With museum funding now under the spotlight, is an entirely new funding model the answer?
2019 is the year museum and galleries started to wash their hands of dubious sponsorships. After Nan Goldin led protests outside numerous galleries for their the Sackler Trust funding, art institutions around the world are beginning to take note and turn their backs on sullied sponsorships and tarnished donations.
Only last week, leading contemporary art competition Turner Prize came into disrepute after a Guardian journalist discovered that the chairman of sponsor StageCoach, the British version of Greyhound, wanted a ban on LGBT issues being taught in schools. The Tate, which runs Turner Prize, has since ended the deal.
The funding furore reminds us that, essentially, museums and galleries are there to serve a public good; not to canonise ethically dubious companies into saintly patronage.
Charles Esche (Director of Van Abbemuseum in Netherlands) and Alistair Hudson (Director of Whitworth Gallery in England) are two museum directors turning their backs on the megastar model of museum funding used across the UK, where you bring in big names and sell out exhibitions to reclaim the museum’s place as a chapel of public good. “What’s happening right now, with Sackler, the Whitney board member linked to tear gas, and the Museum of Natural History abandoning the Brazilian American Chamber of Commerce over Bolsonaro, is that they are constituent actions,” says Esche. “It’s not the leadership that decides that they shouldn’t be taking money from Sackler.”
Escher says the Sackler funding scandal has given him the right of refusal when it comes to who sponsors, because it helps him argue against the public backlash it will generate: “It allows me to say things I might like to say, but I wouldn’t be allowed to. Before all this, if Sackler had offered us money, it would be incredibly hard for me to say no to it.”
For the past year, Hudson and Esche have been developing projects around the concept of Arte Útil. Based on an updated version of Useful Art, first coined by Argentine artist Eduardo Costa in 1969, the term was recently revived thanks to Tania Bruguera promoting a return to art as activism; a tool for civic engagement and a force that can change people’s lives.
Both directors are in charge of galleries located in cities outside the country’s capital, with their own issues around social cohesion. Manchester, in the heart of northern England, is a city known for working class culture and for being the birthplace of the industrial revolution, while Eindhoven in Netherlands has a large immigrant population—nearly a third of residents were born outside of the country.
“Essentially, we think very similarly, [of] art as something which is an inspiration for social change, rather than art is a value purely in and of itself,” Hudson tells me when explaining how he and Escher ended up working together. “Museums are places were muses should be encountered and inspiration should be taken outside,” Esche adds, saying we need to foster “imaginative power” of public galleries.
Currently on display at Whitworth is a project called Reno. In 2017, artist Linda Brogan and a group of local residents spent an entire year excavating the site of a funk and soul cellar club. Demolished in 1987, The Reno was a club located in Moss Side, an area of inner-city Manchester known for gangs and gun crime. The Reno was also one of the only nightlife spots black and mixed-race communities could both call home. Now Brogan invites younger generates to step on the dancefloor that gave her refuge in a time boilerplated by pub signs stating, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.”
Across the Channel in Eindhoven, Esche has opened up the museum to local LGBT communities to help queer the collection. “It’s not just about looking at LGBTQIA works or artists,” he says. “We have this European classic collection, largely based on an American model developed after the second world war, but what happens is you look at it from a queer perspective. Not just in terms of sexuality but being generally ‘deviant.’”
Some of the projects include actives, like wearing different articles of clothes to walk around the museum, while texts on the garments indicate how to view the works through a queer perspective. Other projects include fundamental changes to the building itself, like installing gender-neutral toilets.
Both parties say is that they couldn’t have done this without the Transformative Grant from international arts charity the Outset Contemporary Art Fund. Unlike other forms of sponsorship, it doesn’t infer a typical business model on the complex world of generating impact through the arts. Esche ends our conversation by suggesting it’s not where you get money from but our definition of value in the arts that needs to be redefined. “Why does capitalism make money?” he asks. “This is a fundamental question in our society. And one of the huge reasons is that we use that money in order to build culture. The economy produces excess and the excess is burnt and destroyed through culture. So our job is to use the money that these people produce.”