Response to the report-back by Dan Wang

Well, I have never been to Spain and don’t have much firsthand knowledge of the context. So my thoughts must be considered as being formulated from that position of distance and deficiency. Also, I’ve never worked for or in a museum. So I don’t have personal experience with that professional culture, except as an outsider.

In answer to the question of why the museums and institutions don’t “heavily collaborate” with the social movements, one answer might be that the Foundation de los Communes, for example, represents a very different subculture than that of the museums. Aren’t the museums at some basic level tied to the history of art, to an identity defined by art? Art, as a general category, includes within it objects and ideas informed by many different political stripes—most (if not all) are considered legitimate if only because they exist and therefore must be included in an understanding of what art is, of what art includes.

The social movements, on the other hand, are much narrower in their politics. Of course. That is what they are about. Even the institutionalized expressions such as the Foundation, if they’ve managed to shed subcultural associations, their practical agenda alone puts them in a position that is different from the museums.

That’s not to say the museums can’t dole out their resources and the use of the platform to the social movements from time to time. But that happens only within (from the museum’s standpoint) the larger pluralistic inclusionary mode of the art museum.

If you are asking why within that constraint the museums still aren’t collaborating, eg having a show in partnership with the Foundation about the privatization of public institutions such as itself, well…that is a fair question. I take the question to be asking, in other words, why has the museum itself not taken the initiative to produce or mount its own social movement, with its fate placed at the center?

Well, certainly that would expose the forces of status quo capitalism that inhabit the museum. Private donors and trustees would be forced to own up to their part in the neoliberal trend, and of course they wouldn’t like that. So it would be a huge gamble for whatever staff are involved, and a successful initiative would have to be planned very well. I’m skeptical about any museum staffer having a mind for that kind of political thinking, not to mention the guts. Business people, on the other hand, are accustomed to taking risk, to playing the game with full commitment, with their lawyers, advisers, allied politicians, fellow capitalists mustered in advance. So it’s a tall order to expect museums to hatch social movements as a way to restructure themselves and guarantee public ownership.

The “public” that would assemble in the form of a social movement to protect the museums from privatization also needs to be produced, and reproduced. Right now, the social movement public that does exist seems to be subculturally specific—ie the activists and those already politicized. These are people who might mobilize for Zuccotti…but for an art museum? There was that moment of Occupy when artists helped to link the Sotheby workers to OWS, but that was in labor terms, not in any terms of public ownership. Even the Van Abbe—does it speak to enough people who identify with it to such a degree that they would take to disruption in order to save it?

Most museums, unfortunately as we now see, have followed a model of service provision for a consuming public. They put on shows and people come look at them, and do little else. In other words, most museums are in the mode of producing more consumers. The educational programs are usually about teaching people how to look. If they teach people to produce their own art at all, it’s usually geared toward a kid constituency, ie another way to cultivate, ultimately, the passive skill of appreciation. People who mainly interact with a cultural institution through appreciation don’t normally take risks to save it, much less transform it into something radical.

I could say more, but I think this is a start in terms of outlining the magnitude of the challenges.

Dan

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