Decolonising the museum

There is a growing movement in the West to divorce art museums from big money.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has faced months of protest action [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

The current rage for decolonisation affects every corner of our lives, but it has been most visible in the demands being made on art institutions. Pressure on large museums in Europe and the United States in particular is growing because their history of acquiring and collecting is so entangled with colonialism.

But decolonising the museum has to go far beyond returning plundered artefacts or tinkering with exhibition displays to present a more accurate version of history. The abject dependence of museums on corporate sponsorship and super-wealthy donors is increasingly coming under fire.

The crisis is most apparent in the operations of the more prominent museums. These institutions are the public face of the art world but their trustee boards are stacked with corporate freebooters whose business values are starkly at odds with those of the cultural creatives whose names and works they buy and sell.

A movement is afoot to root out “artwashing” – the custom of using art and culture to launder ill-gotten gains and predatory practices. These profits often stem from industries that harm the very communities that are supposed to enjoy and benefit from museums: prison expansion, weapons manufacturing, and development projects that gentrify neighbourhoods, among many others.

Several activist groups have sprung up to administer the strong medicine. In recent years, Liberate Tate and BP or Not BP have lobbied to “free art from oil” at leading British museums; PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) targeted the patronage of several museums by the Sackler family, who profiteer from the opioid crisis in the US; Gulf Labor Coalition succeeded, for several years, in stopping the Guggenheim Museum in New York from building a new Abu Dhabi branch on the backs of abused workers; and Decolonize This Place ousted arms manufacturer Warren Kander from the board of Whitney Museum of American art.

Strike MoMA – a direct action initiative by artists targeting New York’s Museum of Modern Art – is the latest and most advanced effort to call out the unholy pact with big money. An all too cosy relationship with the disgraced Jeffrey Epstein forced financier Leon Black to step aside as board chair, and the museum has tried to ride out the scandal, hoping to avoid further scrutiny via the “bad apple” thesis.

But the row has proved to be a catalyst for Strike MoMA’s invitation to reimagine a utopian version of the museum – based on the need to divorce the super-rich and more directly serve as a common meeting house for art communities and the public.

Expanding the meaning of decolonisation, Strike Moma is unsettling the normalisation of an art world that has been captured for ultra-luxury consumption by tycoons, oligarchs, and speculative market investors. Through a multiweek series of virtual and on-site protests, workshops, panel discussions, mixed-media messaging, and a recent “Ruins of Modernity” tour of midtown Manhattan corporate buildings affiliated with board members, Strike Moma is tapping into a growing dissatisfaction with the increasingly frequent cosmetic responses from institutional leaders to their critics.

These responses range from diversifying the art on display, curators, and staff, to vetting board members for “good” philanthropists, and amping up charitable investments – in other words, replacing actors while keeping the structures of power intact. Instead, Strike MoMA proffers a vision of people and community-centred public art and control of relevant infrastructure which would be of, by, and for the people, including workers, artists, and communities. In keeping with this people-centred vision, the art activist group has sought to build alliances with low-wage employees in the museum including security, service and maintenance workers.

The actions of Strike MoMA appear to be amplifying the crisis of philanthropic legitimacy in New York City and other metropolitan centres of culture. A standard refrain coming from these circuits of the wealthy is that museums cannot exist without big money, appended with the conclusion that, on balance, this seemingly unchangeable reality is more good than bad.

MoMA director Glenn Lowry has responded to the weekly on-site demonstrations by accusing Strike MoMA of wanting to “disassemble” MoMA and all museums “so they no longer exist”. In contrast, Strike MoMA’s rhetoric varies from agitating for a “new MoMA” to a “post-MoMA museum” to a banner stationed outside MoMA during protests with the words “Post-MoMA Future” that presumably signals the possibilities of public art in formation. Nowhere, however, is there a vacuous call for the end of museums, nor a fixed blueprint for what might come next.

What is clear is that the art world, increasingly besieged by demands to dismantle longstanding hierarchies, cannot return to business as usual. Museums are no longer perceived as exceptional cultural institutions devoid of capitalist exploitation, neutral entities servicing only the public good, nor are they exempt from scrutiny of their histories of colonial extraction and complicity with corporate profiteering.

The contradiction between the expressive humanism at the heart of art-making and the wolfish appetites of these collectors has reached a breaking point. Agitation about the intimacy between culture and lucre is hardly new. But now that it is proceeding under the banner of decolonisation, the terms of engagement are shifting.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.