In a very interesting post published by Seph Rodney in Hyperallergic, the author discusses the lack of opportunities in art institutions but by doing so, she unwillingly raises a series of questions about what is that a museum truly stands for. Under the title ‘The Conflict Around Diversity at the American Alliance of Museums’ (click here to read it), Rodney focuses and celebrates the space allocated for The Center of the Future Museums in the Museum Expo Hall of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Conference that just took place and where bias in hiring practices, the politics of unpaid internships and the mechanics of credentialing were discussed.
Rodney quotes ‘museum futurist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow Nicole Ivy ‘ when saying that ‘the main concern was to bring strategic foresight to the future of work in museums and to the various pipelines into the profession’. This sounds very good but words such as ‘strategic foresight’ and ‘pipelines’ do not deal with art but with institutional power. In other words, this was a conference that dealt with what Leo Tolstoi in his ‘What is Art?’ calls ‘the bureaucracy of art’. And, of course, the bureaucracy is always concerned about issues of resource allocation.
Rodney is right when she says that the naturalized way of excluding the poor from working in museums is to provide unpaid interships and refuse to pay maternity leave and she is also right when pointing out that at the CFM, Therese Quinn, director of the Museum and Exhibition Studies Program at the University of Illinois in Chicago, suggested that AAM should refuse accreditation to any museum that pursue those practices.
Once I asked, Debbie Swallow, the director of the Courtauld Institute why there were so few black people studying there. Her answer was that they did not relate to European art ‘the way we do’ and she might have a point. People from underprivileged backgrounds get into careers where they can earn money and the art bureaucracy usually is not the right place for that because it is a place where prestige and reputation are at stake. Wealthy families send their daughters to work in Sotheby’s and Christie’s. That is the finishing school of these corporate and cynical times.
The problem that I have with Rodney’s (otherwise) unbeatable argument is when she states that ‘the museum birthed during the Enlightenment in the promise of universal education- one that has never been fulfilled. Only in the last few decades, as the museum has become more visitor-centered and the visits themselves more personalized, has the museum begun to approach this ideal’. Of course, that demands more money and more power for the ‘art bureaucracy’. The fact, however, is that museums did not emerge to fulfill universal education but to provide images, casts and models for artist to train and to create ‘national art’ (as in ‘local’ art). Museums emerged for artists and not for the people. The link between the museum institution and democracy is far more indirect that what Rodney suggests. After that, museums became part of the demagogic social discourse of all inclusion and today those words got to the point where a museum is supposed to teach people ‘art appreciation’ but that is not the job of the museum but of the education system. And, of course, if we move the discussion to the education system, the US have a huge problem of exclusion through privatization. Sometimes the point gets lost amidsts this institutalised politically correct approaches. I am saying this because at the end of the day, the AAM debate occurs in a society where everything and, I mean, absolutely everything is privatized so whether black people are hired as assistant curators or not is truly to miss the point.. J A T