our most diverse and lowest paid staff". In acknowledging the divide between museum staff and leadership, the authors of this letter allude to the multiple expressions of the gulf that separates leadership and "visitor-facing staff". Post-covid, this gulf is not just expressed by compensation packages and lack of staff representation on boards. As museums like the Dia lobby to open, arguing that they will implement social distancing measures to keep from becoming what New York Governor Cuomo calls an "attractive nuisance",7 it also alludes to the disproportionate distribution of risk of infection and death that visitor facing staff will have to face when the museum reopens. In culture, not unlike meatpacking, this risk is disproportionately assumed by those whose ability to weather emergencies has been systematically eroded through marginalization and exploitative labor practices.
"[The museum] cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role. Yet, I contend that the Whitney has a critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognized" said Whitney Director Adam D. Weinberg in his response to the open letter. While appearing to balance staff concerns and trustee pressure in the court of public opinion, his justification ultimately hinges on arguing for the museum as ipso facto exempt from ethical questioning. The museum's staff and public are meant to understand that the trade-off for access to art is turning a blind eye to the unsavory means by which the donated wealth that keeps the lights on is accumulated. Pre-covid this was a problematic line of thinking that justified and sustained 'race to the bottom' labor practices in passion fields like culture and academia. Now that the virus both raises the stakes and highlights the ways in which cultural institutions replicate the exploitative labor trends of other industries it becomes all the more difficult to continue to hold them in a state of exemption based on faith in their exceptionalism.
Through furloughs and layoffs, shuttered museums around the world have sent staff to be counted among the newly unemployed. While mandatory lockdowns orders may be temporary, we have to imagine that museums will never receive crushing throngs of summer tourists again, begging the question, does restricted or mediated visitorship affect the ontology of museums? While in the before, these institutions disproportionately benefited the wealthy by allowing them to benefit from the value accumulation of work in their own collections. With the virus's rendering of bodies and public spaces, threatening should force a reexamination of what a museum is, what a museum does, and for who. At the center of this process of questioning is a need to consider systems of institutional patronage.
As an expression of excess wealth, arts patronage flourishes under conditions of inequality that we now live and understand as threats to democracy. From the Medicis to the Fulds,8 "high-art" has always been complicit in a patriarchal system by which titles of 'artistic genius' and 'philanthropist' are conferred through a mutually-beneficial system of what is in effect the sale of reputational indulgences. Though donations in philanthropic parlance are referred to as 'gifts', their transactional nature reveals that they are anything but.
Andrea Fraser's 2018 book, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics asserts that over the last forty years, the United States has undergone an evolution from democracy, government by voter-elected representation to a plutocracy, government by the wealthy. The combination of income inequality and deregulation of campaign finance contributions "creates a vicious cycle of economic and political inequality, as some of the wealthiest citizens use their ballooning resources to promote legislation that protects their wealth and the profitability of their businesses".9 Arts institutions benefit from this selective enrichment. With state and NEA cultural funding covering less and less of increasing administrative, facilities, and acquisition costs museums are increasingly dependent on individual benefactors. Yet, Fraser's research reveals that these benefactors simultaneously support right-wing politicians who advance agendas in direct opposition to the mission of the museums on whose boards they sit.
This donation-based cognitive dissonance makes sense when taken as opposite sides of the same coin. Cuts or elimination of art funding due to austerity budgets and the politicization of the arts from culture wars indirectly support patrons who are looking to be applauded as generous benefactors for publicly aligning themselves—and their companies—with "progressive" ideals. Fraser asks, "Do private, nonprofit arts organizations funded and governed by wealthy patrons serve to legitimize government by and for the wealthiest members of society?" The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Jenny Holtzer's truism "Abuse of power comes as no surprise" is so obvious it now registers a bit threadbare but some demonstrations of wealth so callously flaunt their socially-destructive origins that they become untenable outliers in an already untenable system. From 2014 – 2017 average life expectancy in the United States dropped as a result of the scale of death stemming from opioid use. By knowingly misleading doctors and pharmacists in the aggressive promotion of the pain medication as safe since hitting market in 1996, the Sackler family profited handsomely from Oxycontin, the drug which is widely accepted to have sparked an international opioid epidemic10 and resulted in 70,000 deaths in the US in 2018 alone. As the fervor around the Sackler's responsibility in the public health crisis grew, it shone a fresh light on institutional complicacy in these deaths by accepting donations and thereby reputationally absolving the family name.11 Concerted PR efforts by activists like photographer Nan Goldin and her organization PAIN12 (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) staged "die ins" at The Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the V&A, and Harvard University's art museums13 among others kept up the pressure eventually causing a number of museums to cut ties with the Sacklers.
While the pound of flesh extracted by removing one family's name may feel cathartic, it ignores the quandary of survival that demands museums' institutionalized complicity in a system that has been tilted so far in the favor of a level of wealth that is simply impossible to accumulate by playing fair. A system structured so that it requires museums to survive on donations of wealth accumulated through subjugating people to death, war, and extreme poverty is one of necro-patronage. Arts institutions and universities do not wield sovereignty and have no army. However, through consolidation of the value of artworks in private collections which act as currency in an essentially unregulated market, by absolving reputations of unsavory types from white collar criminals,14 to weapons producers, opioid peddlers, sex offenders,15 and the banks that bank them all, by requiring impossibly expensive degrees for minimally paid jobs, and giving public subsidy via tax breaks to the board members who keep politicians in office that support right wing agendas like mass incarceration and inhuman detention of migrants, cultural institutions do grease the wheels of a politic that today holds death and despair over the population. In shuttering all but 10%16 of the world's museums and forcing a reckoning with what Achille Mbembe calls "one's own putrescence"17, Covid-19 seems to have asked questions about museums' potential for systemic change that now the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing answers to. It's cold comfort that the truths being revealed are disappointing and enraging.
Part iii: Not a loan,18 together
In January of 2020, the Tate needed a new head of coffee.
The vacancy posted on the museum's job board attracted unwanted attention when it was pointed out in numerous media outlets that the salary for the position would make more than the average London-based curator, including the majority on its own staff.19 In the public discussion it was further pointed out that as a senior hospitality position, the museum's head of coffee job offered a below-market salary for similar positions outside the artworld bubble. The row served as yet another, albeit symbolic, reminder of the insultingly low remuneration of labor in the sector considered a "nice-to-have" and in the peripheral industries that are connected to it.
This dislocation between unsustainable wages and the cost of higher education that is required for cultural sector jobs was at a crisis point pre-covid,20 but with virus-induced mass layoffs sending economies into free-fall, the pandemic is laying bare the fallacies of fundamental economic assumptions like "student debt is a good career investment" or "exposure translates to future opportunity". Museums, universities, auction houses, galleries, and arts publications are complicit in exploitative employment practices while requiring ever-increasing professionalization from graduate and post-graduate programs. Effectively this translates to workers being twice devalued, as reduced salaries first must pay the loans of the education to get the job in the first place.
With the shadow of austerity measures taken from the 2008 crisis still weighing heavily on cut-back cultural budgets and a sector-wide resistance to the idea of labor unions and collective bargaining still seen as too blue collar to apply to white collar work , it seems it took artists and curators with practices grounded in institutional critique to organize and empower workers in the sector. As critic Ben Davis has pointed out, the current wave of protests bringing attention to museums exploitative labor practices was in many ways initiated by the criticism of treatment of Southeast Asian guest laborers working on the construction of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Seminal institutional critique artist Hans Haacke is part of this coalition, so "You can draw a line from one Guggenheim confrontation to another, from 1971 to 2011, with Haacke as a generative connector between the earlier radicalism and today."21
The quantity of artist and curator-run initiatives operating in a similar vein suggest this is more than a trend. Among them, perhaps the highest profile are Working Artists in the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) which provides a tiered payment calculator22 and certification23 to institutions implementing fair pay-scales was started by a roster of artists and curators, including Andrea Fraiser, A.L. Steiner, A.K. Burns and Brian Kwan Wood; The Art + Museum Transparency Collective24 which assembled an anonymous google spreadsheet25 allowing arts administrators throughout the USA to compare their salaries and benefits was started by a group of arts professionals led by curator Mischelle Millar Fisher who is also currently involved in unionizing efforts at the Philadelphia Museum; and the Debtors Collective/Rolling Jubilee26, led by artist, writer and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, use the motto "you are not a loan" to rehumanize the beings that have been financially preyed upon, primarily through student loans, and absolve them of debtor's shame through sharing their experiences. Part group therapy, part union, their work is inspired by a quote often attributed to none other than collector and museum patron J. Paul Getty, "If you owe your banker $100 that's your problem; if you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem."
This spirit of sharing information, collective action, and organization through communication has found its way back to the inner-workings of museums in the form of a wave of unionizing efforts at the Frye Museum, the Guggenheim, the New Museum, the Marchiano Collection, and MoCA LA to name just a few. While some efforts have been more successful than others, the seal of white-collar exceptionalism now broken, museum employee unions struggling to be born are able to benefit from communication and coaching by other museum union leaders around the country, further encouraging a snowball effect. Since these collective actions are not aestheticized, it's clear which side of the art or activism divide they fall on. But, is it possible that an outcome of the virus shuttering the majority of museums and commercial galleries is a neutering of the aesthetic experience and thereby reframing what art can or should be?
In the first weeks of the covid shutdown there was a flurry of articles and emails announcing the launches of digital exhibitions, online showrooms and web platforms. Some of these on the commercial side, like David Zwirner's platform or the LA based collective Galleries Platform LA, express a certain gesture towards solidarity. The hope is that mega-galleries can give visibility to works available at mid-tier galleries for their collectors. But as a writer and a human today, it's hard to work up enthusiasm for websites of museum salons or of things for sale flattened for mediated viewing while we are constantly and painfully reminded of systemic injustices and the way the cultural sector caters to and upholds them. The cleft of this new 'BC' and 'AC' era is such that these objects do not feel of our time or rooted in reality, or perhaps it's that the reality of inequality and the mounting evidence of communal downward mobility they allude to is just too displeasurable.
Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has said that he thinks that the impulse to collect and archive comes from a belief that there will be a future.27 Today, it's a struggle to interpret that as other than palliative messaging to keep collectors collecting. For the majority of people, the pandemic has shifted a conceptualization of 'future' into something more akin to trying to maintain a precarious present. Artistic and social movements don't just adapt to challenging situations, they are part of them. So it stands to reason that this cleaving of class-based relationship to time would likewise cause a split in cultural production—for the wealthy who have the financial security from which to envision a future and for those who must work to cling to the now.
If art is both burn and balm, so far, the most resonant works for today's futureless are of the second ilk. Collectives like Decolonize this Place, Notara 26, the Precarious Labor Brigade, Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, Forensic Architecture, W.A.G.E., the Debtor's Collective, and Black Lives Matter demonstrate their emancipatory power through invoking new realities by facilitating collective action. In demonstrations, text-based art, and via research that builds pointed institutional critique we've seen these collectives effectively problematize the politics of cultural institutions, sometimes, as in the case of Forensic Architecture's 2019 Whitney Biennial piece, even from the museum's walls.
This work being done by these collectives is important with wide-reaching and long-lasting potential, offering a reading of it as art is not intended to minimize or otherwise relegate them to an isolated, navel-gazing, sycophantic field. To the contrary, it's to express a longing for the art industry, its politics, and its institutions to be changed for the better through the effects of collective work.
While it's a cruel coincidence that George Floyd's final words at the hands of police, "I can't breathe", rallied a world paralyzed for four months with fear of a virus that suffocates its victims, the illness that his words found resonance with is a four hundred year pandemic of violent, traumatic lived experience. Whether from police brutality, from fear thereof, grief at the loss of those taken, or the stress of sustained financial precarity, the inability to breathe is rotten fruit from the same poison tree that museums and the cultural sector in general unquestionably tend. As museums struggle or refuse to heed the call to reform, there is an overwhelming sense that the belief in the emancipatory power of objects is ill placed; that art is poorly-equipped to tackle the pressing issues of our day; and that as descendants of the colonial impulse to amass knowledge through collecting, museums are fundamentally at odds with the egalitarian and inclusive values that they espouse. As petitions for exemption based on exceptionalism wear thin, so too does the appetite for objects that circulate to sustain the status quo.
To be sure there will always be a cultural industry that acts as a courtier for the wealthy, but we've also now seen global affirmation of the hunger for a culture—and a cultural system—that doesn't sustain or patronize necro-political agendas. As we now wait for the guaranteed surge in infections and deaths as cities re-open, we are reminded that the fog of tremendous global uncertainty caused by pandemic is far from cleared. There isn't going to be a SARS-Cov-2-liberation day and the changes in our social fabric invoked by the virus are just as much an opportunity for retrenchment of the status quo as they are an opportunity to invoke change.
About the author
Kim Córdova is an artist, writer, and independent curator working between México City and Los Angeles. She is a 2020 Xhi-Zing Eisenhower Fellow and the Mexico City Contributing Editor at Momus.