Laura Raicovich on How to Make Museums “Better for More People”

What would it mean if we started conversations about museums with a better understanding of what people actually want and need from them? What would become possible if we understood audiences as active participants in knowledge production, rather than passive receivers? In her new book Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, Laura Raicovich mulls these questions and many others, making the case for a more responsive model of the museum.

For Raicovich, a curator, writer, and former director of the Queens Museum (as well as a former Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellow for Curators at Hyperallergic), questions about who gets to steward and participate in culture are fundamental. From its very first pages, Culture Strike roots itself in a desire to make museums “better for more people.” By consciously avoiding the faux-progressive framing of museums as already “open to all,” the slim yet incisive volume brilliantly problematizes the pervasive old myth of “neutrality,” employed for decades as a means of masking the very specific set of tastes and values that have organized every aspect of museum governance since their inception. By their very nature, as Raicovich contends, museums have never been neutral.

Ahead of the release of Culture Strike (out now from Verso), Raicovich and I sat down to talk about the need for “undoing and redoing” institutional structures as we understand them, better practices for making amends, and the role museums stand to play in an age of protest.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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The cover of Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, by Laura Raicovich (Verso, 2021; image courtesy the publisher)

Hyperallergic: You cover a tremendous amount of ground in this book, taking an interdisciplinary approach to everything from the history of the modern museum, to the Dana Schutz and Sam Durant controversies, to the ousting of Warren Kanders and growing calls for abolishing the philanthropic model in museums. Could you start by walking me through your process in selecting your case studies? 

Laura Raicovich: I really wanted to use each of the case studies to illustrate certain aspects of the problematics that I see in museums and cultural institutions. I thought the Sackler situation was really specific in its relationship to funding structures and philanthropy around museums, and most importantly, the power of an artist [Nan Goldin] to kind of crack that one open by basically refusing to have an exhibition if funding continued to be taken from the Sackler family. 

I have a really strong interest in this book not being just for the art world. [I want] it to be something that a more general public might be interested in reading. With the Sackler situation — especially because of the public health issues and the sheer number of people who’ve been impacted by the opioid crisis — that one held a lot of really important threads in the conversation.

I also wanted to address representation and how that works within the museum, so the Dana Schutz and Sam Durant examples were important. I chose those two in part to talk about how differently the institutions and the artists responded to critiques and protest, but also the kind of institutional responses that I think are core to the book because, in a sense, we all know that mistakes are going to happen. It’s a question of how we then confront those situations.

While it’s very improbable to me that the Walker didn’t imagine the implications of installing Sam’s work in the sculpture garden of Minneapolis, given that it’s on unceded Dakota land […] once the issues surfaced, I thought there was a kind of openness and an approach to making amends that was really quite important. [There were] genuine apologies that seemed to not ask for forgiveness. I think that learning how to apologize without asking for forgiveness is a really important piece of the puzzle because when you make a mistake, you have to own it. 

Protest signs on the fence near Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (photo by Sheila Regan/Hyperallergic)

H: In the book, you talk at various points about this fear of failure that undergirds the supposed neutrality of museums. There’s this simplistic fear on behalf of largely white and wealthy leaders of saying or doing the wrong thing and offending audiences, which I think is tied to your point about getting past expecting, or even hoping, for forgiveness. 

As a former museum leader and as a white person yourself, how might you recommend moving beyond this position of defensive caution?

LR: I think it takes a certain amount of fortitude. I have been challenged in many different circumstances to confront my own positionality as a cis, straight, white woman who has a certain type of education and a certain class background. That’s something we each have to confront in our own way. One of the things that I’ve found to be extremely important is coming to that space with some sense of humility.

A lot of people are scared right now — a lot of white people, particularly — but those are the people who need to take the greatest risk, and I include myself in that group. The way we do that is to make space radically and to do it with care. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to harm people along the way. We have to recognize that and be willing to be accountable and also to make amends. We have to recognize that the reason that those smaller things are hurtful is because they’re tied to systemic oppression that has evolved over many, many years and manifested itself in this moment.

Laura Raicovich (© Michael Angelo)

H: Absolutely; it’s an issue of which roles we have to play, whether collectively, institutionally, or even individually. I want to talk specifically about how that relates to the “neutrality myth.” You cite Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his point about neutrality being very little more than it means of upholding the status quo. We’re seeing this now with the growing cultural dissent against the Israeli government.

Could you talk a bit about how you think museums can act as accomplices, in spite of this myth that taking a position will somehow compromise public trust, or more practically, their tax-exempt status?

LR: I’ll take the tax-exempt status piece first because I think that there’s a lot of mythology around what is considered political speech by the IRS. If you actually Google and go to the IRS, it’s very enlightening because it turns out that really the only two things that might threaten your 501c3 status are advocating for a particular piece of legislation or a particular candidate. Anything else is up for grabs. 

So once you understand that, [that argument] becomes an excuse, and listen, I’ve been there. I know that you sometimes walk a thin line between biting the proverbial hand that feeds and speaking truth to power in ways that are really essential and important. However, the museum is a reflection of who we are as a culture — the good, the bad, and the ugly. That, in a way, makes it about as interesting and perhaps fruitful a place as any to experiment with how to make change.

This is why I write about the evolution of the museum in the United States. In Europe, the museum comes from the European concept of cultural patrimony, collected by royalty and the church. Whereas in the United States, [museums] start with white, wealthy male colonists who collected stuff they liked and made it public, either in their own generation or subsequently, or donated it to their alma mater. Those collections are very highly specific. They are raced and classed and gendered and all of the things, because they’re literally a collection of what that one person liked. And then that’s studied by generations of people, so the idea of excellence becomes defined by a very narrow demographic and by personal taste. There’s so much that’s just left out of that conversation.

If you acknowledge these foundational flaws, you then have to do your work in the context of them. And I want to be really clear that it’s not just in the galleries; that’s relatively easy to shift. It’s who’s making the decisions. How are they making those decisions? It’s who the staff is, how that staff is organized, how the board governance is organized, who’s on the board, and how the board functions. What’s the funding structure? All of those things are part of this ideology of the neutral — all of those things come out of a very specific set of social and economic conditions that make the museum what it is. 

So if you’re talking about making the museum better for more people, you can’t just say, oh, we’re going to show more work by Black people. That’s not enough. A lot of institutions have done a really great job at confronting representation in the gallery, but the bigger question I have is: How do we then take the next step?

I think that there are a lot of relatively easy fixes, in the first round anyway, like making sure that you list a (small) salary range on your job descriptions. I’m also really interested in thinking about co-leadership roles, because I actually don’t think that the role of the director is sustainable in the way that it is formulated currently. I think it would be really fascinating to see two or three people take on that role collectively — both to hold one another accountable, but also because I really do feel like there would be a huge benefit.

A real understanding of how the finances of the cultural institution function is totally an issue of equity. Finances are not the most exciting thing, sure, but if we understand them better and have some transparency about them, we can actually have a more interesting negotiation.

The ninth week of the “Strike MoMA” protests at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (photo by Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic)

H: Absolutely. And I think that ties into a broader cultural hesitancy that we have, at least in the US, around talking about money. There’s this perception that talking about money is somehow impolite, which is obviously absurd because the only people who can afford to not talk about money are those who don’t have to worry about it. 

LR: Yeah, and I think the extremity of wealth inequality in the United States has deepened the distance between the life experience of say a philanthropist board member and a member of museum staff. And that distance, especially over the last 18 months, has heightened the visibility of all of these rifts in society; they’ve become so clear in a global pandemic, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I think that that’s made everything far more tender, and I think that’s also why there is this sense of fear of making oneself vulnerable in this particular moment. But I think that for people in positions of power, that vulnerability is a necessity. 

H: One of the many things that sets this book apart is how frequently you pose questions to the reader. You’re sort of mirroring in praxis your discussion of the importance of public libraries as spaces that very intentionally engage their audiences as active participants, much like the Brooklyn Public Library has done with its “Art and Society Census,” which you co-organized with Jakab Lászlo Orsós and Cora Fisher.

What do you think museums could learn from libraries in terms of engagement and inclusion?

LR: What it boils down to is that, especially in the United States, because of the museum’s positioning as an educational institution, you end up losing the emphasis on the wealth of knowledge brought by the people who visit them. These institutions are only broadcasting their own knowledge.

Over many years, many museums have taken different tacks, especially via education departments where they’ve really sought to engage in public programs. But the primary operating principle of museums has always been to share its own knowledge. So how do you then invite a practice of exchange? This goes back to questions concerning a diversity of life experiences and how they might contribute to a richer cultural discussion.

For example, I value and love the work that curators do, but a very practical issue when I was the director of the Queens Museum was [that] here we were in this borough where there were over 165 different languages and dialects spoken, and yet our website and all of our texts — except for culturally specific programming — was in English. What does that mean? And what I realized in that thinking was that it wasn’t just about literally translating some texts into Mandarin or Bangla or Spanish; it was really about what register that language fell into in the first place. 

Curatorial language is important, but there’s a way of writing that doesn’t have to be in “international art world English” — a way of writing things in a more straightforward way so that more different people can understand them.

I had this fairly mundane idea about having people record their responses to important works in whatever language they wanted and making those available to the public. We actually got a Mellon grant to do some work around that right before I left. While I didn’t have a chance to fully delve into it there, I do think that that’s a piece of the process of communicating and exchanging on different registers, of finding space for more colloquial language in addition to curatorial language — space for the “both/and,” as Lorraine O’Grady says (both/and has become my personal mantra throughout writing this book.)

A protest organized by PAIN Sackler in the V&A’s Sackler Courtyard, demanding the institution remove the family’s name (image by Naomi Polonsky for Hyperallergic)

H: I think a core element of this book is the way that you hone in on this cultural and institutional amnesia around these long histories of dissent, and how damaging this has been to efforts to create these new and lasting systems that are rooted in exchange/shifting the work moving forward. What advice do you have for younger generations of museum workers who are very actively, and rightly, demanding more from the institutions where they labor?

LR: To paraphrase an Octavia Butler quote, there’s nothing new under the sun, but there are many suns. I particularly value that sentiment, because I think our histories are really important — the histories that we hold collectively, that society wants to marginalize. I think part of our responsibility is to reclaim those histories and interpret them in ways that are meaningful to us right now.

And I think what’s happening in all kinds of different organizing efforts in museums, whether at MoMA, whether in unionization efforts, whether working away quietly, chipping away small things all the time. I think that we have to be generous about the way things happen because it takes all of those efforts to actually make the change. It takes that kind of person who’s very quietly chipping away internally. It takes the big external statement. It takes the raw activism and harsh words. It takes the power that artists have in relationship to cultural space, which is not to be underestimated, as we saw with the tipping point around the Warren Kanders situation and with Nan Goldin.

I think it all nets up to the idea that cultural space is profoundly significant.  I don’t wish to see the abolition of the museum, even for all of its problematics. I want the museum to function differently within society. And I think I’m still optimistic about the ability for them to do that.

Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest (Verso, 2021) by Laura Raicovich, is now available on Bookshop.

Hyperallergic talks to the curator, writer, and former museum director about her new book Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest.Read MoreBooks, Featured, Interviews, Laura Raicovich, Museums, PAIN Sackler, VersoHyperallergicRead More

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