Sunday, August 4, 2019

Museum Protests

There is always protest, particularly in a free society.  There are different points of view and, if it affects your personal world, you are apt to take sides.  You may have heard of protest art. Since the 19th century artists have used their media to express themselves in ways that countered the art establishment. In Nazi Germany this was labelled “Degenerate Art”. Then there is art expressing direct political protest like the Mexican popular prints of the 1930’s. What I am thinking of is a more recent phenomenon, --- Artist-led protests against museums on the basis of the institutions’ supporters.   

Once upon a time there were only private museums opened by the royalty or aristocracy of a country.  There could be no protest there.  After all it was an honor to be allowed to see what the Elector of Saxony or the Queen of England collected.  The Royal collections of the latter can still be seen in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

Today, in this country, we have both government and private museums. Even the  museums are run by a boards of trustees who have the power of the purse. The concept of art being free of the purse is preposterous.  As romantic as it is to think of the “starving artist” they need to eat too.  Michelangelo had to be paid to lie on his back for months on end painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling!

To keep the doors of the museum open you have to pay for the building maintenance, guards, art handlers, curators and the director, not to mention the millions it can cost to put on major museum shows, particularly if you are borrowing works of art from all over the world. So where is the money to come from if not foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals?

It is not always the nicest people who have made a fortune.  I am sure you can think of a bunch of very wealthy people you don’t care for and fewer that you do like by reputation or in person. Some of the more unpleasant millionaires or billionaires may wish to use donations to the arts as a way of making amends to society, or maybe they just like art, or maybe they wish to influence the direction of the museum’s activities towards their own field of collecting. Their individual influence will depend on the size of the board and the size of their contribution. The story goes that when the Museum of Modern Art was looking for an architect to build a new wing on the museum one trustee took all the others on his plane to see an architect’s work and on the flight the trustees challenged each other to pledge more and more for the project.

Starting in the early 1990’s artists led protests against museums around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum, which was accepting funds from Philip Morris for their exhibitions.  How could a public institution help promote something so foul as smoking?  Lately protesters have demanded the Sackler name be removed from museums whose family members have supported the arts since long before the invention of the opioids their pharmaceutical company promoted. Even the Louvre in Paris has taken the Sackler name off its walls. Most recently it happened at the Whitney Museum that a trustee was hounded off the board because his company made the tear gas used on immigrants at the Mexican border.

In London there is another bĂȘte noire, British Petroleum.  It started at London’s National Portrait Gallery but on the same page as one of the articles about the protest there is a picture of the winner of the BP prize for art which a friend of mine, won years ago and she did not complain!  BP protests have now moved to the British Museum but so far the Museum is standing firm.

I don’t like the politics of the Koch Brothers who paid for the plaza outside the Metropolitan Museum, but I can still enjoy the fountains and we can debate whether you like their style or not.  Is it better to have fountains outside the museum or a Leonardo exhibition inside the museum or have neither?  Many may  disagree with me, but I believe beggars can’t be choosers.

I am not suggesting investing in companies where we don’t approve of the products or their use, but if some of those who have profited from these enterprises want to use their money for public benefit through arts institutions, is it excessive righteousness when  activist artists demand it be refused?

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