In 2017, Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich began organizing the program Art Space Sanctuaries, which seeks to create a safe environment among art and cultural spaces. The Queens Museum’s board voted against staging the project, allegedly citing concerns that it was too political for the museum. Six months later, Raicovich expressed caution over renting out the Queens Museum’s galleries for a political event hosted by the Mission of Israel to the United Nations that would include Mike Pence, then then Vice President of the United States. After initially turning down the Mission’s offer, and amid allegations that Raicovich was anti-Semitic, the Queens Museum agreed to host the event. In 2018, she left her post at the museum. Her reason for doing so was a sentiment that has been voiced many times over by artists, curators, activists, and more in recent years: art institutions are not politically neutral spaces, and so they need to wrestle with what it was communicating to its local community, which, in the Queens Museum’s case, is largely composed of immigrant families.
Raicovich’s tumultuous experience at the Queens Museum can be directly related to what is described in her new book, Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest (Verso), which addresses Western museums’ long history with representing “neutrality” while protecting the political interests of those in power. In it, Raicovich diagnoses recent museum controversies as being proof of deeply embedded biases.
She writes about her own experiences while also looking at the protests against the Sackler family and Warren B. Kanders, as well as the response to works such as Dana Schutz’s controversial painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket (2016). But Raicovich doesn’t just provide an analysis of everything that’s gone wrong—she also details a refreshing look at a few cases where museums have stepped up and made changes, including at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which weathered protests from Indigenous communities after it exhibited Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold (2012) in 2017. The museum later dismantled the work, which was focused on the hanging of 38 Lakota men in 1838, and handed the remains over to Dakota elders, who buried it.
In a recent phone interview, Raicovich discussed her resignation from the Queens Museum, elitism in art institutions, and what it takes to really make amends.
ARTnews: When did you decide to write Culture Strike?
Laura Raicovich: Right after I left the Queens Museum, I decided that I really wanted to think about this question of museums and neutrality, and I began interviewing some of my colleagues, artists, and friends about the subject. I thought maybe I would put together the interviews or something, but as I kept talking to folks, I realized that I actually had an enormous amount to say, and I thought that there also needed to be some discussion about how the museum emerged in the United States and what set up the conditions that made it possible—or even necessary—for museums to think that they were neutral spaces.
Was your own resignation as the director of the Queens Museum incited by a misunderstanding of what constitutes neutrality?
Yes. I think that’s what ultimately became the motivation for wanting to map those histories, because the reality is that the museum has never been a neutral space. It has always been constituted out of very particular positionality. If you look at the European models on which the U.S. model is based, those come out of the ideals and desires of the church or royalty. From a historical perspective, in the U.S., it’s a little bit different because the collections that started the earliest museums were mostly those of individual wealthy white men from a certain educational background. Those collections were profoundly personal based on what that person liked or what that small group of people liked, had access to, or were exposed to. The field from which those objects were drawn is pretty narrow. And it’s not just about taste. It’s also about a very particular set of foundational politics inside the museum such as its structure, its reason for being, and its ways of operating that are profoundly raced, classed, and politicized.
And people are more aware of that now.
Right, because I think what many of us face in our daily lives is that our perspective may not be aligned with the status quo and with those in power. Therefore, it’s viewed as politicized or in some way aggressive.
In the case of the museum and the people who are close to it, you’re actively communicating with people who help construct, maintain, and benefit from the system as it stands. There’s a certain amount of power that comes with that responsibility.
And meanwhile, the Queens Museum has worked with and collaborated with the immigrant populations around the museum for years and many of those people were in actual material risks given the rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the subsequent administration. This wasn’t just a philosophical argument about whether or not museums are political to begin with. But it wasn’t like they were Trump supporters—it was more subtle than that. They didn’t even object to doing the work they just objected to making visible. It was: “Keep doing the work, but do it more quietly.” And my position was that there comes a point where you cannot do this work quietly because of the extremity of the situation.
You discuss other museums, in particular the question of the Whitney Museum’s former vice chairman Warren Kanders’s ownership of the defense manufacturing company Safariland, which Hyperallergic reported was manufacturing tear-gas canisters that were being used against migrants along the American-Mexican border. Do you see a conflict between Kanders’s business dealings and his philanthropy?
This is where things get really interesting. What’s happening within the museum is an extreme replication of the conditions of the larger society. You have this mirroring of the wealth and inequity of what we see happening outside the museum occurring internally between staff, directors, board members, et cetera. This is why I think the museum is an extremely useful place to think about solutions because we also have to contend with these issues on a much larger scale in our communities.
In the wake of protests over works like Dana Schutz’s Open Casket and Sam Durant’s Scaffold, some have alleged that artists’ voices are being silenced. What did you make of the debate around censorship that followed?
If we’re attempting to “do the work” in some way, we’re going to mess up. We’re going to make mistakes. So, to me, the issue is: If you’re the person who’s made the mistake or caused the harm, then how do you then make amends? There are really important and significant differences in the ways that artists and institutions address those respective moments.
I don’t know if Schutz deciding to destroy the painting actually would have even done the work of making amends in the absence of a more vulnerable approach. In Durant’s case, I think the process that was created in consultation with the elders was open to allowing that [it] to go where it had to go at that moment. The [Walker] was criticized for allowing the work to be destroyed because, after all, one of the fundamental duties of a museum is to care for the works in its collection. But would this have happened if perhaps those constituencies and stakeholders had been involved earlier in the process? It would have been far less painful for everyone involved had they been. I am certain of that.
Museums often act defensively when they face protests such as the ones over those two works. Why is that?
There’s a great deal of fear that cultural institutions have because of the levels of precarity in relation to funding and funders. That is a reality. And it’s scary as hell. But the ways in which we engage with the public and with the people who have been harmed as institutions really matters.
I’m not advocating for a European model where it’s all public funding, because I think that has its own issues, but some balance is required. But what if we could have a federal cultural ministry—like most other nations in the world—and have a very tiny percentage of funding allocations from the federal government? What if we had something that was far more effective in funding the arts than the National Endowment for the Arts?
Some claim that museums are too broken to fix because of their colonial legacies and the people who fund them. Do you think that’s the case?
That’s a tough question. I think that there will be some institutions that just become less and less relevant. The Laundromat Project and Recess are really different from the Met and MoMA. And I am certain that there are even in those storied institutions, including the Met and the MoMA, there are pockets of really incredible work that’s being done there. I’m not sure that I want to quite give up on them yet, although it’s increasingly more difficult to take that position these days. None of those places are ever going to be perfect. None of us are ever going to be perfect. But can you shift the starting point of your argumentation or presentation to own those histories, and to be honest about them, and to contend with them in a transparent way? It will require doing more than changing the representation of the work in the galleries.