It is clearer than ever that museums are not isolated spaces, able to float above the political currents twisting across the country. More and more, artists are creating socially charged works to address the racial and socioeconomic inequalities that are a constant presence in the national dialogue. Museums and the governments and philanthropic institutions that support them, meanwhile, are rethinking their roles in order to leverage their institutional clout and mobilize the art establishment toward creating a more equitable and diverse world—rather than being walled-off spaces for the wealthy.
To address these issues, Cool Culture—which helps tens of thousands of low-income families access New York’s cultural institutions for free—assembled a panel of individuals (moderated by Cool Culture executive director Candice Anderson) at the Centre for Social Innovation in Chelsea on Wednesday night. Present on the stage were Margaret Morton, who serves as part of the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression Team; Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA); James E. Bartlett, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA); Miguel Luciano, an artist; and Nicole Ivy, a museum futurist at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The panel also coincided with Cool Culture’s launch of the second Laboratory for New Audiences, which brings together 34 museum educators from 22 cultural institutions to think about how museums can address today’s rapid social, political, and economic transformations, and advance equity.
Though the speakers represented different segments of the art world, the conversation was far from segmented—further evidence, if you needed any to begin with, that none of these roles functions in isolation. There was a great deal of consensus among those on stage about issues that art institutions must attend to, including cultivating the work of socially engaged artists, diversifying museum staff at every level, and thinking more expansively about how museums should position themselves in relationship to the communities they serve.
Rethinking a Museum’s Position
While broader social movements—Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15, to name just two examples—have increased the urgency with which museums need to engage with inequality, this is far from the first time that institutions have grappled with their place in the political dialogue. “The idea of cultural institutions being prompted or having a stake in social and political change, that’s not a new thing,” Ivy said. But the digital age has changed the way people approach cultural institutions. Buoyed by the public’s expectation for accessibility and openness, museums are pushed to “think with our communities and not simply as spokespersons,” she said.