Museum’s have an important mission to make art, culture, and history accessible to the people. Art is not a luxury, but part of the commons to be shared by our society. We take this very seriously. Here are seven ways in which many museums are serving the 1% rather than the 99% and thus reflecting deep economic injustice plaguing the United States and the globe.
1. Museums display a conflict of interest on their boards. For example, the board of MoMA shares two members with Sotheby’s board. In serving the public, museums ought to be totally separate from the 1% luxury art market. Dakis Jannou on the board of the New Museum was allowed to show his private collection in the museum. That is another blatant conflict of interest.
2. Museums sometimes function as tax shelters for the mega-rich. 100% of the market value of works of art given to a museum is tax deductible. In a world where the wealthiest fraction of 1% is pulling away from the rest of the American people at a breathtaking rate, we are entering a new gilded age in which private museums such as the Neue Gallery create easy ways for the wealthy to have their tax cake and eat it too.
3. Museums provide the ample opportunity for the nastiest titans of the 1% to whitewash their reputations. David H. Koch- principle funder of the Tea Party and of anti-climate change research sits on the board of the Metropolitan Museum, Lincoln Center, and the Museum of Natural History. Museums freely give prime space to corporate sponsorship.
4. Museums are labor-abusers. There are very few unions in museums. Museum guards are underpaid and often mistreated. Offices are largely run on unpaid intern labor. Increasingly, museums who open abroad such as the Guggenheim Dubai rely on oppressed labor to build their signature buildings.
5. Museums Co-opt protest, defang it and aestheticize it for the enjoyment of the 1%. How else the BMW/Guggenheim Lab be explained? In a country where the wealthiest 1% own the same wealth as the “bottom” 90% of the country, you have to make sure to buy off the revolution.
6. Many museums are highlighting the out-of-touch tastes and fancies of the 1% and promoting a cult of celebrity, encouraged by the corporate media. Witness not only Dakis Jannou at the New Museum but also George Condo, and a long list of society artists paraded in front of the public. No wonder museum attendance is slipping. It’s either a board member’s private collection, or sports care and motorcycles. How about something in-between?
7. Museums must be held accountable to their mission to serve the public. During decades when the very language of public and the commons completely escaped our conversation and the wealthy few turned the United States into an oligarchy, museums were repositioned to serve the very few. Like our government, who no longer represents the people, museums have sold out to the highest bidder. It’s time to take them back.