The Art Newspaper has conducted a survey of a the country’s top curators on the museum’s role in the age of Trumpism and it appears they have very little to say. The responses by five curators, who represent some of the most prominent institutions in the country, hewed closely to the usual white-box boilerplate that espouses history and culture as ever necessary magic wand to ward off social drift and the draconian political ideologies boiling over across the United States. And while culture indeed may be the best way out of this black box (a culture, say, capable of decoupling fame from political viability) the aspirational logic on display here, appears to be a woeful example of the lack of institutional purpose fueling these bastions of culture and rationality.
Take the response of Richard Morgan, Director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, on his approach to the cultural climate. “History tells us that art and museums can be agents of change,” he said, pointing towards an idealized past without a single proscriptive thought on the present (or future, for that matter). It’s also worth noting that the Guggenheim, this past fall, pulled three works addressing political repression in China and has been unwavering in its plan to open an outpost in oil-rich Abu Dhabi, a city with a history of repression in many forms, particularly with the matter of labor conditions. It seems the only change the Guggenheim seems willing to inspiring is the kind that doesn’t vex the interests of elite patronage.
Other responses by the round-up of curators offered slightly more grounded perspectives. “We serve the public at the intersection of intellect and emotion,” said James Rondeau, Director of Art Institute of Chicago. “Politics and culture; imagination and knowledge; the familiar and the unknown.” Measuring the potency of the museum’s influence in terms of inspired, empathic discourse is an attainable goal by which to measure art’s impact. And there are meaningful attempts occurring to this end in the art world. For instance, at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, curator Bill Arning is planning an exhibition on mass incarceration. It’s a loud statement for a museum based in a state with the largest prison population in the country. “The challenge for us,” Arning tells The Art Newspaper, “is to create an atmosphere that attracts individuals from many walks of life in order to complete the circle of dialogue.”
Considering the structural inequalities of the art world—its tribal tendencies and a penchant for topicality (one that often feels trendy and myopic), how will the country’s top cultural institutions ensure they stay committed to being democratic centers for empathetic change, as opposed to being another set of filter bubbles? Despite the best of intentions and sporting the glossiest of mission statements, there’s still little evidence that’s museums having a meaningful vision for this. Simply reiterating the importance of culture is not enough to combat worsening material conditions. At the very least, more curators could take a cue from James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, who confesses the complexity of making sense of given moment in history: “Change is constant; our social and political conditions are never static, never universal and never simple.”