In 1969, the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG) drenched themselves in bull’s blood and laid in the lobby of the Museum of Metropolitan Art to protest the Vietnam War. Today, we are left to wonder why Toche and Hendricks chose to protest at the MOMA, an art museum, rather than a government office or a university. This is because the museum should be viewed as an archive, acknowledging the political power it has to legitimise and immortalise certain objects deemed to be valuable enough to have to be passed onto next generations. Art museums serve as institutions which not only legitimise canons in art, but also validate our collective memory. Monopoly of this authority by privileged groups has too often resulted in the delegitimisation of artworks by women, First Nations artists and those of diverse ethnic backgrounds. This erases important narratives from our history.
To exhibit an object in any museum is to make a value judgement, placing it above others of its kind to form an archive. That is, a place in which historical records are stored and possibly made available to the public for generations to come. Art museums serve this purpose by preserving and collecting artworks which are in turn are deemed as priceless artefacts.
But in developing an archive, we must establish what is archivable through the process of curatorship. Like how we curate the photos that sit on the fridge or make up the grid of our Instagrams, art curatorship is a process which subjectively preserves the legacy of subjects and their creators. Artworks that are omitted may be more significant than those that are included. They reveal how the curator has the authority to select what will be committed to public memory through preservation and praise. MoMA’s acquisition of the canonical collection of modern art, using Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s standard of ‘critical historical importance’, invites criticism. Notable were the absences of works by Modern artists such as Lucian Freud and David Hockney before its renovation in 2004, not to mention the continued lack of representation for female and ethnically diverse artists.
When walking through galleries, women are more often the subject of artworks rather than the creator. The Guerilla Girls were forced to ask whether women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum. Their 1989 screenprint revealed that women made up less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art Sections in 1989, yet 85% of nudes were female. These institutional exclusions are an issue echoed throughout art history.
Similarly, people of colour are also often given secondary status in exhibition, as demonstrated by the MoMa’s placement of Cuban-Chinese artist Wilfredo Lam’s The Jungle. Critic John Yau notes how it lingers in the coat room hallway rather than being exhibited in the main galleries with his Modern counterparts, Picasso or Cézanne. Segregation in art has been coined by Marci Tucker as the ‘art-apartheid’ system, most often seen in the exhibition of works by Indigenous artists. Nuanced by the oxymoronic phrase “separate but equal”, permanent collections of Indigneous works are often exhibited separately from other works of the same movement period or style. Curators argue that this is due to the fact that the works are too distinct to inhabit the same space as their non-Indigenous counterparts, however, this perpetuates the notion that Indigneous artists create in a socio-political vacuum that is isolated from global culture. These issues are all a result of conscious curatorship when constructing exhibition and exhibition spaces, reflecting the power art institutions have in giving voice to who constructs historical narratives.
In rehabilitating our cultural institutions, we must first seek to understand the archivist before critiquing the archive.The authority that art museums have to legitimise cultural narratives cannot be used to contest and reshape socio-political values until that power is vested in those with different stories to tell. In 2010, forty-three artists signed an open letter to the Guggenheim prohibiting the museum from exhibiting their works, followed by the Gulf Labor Coalition’s publication of this letter which formalised the boycotting of the museum as “no one should be asked to exhibit … in a building that has been constructed and maintained on the backs of exploited employees”. This shut down the construction of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi which exploited many immigrant workers in the UAE, ignoring living wages, poor working conditions and worker representation. We must ask ourselves: how beautiful can an object of dubious acquisition sitting in a museum funded by an oil corporation be? The ethics of exhibiting should be guided by social responsiveness and a duty to seek truth. It ends with representation for all the narratives that weave our social fabric, but starts with reforming and democratising the institutions that are stitching together our history.
The archive serves as a mirror for cultural and socio-cultural reflection. We have a social need to identify with the past and its creators, regardless of the fact that it better reflects the values of those who control its narrative. Art museums form a bridge between past, present and future contexts – and with that great power comes great responsibility.