The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph by Tim Schenck, courtesy of the Whitney.
As the art world reckoned with the impending presidency of Donald Trump and the growing call for action last Monday, Whitney director Adam Weinberg gave, what was by all accounts, an impassioned speech. Never referencing the President-elect by name, Weinberg took aim at the rhetoric and vision of the country put forward during his campaign.
“It is our role not to let them own what we think of as America, but to express what we believe is America,” he reportedly said. Weinberg also addressed the J20 Art Strike, a movement calling for the art world’s institutions to close on January 20th, Inauguration Day. Supported by prominent curators, critics, and artists, including Hans Haacke and Cindy Sherman, the strike is “one tactic among others to combat the normalization of Trumpism—a toxic mix of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, militarism, and oligarchic rule,” according to a statement by the group.
Major museums have resisted the call to shutter their doors for the day. “We’re actually going to do the opposite,” Weinberg said during his remarks. “We’re going to make the museum free—pay what you wish—all day Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.” Along with relaxing the admission charge (normally $22 for an adult), the Whitney will host guided tours and discussion groups that use the collection as a way to parse American identity and issues. Most notably, the arts collective Occupy Museums has organized “Speak Out on Inauguration Day,” a program in the museum that will feature writers, activists, and artists from Dread Scott to Martha Rosler to the Guerrilla Girls, who will “affirm their values in response to the current political climate.”
The Whitney is not alone in opting for broader access and dialogue over closure on January 20th. The New Museum will also be pay-what-you-wish, while the Brooklyn Museum, which is always pay-what-you-wish, has lined up a marathon reading of Langston Hughes’s 1935 poem about the American dream, “Let America Be America Again.” But at some of Manhattan’s marquee cultural institutions that prefer to claim an apolitical status, like the Met and MoMA, calls for a J20 strike have been met largely with silence.
These institutional choices may give an early indication of how different museums will navigate our current political climate in the years ahead. Though the call by the J20 group allows for a degree of flexibility in how individuals and organizations choose to respond, some argue that even free admission and special programming doesn’t fully challenge business as usual, and the major conservative donors who sit on some museum boards, as the strike intends. (This isn’t a uniform position; some J20 signatories like Hal Foster see a more tempered response as being in the spirit of the strike.)
But at the Queens Museum, an institution with a diverse staff that is closely attuned to its local community, the team began thinking about how to respond to the election long before the call for a strike. “We started working internally, essentially the morning after the election,” Laura Raicovich, the museum’s executive director and president, told me. “We felt people were feeling very vulnerable and the museum needed to respond,” she said, adding that her institution saw a decline in attendance from local Queens residents following November 8th, particularly among Latino families coming to the museum’s weekend workshop.
The museum will officially close in solidarity with the strike, making it the only major New York institution to do so, though it will host a two-hour workshop, “Sign of the Times,” in which visitors can make buttons, shirts, and posters in anticipation of future action (workshop materials will be available in English, Spanish, and Mandarin). Raicovich sees her museum’s plans for inauguration day as representing a broad set of values. “This isn’t a response to one particular person or the President-elect specifically,” she said. “It’s about the kind of rhetoric that came out of the election much more generally and pervasively.”
But Raicovich stresses that the museum will not turn away visitors or residents who, unaware of the J20 action, come expecting to find the doors open as usual. “Even though this is a hot topic for some of us, there is a whole swath of our community that we honor and work with very regularly that isn’t part of this conversation,” she said.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Alicia Boone, associate curator of public programs, also couched her institution’s response to Trump’s inauguration in terms of its local community. “As a museum, we’re non-partisan,” she said. “We want to be a place of solace, we want to be a place of creativity.” Every half hour on Friday, from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m, artists, activists, and writers will read Hughes’s poem. “Hopefully in between readings people can bond with each other and connect as community members,” Boone said. This desire to foster dialogue and provide a space for the community is why, Boone said, “as the Brooklyn Museum, it made sense for us to stay open.”
As museums consider where their responsibilities lie in turbulent times, staff members will need to respond quickly to the needs and concerns of local residents. The program at the Brooklyn Museum evolved rapidly last week after a staff member posted Hughes’s poem to an internal listserv. Ten different staff members from departments ranging from curatorial to education to editorial worked to organize the reading, reaching out to activists, writers, and artists. “We’ve had an amazing response,” Boone said. “It shows that even a large institution can be super nimble and responsive.” Among those reading are AK Burns, José Parlá, Jordan Casteel, and Nona Faustine.
For museums that serve more diverse audiences, the decision was no doubt clearer. “Because of who we are, because of the legacy of the Queens Museum, and because we’ve always served the communities that are now feeling vulnerable, it was a little easier, perhaps, for us to take this kind of action,” Raicovich said, adding she was glad to see that other institutions like the Whitney, where she will speak on Friday, are also organizing special programming.
At the end of our interview, Raicovich struck an upbeat tone. “This is yet another moment when art can contribute to a larger understanding of the universe that we live in,” she said, “and how it could be a more just and equitable place.”