Everything Must Go

HomeGee Wesley

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, millions of Americans sheltered in place as businesses, retailers, service providers, and manufacturers closed their doors temporarily or indefinitely. In the field of contemporary art, the economic shutdown triggered a wave of institutional closures, cancellations, and postponements. Art fairs were called off, biennials rescheduled; museums and galleries shut their doors. The art world was closed for business. With the suspension of ticket sales, benefits, and rental income, museums and contemporary art institutions were forced to reckon with the immediate elimination of earned income streams and the steep budget shortfalls that would quickly follow.

In tallying this economic fallout, many begged the question: how exactly could major institutions recoup the losses brought about by the pandemic? Would museums sell off their Warhols or Richters to stave off economic disaster? Would they dip into the coffers of ample endowments, which at museums like MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Met, accounted for billions? Perhaps they would scale back their massive expansion efforts, such as LACMA’s $750 million renovation? What would major institutions sacrifice to ensure the survival of our field? Between their collections, property, and endowments, what would have to go?

Since the onset of the pandemic, thousands of arts workers have been furloughed and laid off from their roles at American institutions and now rank among the tens of millions of the nation’s unemployed. Amid these historic layoffs, museums and galleries raked in millions from the federal government in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program rescue package for American workers. Apparently, no one told the leadership of the likes of SFMOMA or the Guggenheim that such “workers” included the hundreds cast aside in their layoffs. Even galleries and big-name artists—from Gagosian and Zwirner to Jeff Koons and Robert Longo—got in on the action. What’s worse, these terminations were far from evenly dispersed. At recently unionized institutions such as the New Museum, union members were disproportionately targeted. The entire stewarding committee of the New Museum Union was dismissed and only seven of the 87 remaining active staff are union members. Museum educators also took enormous losses, notably at institutions such as MoMA and the Tenement Museum, where all freelance contractors were summarily terminated.

These terminations took a hugely disproportionate toll on BIPOC arts workers who were overrepresented at institutions within low-wage front-line roles such as visitor services, security, maintenance, and contract education, while vastly underrepresented in salaried office positions in curatorial and administrative departments. This is a stark reminder of how the racial stratification of labor, hiring, and compensation in our field actively perpetuates the racial hierarchies and wealth disparities of the United States more broadly. In short, over the last few months, museums and cultural institutions in the art world have shown their cards. Given the choice between people, capital, objects, and property, their answer was clear. All across the nation, the art world is in the midst of a fire sale of sorts. Major institutions are selling out their staff, and everything must go!

On May 25, 2020, two months into the voluntary shutdown of much of the global economy, came the violent murder of George Floyd by police officers. The videotaped brutal killing of Floyd sparked a wave of protest and civil unrest across the country that continues to this day. Galvanized and led by Black Lives Matter activists, these public demonstrations brought racism, anti-Blackness, and police violence firmly to the forefront of the mainstream American consciousness. Spotlighted within this national reckoning was a twin call to dismantle systems of power that reproduce anti-Blackness, and to white Americans to examine their individual role in upholding systems and cultures of racial oppression. Initially, art institutions, as well as governments, officials, and corporations responded to these organizing and consciousness-raising efforts though largely symbolic measures: perfunctory public communications expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter, the announcement of vague intentions to “do better,” and other forms of optical, performative allyship.

Nonetheless, this wave of consciousness-raising has reverberated widely throughout the field of contemporary art. The past two months have given rise to an unprecedented proliferation of language, best practices, training modules, toolkits, testimonials, transparency documents, whisper networks, public letters, public dialogues, and policy proposals dedicated to combating racism and inequality within and beyond the art world. Art workers, students, and organizers turned to anonymous Instagram accounts and public letters to bravely call upon institutional leadership to root out systemic and interpersonal anti-Blackness in all its guises. Accounts like @showyourboard and @changethemuseum have exposed racial disparities in compensation, hiring, leadership, treatment, and board governance, while public letters like that issued by institutional staff at the Guggenheim have called out toxic workplaces, microaggressions, and harassment.

And museums have not been the only targets. Student organizers such as the Hunter MFA group @decolonizethecurriculum and @ICABlackness now have decried the role that academia has played in entrenching the racial disparities of our field. These groups have both taken on the contents of these program’s curriculums and critiqued the lack of representation within admissions and faculty hiring decisions. Meanwhile, countless “Black@” social media accounts have brought to light problematic campus cultures, tokenism, and racist faculty behavior across the nation. A feature of these practices and testimonials is an effort to make racial politics personal by showing white allies and passive observers alike how race actively structures the lives of people of color in their schools and institutions. They also dispel the presiding notion that racism is something akin to Bigfoot, only seen in hazy and partial glimpses or within spectacular moments of violence or bigotry that occur in some imagined “over there”: red states, Republican households, or other institutions.

Embedded in these efforts is a clear message. To reshape the art world and to create a different reality within it, whiteness as we know it “must go.”Whiteness as a set of values, behaviors, and practices that reinscribe white supremacy, privilege, hegemony, and violence at the expense of people of color must be challenged and displaced from its seat of power. Only then can the art world truly be remade.

Past several weeks and months have seen the creation and circulation of countless testimonials and public letters calling upon art institutions to address inequities through a plethora of strategies—some radical, some incrementalist. Those leading the charge of these calls have advocated for an analysis of anti-racism and equity in every aspect of our institutions: hiring practices, curriculums, recruitment, targeted scholarships, human resource policies, procedures for redress, campus climate, collecting practices, board composition, external partnerships, endorsements, vendor relationships, funding, and more. Organizers and arts workers have called for building partnerships with predominantly Black cultural organizations; contributing to the scholarship and research and of Black cultural producers; providing funding and internships to BIPOC students; the commitment of resources to anti-racist training programs; diversifying museum governance; conscripting community advisory boards; drafting workplace climate surveys; and, most forcefully, divestment from police power.

Together these messages offer institutions a roadmap for translating the empty solidarity statements of arts institutions into tangible interventions with lived material consequences. Largely, these efforts are spearheaded by the same cultural workers and arts professionals who were sold out by their institutions earlier this year: furloughed arts workers, terminated museum educators, and art students who have lost their studios to the lockdown without recourse or reimbursement. All are working from some variation of the central question: if the art world is going to be remade due to economic and social fallout, how can it be remade in ways that don’t reproduce and exacerbate the racial disparities that not only affect our field, but society generally? What must change? What must go for us to get to the art world we want to see?

One important response to this question has come through the organizers steering together direct calls for city governments and institutions to divest from their contracts and affiliations with police departments. Under this banner would be the drafters of several public letters: Art Workers for Black Lives, Boston Art Workers for Black Lives, and Philly Arts for Black Lives. In the public letter to Boston’s institutions, the organizers enumerated specific actionable policies for enacting lasting equity for BIPOC artists, arts professionals, and institutional stakeholders, such as transparent and recurring “equity audits,” the allocation of resources for training, recruitment, and retention of BIPOC art workers, and targeted forms of hiring strategies, to cite just a handful of proposals.

However, these equity campaigns face a difficult uphill battle. According to employment data on the public arts sector gathered by the SMU Data Arts and the Department of Cultural Affairs of New York, “curators” and “curatorial departments” are statistically the field’s whitest subsections—and the field itself is a disproportionately white labor sector to begin with. In New York City, a third of art workers is white in a city that is one-third people of color; people of color are largely absent from senior leadership roles and administrative office positions.

Moreover, when not outright ignored by institutional leadership, many of these calls have been met with hostility and defensiveness. In other situations, they have led to highly publicized departures of individuals such as SFMOMA’s Gary Garrels and MOCA Cleveland’s Jill Snyder. While these resignations may appear to be victories, they unfortunately offer little clarity as to how these institutions plan to commit to substantive changes which will alter their policies and cultures in ways that preempt future racist action. Therefore such staffing changes fall far short of restructuring institutional power and redistributing resources in ways that will create pathways for Black culture workers to thrive. What these resignations reproduce, furthermore, is a false notion that institutional racism is a matter of a few bad apples, as though racism were not encoded into our institutional practices, social behaviors, and internalized notions of the world.

More and more, organizers in our field have taken cues from parallel discussions about the transformation of policing in American society that have circulated and informed many dialogues and organizing efforts in contemporary art. In the same ways that younger BLM organizers have called for not simply reforming but abolishing police and the prison industrial complex, arts workers attuned to the entrenched role of racial capitalism in cultural philanthropy and the colonial underpinnings of the contemporary museum have called for not simply critiquing major institutions but dismantling their power altogether. For them, the museum’s collecting function is too deeply embedded in the logics of European property rights and cultural extraction; the institution’s education function is similarly invested in models of Western liberal paternalism and a false benevolence that seeks to cultivate a passive bourgeois public, dispensing “culture” as a charity service meant to delineate the deserving from undeserving poor.

This concern is echoed in Yesomi Umolu’s “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice.” The latter organizations affirming an abolitionist logic to institutional power, and pointing to a crucial difference between reformist measures that leave the power of oppressive systems intact, and steps toward abolition which offer the possibility of upending those systems once and for all. Implicitly then, these proponents acknowledge that it’s not nearly enough for the museum to simply embrace a neoliberal brand of optical identity politics by “diversifying” its canon, collection, and staff. Instead, we must demand radical change. The contemporary art institution as we know it must be fundamentally undone. For the arts to survive and indeed thrive, they argue, the art institution as we know it must go.

Driving all of this organizing is a set of fundamental questions. As the art world as we know it disintegrates, what do we want to see built in its place? What does a more just and equitable art world look like? And how does one get there?

For me, answering these questions is one more act of letting go. Letting go of a final privilege that even the most ardent organizers in our field so often cling to. We have to let go of “art.” By this I don’t mean that we ought to ignore or deny the need to organize in this field. I don’t mean we should scrap our plans to mobilize artists, professionals, and institutions to create a better world. What I mean is that in order to truly transform this field, we must stop speaking of our challenges in terms of art labor, art politics, art institutions, or art workers, but rather that we see and articulate our challenges as those of labor, politics, institutions, and workers.

Letting “art” go means recognizing that the same strategies and solutions that organizers and activists have long deployed to reshape our world for the better will be the very ones that we, too, must turn to in order to reshape ours. Letting go of “art” means asking what we gain when we relinquish the myth of art’s exceptional status. What happens when we dispel with the exceptionality of the artwork, the museum, the curator, and the artist?

Many arts workers and artists join this field motivated by a sense that their labor within a museum or studio will be special, “exceptional.” That even when they are underpaid as an hourly worker in a visitor-services position, or as an intern, or as a writer, or as a curatorial assistant, there is still something ennobling about art—and, by their proximity, about themselves—that sets their labor apart. Something that divides their fate as a worker from the fate of the immigrant restaurant laborer across the street or the hairstylist in the corner salon. In this sense, letting go of “art” is a simple yet necessary act of radical solidarity.

The fiction of art’s exceptionality is what institutions invoke to undercompensate artists and art workers at all levels. It’s what they invoke to deny us a living wage when they block art workers from unionizing. It’s what they invoke when they tell us that cultural capital is its own reward, its own privilege. It’s what they invoke when they deny their complicity in racial stratification and anti-Black violence, and ultimately when they “let us go.” When they choose property over people. When they choose their money over your life.

The myth of art’s exceptionalism is what stops artists from linking arms with local residents when our neighbors organize to fight against gentrification and displacement on everyone’s behalf. It’s what deludes us into believing that the studio and housing prices of artists will somehow remain low when developers and politicians rezone urban communities and launch new “revitalization” initiatives. It’s what tells us that it’s not our fight when it’s always been our fight.

It’s worth noting that the exceptional status of art isn’t just some conceptual orientation. It’s not just something you learn about in school or that results from a genealogy of Western aesthetics, art history, and philosophy. The exceptional status of art also is legally encoded. It’s embedded in the tax code and in museum bylaws. In the unregulated nature of the art market, in the lack of resale royalties for artists, in the tax-free donations of artworks to museums, in the fact that gallery artists don’t receive contracts, in the price of art schools, in the nature of charitable donations to nonprofits. Accordingly, one can’t simply undo these conditions through magical thinking or conceptual reorientation. It has to be rewritten on the level of policy, regulation, tax codes, bylaws.

Letting art go of art means recognizing art workers as workers, art markets as markets, art institutions as institutions, immigrant artists as immigrants, and so forth. We need to demand the same structures of accountability in this field that we would ask of any other. When we let go of art we recognize the absurdity of even having to demand that the art market be regulated, that art workers be represented, that artists get contracts, or museum workers get healthcare, that educators, security guards, and maintenance workers earn a living wage.

What has to go is “art” as a modifier that attempts to bracket the needs and political destiny of this so-called world from the demands and urgencies of the world at large. It means that art workers accept that our field is never neutral and that artists are not exempt from a need to intervene in the urgencies of this world, the only world we have. It demands that we act in concert with residents, activists, and organizers from other sectors and other paths of life to mobilize for political causes and reparative strategies that affect us all: decolonization, redistribution, abolition. Not out of some misplaced sense of benevolent altruism, but, because arts organizers are organizers. Because it’s our fucking fight too.