Part of The Museums Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Even in the brutal heat of summer 2014, the line to enter one of the biggest artistic and cultural happenings of the past decade stretched for blocks.
In all, 130,000 people visited Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” a sprawling, much-Instagrammed sphinx forged from more than 150,000 pounds of sugar. Uncomfortably evoking the worst stereotypes of women of color — as well as a history of slave labor and capitalism that many people would prefer to ignore — Walker’s 35-foot-tall sugar baby left some viewers awestruck with its bittersweet message, and others happy to simply snap a selfie and move along. But everyone had to see it.
Years later, as museums find themselves in the midst of a crisis of confidence, it’s easy to see “A Subtlety” for what it also was: a subversion of the whole idea of a museum. Walker’s sculpture was installed in a former factory — or rather, a doomed-for-demolition “syrup shed” once used by Domino Sugar. But there was also something different about the crowds. Diverse in race, age, and gender, they were undeterred by the conceptual and confrontational nature of Walker’s work, which was commissioned by the public art organization Creative Time.
That the installation was in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood full of hipsters and hedge-fund investors, further unbound visitors from the culture of museums. There were no guards to occasionally step forward to declare, “No photography,” no longtime patrons to turn up their noses at how a different generation interacted with art and history.
Of course, “A Subtlety” wasn’t the first experiment in what’s possible outside the marble halls of a traditional museum, and it won’t be the last. The late artist Christo splashed Central Park with flame-colored vinyl “gates.” Anish Kapoor’s massive, mirrored “Cloud Gate” (better known as “the Bean”) has become a symbol of Chicago as recognizable as the former Sears Tower. Art Basel Miami and the nearby street-art-focused Wynwood Walls teem with influencers and celebrities and socialites and garden-variety art fans.
That populism — from who shows to who goes — even now contrasts markedly with the long-held ideals of most museums, which still feel like ivory towers, hushed and opaque institutions for the leisure class. I remember seeing a Kehinde Wiley painting at Art Basel ages ago; massive and unfurled to fill the length of a gallery’s booth, it was the thing to behold. It took five more years for a big Wiley exhibition to open at the Brooklyn Museum in 2015, and a handful more before he was in the national eye, when his painting of Barack Obama in a glorious thicket of flora was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in 2018. It seemed obvious that Wiley’s work, which references an expanse of art history, belonged in museums; only the museums didn’t seem to see it.
I loved museums in my 20s, and admittedly, I still love them. But I now find it impossible to ignore their vanilla sameness. Have you ever walked into a gallery and realized everything in it is placed just so around perfectly lit Campbell’s Soup cans and abstract expressionist splatters — all the work of long-dead white men? Or recoiled at admission prices that now all seem to hover at $20 or even $30? Or, for maybe both those reasons, found yourself the only person of color in the room?
Just one generation removed from India, my motherland and a horrifically exploited former colony, I personally never fail to notice that the halls of some museums are lined with treasures nicked from the East and from Indigenous peoples — from my people. They have always looked to me like the spoils of some war in which we never stood a chance.
Keenly aware of the racial reckoning happening across the culture and concerned about their dwindling base, museums are trying to court a younger, less fusty, more online and social-media-aware audience. They began allowing photography on a wide scale about a decade ago, and started revisiting the language they use around nonwhite and non-Western work, as well as work made by women. They are beginning to collect outside of the usual old guard.
But in 2020, the crises of racial representation and white elitism and a failure to change with the times have only become more glaring. We all ought to be asking: What should it cost? Who gets to go? What deserves to be seen? And who is the museum for, anyway?
“It’s a longstanding challenge we have faced,” says Agustín Arteaga, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, the community of which is heavily Latinx. “How can we make museums inviting, inclusive, and accessible to everyone?”
“We have to start by being free,” he says. “But that’s not the only barrier. Just because you don’t have to pay doesn’t mean someone feels comfortable coming in the door. We’re talking about race, social status, and economics,” and a sense of belonging that is often passed down by parents who introduce their children to museums early.
Justine Ludwig, executive director of Creative Time and a former museum curator herself, is consumed by the question of “Who is the museum for?”
“The challenges museums are facing in this moment do come from a historical lineage,” Ludwig says. “Museums have been intended to feel like hallowed ground, which inherently makes certain people feel at ease and others not.”
Museums also have to contend with their own histories of collecting, Ludwig says, which were built upon cultural hierarchies that we might now find “grossly problematic.”
Confronting that legacy has meant redefining what we treasure and letting go of what no longer holds cultural value. And that has meant opening the gates to a new kind of museumgoer, one who museums and experts on the subject told me is unlikely to become a member or regular visitor.
The shift at times has been tense, triggering a classist backlash over who “understands” art, how art ought to be consumed, how museumgoers should conduct themselves, and how what’s on the walls might influence who feels welcome in the space. A decision this fall by the Baltimore Museum of Art to sell works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden — with the intent to use the money for new acquisitions and diversity initiatives — caused a war among the museum’s benefactors, board members, and director.
The sale was called off in October, but only after the battle had become personal and ugly. It resulted in the resignations of people of color on the museum’s board, including renowned painter Amy Sherald, whose depiction of Michelle Obama is one of the most popular works in the National Portrait Gallery.
So museums are trying, until they aren’t. But they also no longer have a monopoly on how we see our history, our art, or our future. Walker’s sugar-baby success story, like that of Christo’s in Central Park, Ai WeiWei’s at Alcatraz, and other artists who thrive outside of museums, confirms it.
Change isn’t happening only because of “A Subtlety” and other large-scale works, but also with the growing popularity of street art and murals — small interventions that allow artists without the usual museum pedigree, many of whom are people of color, to be seen. There are outdoor installations, too, like those featured at New York’s famed Storm King. The death of the buttoned-up and bespectacled stereotype of the Establishment Museum is coming because the kids don’t see themselves within it. But that’s also because they have a handy tool with which they can appreciate art and share it on their own terms: their cellphone cameras.
I’m reminded, a bit, of a story the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) revealed when it held its first retrospective of Yoko Ono’s artworks in 2015.
In 1971, Ono was a respected conceptual artist, so well known that a certain Beatle had been wooed by her work and not the other way around. But she was nonetheless an outsider at esteemed institutions. She wasn’t Rodin or Pollock. She was a woman of color and an immigrant.
But she was determined to have an exhibition at the MoMA, the beating heart of American contemporary art. So Ono simply took out an ad in the Village Voice promising one. When opening day arrived, so did news of her gag to the MoMA’s ticket vendors, who reportedly taped the Village Voice ad to the window with the words, “This is not here.”
People who came eventually learned what the “show” really was. Ono claimed to have released flies bearing her scent into the sculpture garden. She called the piece “The Museum of Modern [F]art.”
Here’s what mattered: People came to see it, whatever it was. And Ono had made her point about museums, which were as welcoming as a Trumpian border wall.
The odd thing is, all these years later, they still are.
But there’s hope in this moment. Hand-wringing among museum leadership has been met with the message sent by those who have no use for Paul Gauguin but will line up to see Kara Walker, or Jacob Lawrence, or Yayoi Kusama, or Kehinde Wiley — because they tell stories that museums failed for years to tell. Those are the people museums must acknowledge. That’s who the museum ought to be for.
Lavanya Ramanathan is the editor of The Highlight by Vox. She was formerly a features writer for the Washington Post.