By DANA NOTINE, July 2020
As the social media landscape remains visibly affected by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and so many others, accounts such @ChangeTheMuseum have amplified concerns surrounding the virtue-signaling of art institutions as they release statement after statement expressing solidarity with the BLM movement, despite little to any attempts to rectify cemented practices of normalized racism in the museum universe. As Hyperallergic reporter Valentina Di Liscia reported on June 30, the Instagram account @ChangeTheMuseum has amplified stories of unchecked racism which speak to the discriminatory practices that plague our cultural institutions. As prominent curators and countless grad students have followed the account, and even plugged the stories on their personal profiles, what these testimonies will result in, as far as structural change goes, remains to be seen. As stated in the account’s bio, the author(s) behind CTM aims to “pressure US museums to move beyond lip service proclamations” and directly confronts the contradictions of the “progressive” art museum— an institution torn between the desires of their donors and the thirst for change so fervently possessed by their younger visitors.
The @ChangeTheMuseum account contains over 200 posts and has amassed a following of over 19k accounts over its month-long existence. Prominent art figures have interacted with and been scrutinized on the page, a situation best demonstrated by former Met director Thomas Campbell’s squabble with an account named @cutehorsegirl. The inaugural post identifies LA MOCA Director Klaus Biesenbach by his first name, citing curatorial ignorance during a 2014 exhibition, Zero Tolerance, at Biesenbach’s alma mater, MoMA PS1.
Is this profile akin to a virtual bathroom wall specified for museum-centric graffiti? A kind of IG Live version of Glassdoor, replete with all too familiar stories of institutional disappointment? Or is this an example of the vigilante justice the next generation of museum professionals will utilize to create more equitable museums for the future? A tactic informed by the widely circulated disclosure of disparate art world salaries seen in anonymously-created Art Museum Salary Transparency Spreadsheet?
All of this point towards larger systematic changes the new generation of museum workers demand. Through the inspirational progress achieved through multi-cause activist collectives like Decolonize This Place and the Chinatown Art Brigade, a new class of disenfranchised art graduates are realizing the power they have in sharing their mutual experiences. This appeal for transparency comes from the frustration that is intrinsically associated with the student debt crisis, mass unemployment, and the overall instability of a career in the museum sector as cities slash their arts budgets and lofty endowments provide no tangible relief to the lowest-paid. With the success of outlier activist collectives like DTP—who most recently celebrated their long-campaigned removal of the Museum of Natural History's Equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt— recent graduates and museum professionals who sought to affect change from within the systems they’re oppressed by are wondering if a more aggressive approach may be the most immediate way to influence change from the immovable inequities of the museum world.
Are accounts like @ChangeTheMuseum the answer here? I would argue yes, as a student and a former museum employee, I can testify to the dissatisfaction experienced by frontline staff and part time employees. Because my generation has been told that we’re lucky to be here, cognitive dissonance caused by the expectations of working in a museum vs the realities of wealth-inequality, job instability, and a culture which favors silence over honesty- has resulted in resentment, because the administrations in charge have repeatedly chosen to ignore feedback, rather than reckon with their shortcomings. As I meditate on this fact, I’m reminded of James Baldwin’s iconic sentiment: "I love this country more than anything in the world. For this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
If we were to replace the word country with museum, it would accurately describe the deep desires for change in the art institutions thousands of students went into debt to contribute. We- the underpaid and overworked- love our museums, and for this reason we insist on trying any and all methods to change them for the better. WM
Dana Notine is an art historian and curator based in Brooklyn, NY.view all articles from this author