How Art Museums Can Remain Relevant in the 21st Century

Alina Cohen
Jun 15, 2018 9:20PM

Last spring, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket (2016), spawned calls for the painting’s destruction, an on-air discussion on the daytime chat show The View, and a protest within the Whitney Museum of American Art, where it was exhibited. Over a year later, much of the furor has subsided. The painting is intact and away from public view, but the conflict has reverberated throughout a variety of other controversies. Reformers have made it clear that the issue at stake goes beyond an isolated work of art. They’re demanding that museums address how they display art, source funds, collect objects, and engage their own staff.

“What institutions hang on their walls or put on their pedestals is a clear articulation of who they imagine their audience to be,” writes Aruna d’Souza in a new book, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, which asserts that American art institutions have long centered on whiteness, or catered to white audiences. Recent efforts to rectify this, or to “decolonize” museums, include calls to reconsider the hiring of a white woman for a position as an African art curator at the Brooklyn Museum, burn or bury an offending artwork by Sam Durant, and even to rethink what we mean when we say “decolonize” (as it often denies Indigenous issues).

One major question, still far from resolved, lies at the heart of these demands: How can 21st-century museums both operate with the greatest sense of equity and ensure that they remain a relevant part of American cultural life? While some professionals are all but ready to give up, others are just getting started.

A very old problem

Western art institutions have always been exclusive. Britain’s first public museum, the Ashmolean at the University of Oxford, opened in 1683 to house the collection of antiquarian Elias Ashmole. Architect Charles Robert Cockerell designed an imposing Neoclassical structure to hold the founder’s “curiosities,” many culled from overseas travels. Over the past few centuries, the curators and directors have added to the original bounty, amassing hundreds of thousands of ceramics, paintings, sculptures, textiles, coins, and more from Egypt, Japan, colonial America, and beyond.

The Ashmolean’s founding principle—that “knowledge of humanity across cultures and across times is important to society”—had a major limiting element: Who, exactly, was included in its definition of “society”? Indeed, Oxford itself didn’t allow women to become full-time students until 1920, and its first black student didn’t matriculate until 1873. At its inception, and for about 200 years after, the Ashmolean museum apparently served a fairly narrow society: the predominantly white men who were wealthy enough to attend Oxford.

Orlando Jewitt, Interior of the Ashmolean, 1836, from the title page of A Catalogue of the Ashmolean Museum. Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum.


As it placed a value on “curiosities,” the Ashmolean also initiated a long tradition of Westerners laying claim to (and often outright stealing) objects from far-flung, exoticized locales and building impressive galleries for their safekeeping. As Helen Molesworth, former chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), recently wrote, “[The museum,] with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise. Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by.” Ultimately, she questions whether the entire “project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.”

Yet many other curators, artists, and museum directors have not yet (entirely) lost faith. With artworks, new initiatives, and alternate models, they’re attempting to redefine what institutions can look like, and what they can achieve.

The Ashmolean initiated a long tradition of Westerners laying claim to objects from exoticized locales and building impressive galleries for their safekeeping.

In her 2013 book Radical Museology: Or What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? Claire Bishop suggests that through innovative curating and programming, culture can become “a primary means for visualizing alternatives; rather than thinking of the museum collection as a storehouse of treasures, it can be reimagined as an archive of the commons.”

She cites the example of Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, which historicizes many artworks by placing them among the output of our wider visual culture: posters, documentaries, magazines, and so on. “Rather than being perceived as hoarded treasure, the work of art would be mobilized as a ‘relational object,’” Bishop writes, with the goal of ultimately liberating the viewer from entrenched social and political beliefs. This strategy also helps to dispel ideas of the artist-as-genius (which have long allowed such figures to abuse power and act poorly). Instead, artists become products of their time, situated among advertisers, graphic designers, and journalists.

Contemporary collecting practices

Collecting institutions, by their very nature, place large values on objects: They purchase artworks at galleries, auctions, and art fairs, often helping establish benchmarks for what the work is worth. Although this function is invisible to the daily visitor, museums remain important players in the art market.

Skeptics claim that this process fetishizes commodities, placing greater value on things than on people—indeed, a museum may be more likely to spend millions of dollars acquiring an important painting than it is to offer higher wages for its staff. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) employees are protesting this disparity with perhaps the most aplomb: Many attended a protest on May 31st, just before MoMA’s annual Party in the Garden fundraiser, and collective bargaining agreements regarding salaries and benefits are ongoing.  

It’s the collecting and displaying process, ostensibly in the name of a greater social good, that Molesworth condemns. “Not everything is available to everyone, not even to a privileged gatekeeper of culture such as myself. Such are the ongoing fantasies of the colonialist mindset,” she writes. “An overconfidence in the power of critique might itself be a vestige of privilege.” She leaves collecting institutions with little choice: adhere to long-established structures, or disband entirely.

If an art museum is not quite prepared to overthrow capitalism, it can still develop more ethical collecting practices. Justine Ludwig, the outgoing deputy director-slash-chief curator at Dallas Contemporary, who becomes the executive director of New York’s public arts organization Creative Time this month, tells Artsy that “we still need collecting institutions that invest in contemporary art, that create a codex or a legacy for what is happening in the now and generate scholarship.”

If an art museum is not quite prepared to overthrow capitalism, it can still develop more ethical collecting practices.

Museums have the power to support artists not just by giving them exhibitions, but by acquiring their work, as well. By embracing artwork by a diverse group of practitioners, museums can create a more equitable public understanding of art and artists. Done right, this helps guard against the case of under-recognized artists who don’t get their due as a result (most often) of their gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. When future generations think of the art of the early 21st century, they’ll conceive a group that extends far beyond white men. Collecting institutions have the power to push this reality even further.

Carin Kuoni, the director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, adds that it’s no longer sufficient to just show art by a varied group of individuals. “There is an expectation that museums and cultural institutions have to change structurally and have to be reflective of the constituents they serve and the programs they deliver,” she says. Everything about a museum, from its governing board to its shows, should reflect the same values.  

Similarly, Bishop writes that “representation of the other is not enough.” An institution must address societal issues and movements in its displays and its educational offerings. She praises the Reina Sofía’s free, intensive seminars on critical practices and workshops, which teach teenagers how to view the museum itself—not just the art inside. (That museums are the venue for and creator of such forums designed for their own critique is an ironic problem that, probably, has no real solution.)

Another option: Don’t collect

In 1830s Europe, the “Kunsthalle” emerged as a new model of display. Instead of amassing objects and focusing on their preservation, these institutions borrowed works for rotating exhibitions and emphasized community engagement. In 1872, Kunsthalle Basel opened in order to “provide a place for the fine arts that would foster friendly relations between artists and art lovers and would stimulate, promote and spread artistic interest in its hometown,” according to its website.

Germany and Switzerland, in particular, embraced the structure. Art flourished in cities small and large as a result of this decentralized model. Kunsthalle Bern, located in the Swiss capital, gained renown in the mid-20th century. Its star curator, Harald Szeemann, mounted a seminal 1969 exhibition entitled “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” which shaped worldwide perceptions of experimental art of the time, far from Paris, London, or New York. Kunsthalle Basel (Switzerland), Tensta Kunsthalle (Stockholm, Sweden), and Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna, Austria) have all gained renown for their programming, as well.  

Not worrying about acquiring, storing, and displaying a permanent collection frees up resources for supporting ambitious and challenging new art.

“I really see it as the ideal way to present most contemporary art, especially when you’re focusing on new commissions,” Ludwig says about the Kunsthalle structure. “It allows you to fully invest within that specific project.” Not worrying about acquiring, storing, and displaying a permanent collection frees up resources for supporting ambitious and challenging new art.

Dallas Contemporary operates this way, as do a handful of other American institutions including the Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati, the Aspen Art Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia. Yet the U.S. is still getting up-to-speed with a model our European counterparts have long embraced. American materialism, perhaps, extends to how we believe our institutions should function: identity is too often tied up with the things we own.

Structural issues

“At the end of the day,” writer, activist, and curator Laura Raicovich tells Artsy, “the institution is the people.” She served as executive director of the Queens Museum from 2014 through this past winter, when she stepped down following well-publicized disagreements with the museum’s board. Raicovich highlights how, especially given the institution’s lack of “an enormous collection of extremely precious art,” she prioritized funding and educating her own staff. (The Queens Museum does have a collection, which includes Tiffany glass and over 10,000 objects related to the 1939–40 and 1964–65 World’s Fairs, though these are rarely its major draw.)

She describes one of her prime initiatives as “re-imagining museum interpretations,” or rethinking the display strategies and language (in wall texts, brochures, and the like) that institutions use as intermediaries between the artwork and the viewer. By reconsidering the register, tone, and particulars of their language, museums also reconceive—and welcome—a broader viewership.

To this end, Caroline Goeser, chair of the department of learning and interpretation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, developed audience surveys. “Visitors are often browsers, and they have their own agenda,” she said. “It’s really important to provide visitors with as many entry points into either an exhibition or the permanent collection galleries that might connect with their personal lives.” Goeser believes that museums should focus on being more welcoming and offering immersive experiences. To attract local Latino communities, her team creates “anchored partnerships” with nearby organizations, inspiring interest via connection with trusted groups. (Artists can also be a uniting force: During a residency at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, New York-based painter Aliza Nisenbaum rendered portraits of city residents, and then welcomed them into the museum for additional dialogue.)

Aliza Nisenbaum painting a portrait of a Minneapolis resident. Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Through their research, Goeser’s team learned that audiences valued understanding how objects were made—a theme they could best address by going beyond standard interpretation strategies. For an exhibition on textiles, the museum created videos and interactive iPad stations that explored who the artisans were, and how they created the objects in the show. Additionally, the museum included hands-on tools, including a cart with fabric and thread that viewers could touch. “We are aware that often, your sense of touch is not addressed in a museum,” Goeser said. Tactile experiences, of course, transcend nearly all social barriers.

Echoing Bishop, Raicovich advocates a series of programs that can help lead a museum to become more of a “commons,” a place to have difficult conversations framed by culture and art. For that to work, she believes that institutions must first find a way to prioritize equity in their structures.

Though Raicovich admits she doesn’t have all the answers, and that these kinds of changes don’t happen overnight, the American Alliance of Museums also offers some guidelines. Its 2018 pamphlet, “Facing Change,” suggests that “broadening the pathways to employment helps create systemic change in the museum workplace.”

Raicovich advocates a series of programs that can help lead a museum to become more of a “commons,” a place to have difficult conversations framed by culture and art.

In addition to ending unpaid internship programs (which privilege applicants from comfortable financial backgrounds), the report suggests targeted recruitment efforts. It’s a museum’s responsibility to proactively engage with talent that might not otherwise consider a position. “Inclusion requires an institutional orientation toward listening,” the pamphlet suggests. “It requires a willingness to invest in equity just as enthusiastically as we invest in our operations.”

Of course, if a museum recruits from Ph.D. programs for its most prominent curatorial positions, academia must also address the dearth of diversity in its own programs. At the university level, educators should already be promoting art as a valid career path, no matter what a student’s financial or ethnic background—and offering funding, if necessary, to even the playing field.

Curatorial constraints and artist complaints

For about 60 years, artists have been some of museums’ greatest detractors. “Institutional Critique,” pioneered in the 1960s and ’70s by artists such as Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, and Vito Acconci, has become a major theme throughout Conceptual art practices. While these artists led the charge against what was happening inside museum walls, the contemporaneous land art movement created massive earthworks that were impossible to bring into the gallery space.

For example, Haacke proposed different pieces in which he’d survey museum visitors as to their backgrounds; expose the corporate affiliations of museum trustees by posting them on the gallery wall; or condemn city slumlords. If institutions were initially wary—the Guggenheim Museum cancelled a Haacke exhibition in 1971 and fired its curator, Edward Fry—they’re now more welcoming to such perspectives.


In the 1980s, artist Andrea Fraser notably took up the charge: In her 1989 piece Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, she led a wry tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, employing the often reverent language of docents as she praised everything from an exit sign to the bathrooms.    

Yet a major challenge persists: how to display such challenging art in a compelling, engaging manner. Conceptual artwork, most often, is more about ideas than a highly-structured aesthetic experience (less “retinal” than “in the service of the mind,” in the words of Marcel Duchamp). Privileging this kind of work can help defetishize museum objects, though perhaps at the cost of alienating burgeoning art enthusiasts. A famous painting or sculpture is often more approachable, a kind of gateway drug into more intensive art appreciation.

Barriers to access

Often, enhancing accessibility comes down to less lofty solutions. Ludwig mentions two easy, obvious ways for museums to become more accessible: offer free admission and parking. At Dallas Contemporary, she and her staff also ensured that all wall text is presented in English and Spanish. That small endeavor, Ludwig says, speaks directly to the city’s demographics.

At her new post, Ludwig will have the opportunity to engage different communities in a new way. Creative Time emphasizes “placing projects in the ideal location and speaking to the community,” she says. After Hurricane Sandy, the organization mounted “Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans. Artist Paul Chan connected the seminal Samuel Beckett play to the plight of the city anticipating the aid it needed.

City-wide events, similarly, can reach broader local audiences. In both Cincinnati and Baltimore, large-scale festivals (Blink and Light City, respectively) connect light-based art with urban architecture, music, and public celebration. With Pacific Standard Time, Los Angeles has mounted one of the country’s most ambitious attempts to unite a community through art: A series of thematically connected exhibitions at institutions large and small, encouraging deeper engagement and exploration of the cultural offerings throughout the city.

Though public arts organizations are designed to extend beyond the brick-and-mortar boundaries that constrain traditional museums, the latter can still take a cue from their broad-reaching counterparts and respond to community struggles as they arise.

The Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA launch party in Grand Park, 2017. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Indeed, innovative spaces and events are cropping up in New York and beyond in order to address such issues. The Shed, which will open in 2019, claims to be “the first arts center designed to commission, produce, and present all types of performing arts, visual arts, and popular culture.” Its inaugural program includes work by writer Anne Carson, filmmaker Steve McQueen, and director Chen Shi-Zheng (who’s conceiving an “immersive multimedia interpretation of a Chinese myth”). Alex Poots, who previously directed the Manchester International Festival and the Park Avenue Armory—another multimedia-friendly institution in New York—is at the helm.  

It’s also important to note that inclusivity measures should span beyond ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, and education level. The Metropolitan Museum of Art provides multi-sensory workshops for children with autism. At MoMA, Francesca Rosenberg, the museum’s director of community, access, and school programs, has undertaken major efforts to reframe disability among her staff. She sought to help her colleagues “embrace the social model of disability, which emphasizes that limitations and impairments are a normal part of the human condition and that what actually disables people are systemic barriers, negative attitudes, and exclusion by society.”

To that end, Rosenberg established an “Accessibility Task Force” to address issues of inclusivity; created a special program for visitors with Alzheimer’s; initiated a studio program for visitors with developmental disabilities; and recruited artists to help with her efforts. From creating a video loop with amplified sound for the hard-of-hearing to generating verbal descriptions of performance pieces, artists from Christian Marclay to Walid Raad have reached broader audiences thanks to small efforts and encouragements by the institution.

Digital strategies

Twenty-first-century museums now exist far beyond their walls, and so should their accessibility efforts. Institutions’ websites are often the first point of contact for their audiences, and they’re getting creative with their operations in the digital space. The Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app allows visitors to upload a snapshot of an artwork and ask any corresponding question they may have. Trained employees immediately field the inquiries, sometimes infusing their responses with their own opinions (as opposed to a rote message).

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Send Me app is similarly interactive. Anyone, inside the museum or out, can text “send me” to the number 572-51, requesting a particular color or thing. The app automatically responds by sending an image of a related artwork from the collection.

The Getty360 app, built for the Getty Center and Villa in Los Angeles, allows users to filter content by their preferences: events, talks, family, food, et cetera. In-depth glimpses of exhibitions allow deeper engagement with particular artworks and ideas. The trick, of course, is to enhance the museum-going experience, not replace it.

Finally, an app called Smartify launched last fall, billing itself as a kind of Shazam for artworks. Users can scan a work at a roster of museums that includes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Met, and receive supplemental information in return. Instead of reprimanding millennial phone users, such institutions are beginning to cater to them. Museums become friendlier places; like a good friend, they’re just a text message away.

But undertaking major digital endeavors, making a museum free to enter, financing staff member positions to support accessibility, and broadening the scope of educational programming are all noble goals that often require something far more base: money.


American museums receive most of their funding privately. The typical complaint here is that wealthy individuals, whose net worth derives from a variety of sources, are making the decisions that drive museum staffing and programming.

Most notably, the Sackler family (patrons of the Brooklyn Museum, the Dia Art Foundation, the Guggenheim Museum, and a variety of non-art institutions) is currently under fire for projecting a spirit of philanthropy with money earned from OxyContin sales, which have contributed to the nationwide opioid epidemic.

Yet, says Ludwig, private funding isn’t always necessarily a negative. “We are not beholden to the needs of our government,” she says. Alternatively, U.S. institutions often require donations from board members to fulfill costs.

“We have to create these ways in which a general public from a wide variety of backgrounds feels like the institutions speak directly to them.”

Again, Ludwig views this as a positive. “Individuals are coming together to realize the dreams and ambitions of these cultural institutions,” she says. Governing bodies put up their own money, signifying just how critical museums are for framing our societies. This system also avoids unilateral and narrow thinking: Ludwig offers that she’s “never met a board where everybody sees something the exact same way.”

Money, and where it comes from, is always a dicey topic. When asked about museums’ acceptance of funds from corporations or boards, Raicovich offers: “One of the hardest parts of doing any of this work right now is delving into that complexity, rather that pretending it’s a black-and-white situation.” It’s important to be cognizant of where money comes from, but it’s perhaps more important to do the right thing with it.

Ludwig goes so far as to suggest that museums are more important than ever, despite the persistent complaints, protests, and negations they face. “Visual language is becoming privileged as the lingua franca of the younger generation,” she says, pointing out our growing reliance on communication via image-based memes and emojis. “We have to create these ways in which a general public from a wide variety of backgrounds feels like the institutions speak directly to them.”

Alina Cohen

Header image by Corey Olsen for Artsy.