BY Laura Raicovich in Opinion | 27 MAR 20
Featured in
Issue 209

Museums Are Never Neutral

Neutrality is a veil for wielding power: this is the status quo that requires resistance

BY Laura Raicovich in Opinion | 27 MAR 20

Nan Goldin, co-founder of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), at a protest staged by P.A.I.N. and Truth Pharm outside Purdue Pharma headquarters, Stamford, 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Erik McGregor 

For museums to become more equitable spaces, the histories and structures that underpin them must be confronted, starting with recognizing that museums have never been neutral. This necessary evolution is not a transition towards an ideology but, rather, a recognition of past and current ideological frameworks that are unjust and exclusionary. Among the thorniest aspects of this undoing is how culture is funded, in part because the power relationships embedded in museums – especially in the US – mirror the yawning gap in wealth and privilege between an increasingly exclusive minority and the vast majority of society.

That culture is dependent on this small group, as magnanimous as it might be, is problematic. Anyone involved in for- or non-profit fundraising knows that a diverse source of capital is essential to ensure the interests of one group or individual do not achieve outsized influence.

Diversification is a challenge, particularly in the US, where public funding for the arts – an important counterweight to private donors – is especially anaemic. The US has no federal ministry devoted to culture and the under-funded National Endowment for the Arts is perennially on the budgetary chopping block, so it is no surprise that support comes largely from the private sector. The arts could not exist without it. My argument is not for a public takeover of cultural funding, but for a rebalancing of its sources so that we may undo the inequities embedded in the museum’s operations.

Since the US was formed as a nation in 1776 largely in response to taxation from the British Crown, it makes sense that the history of federal tax-funded expenditure is rife with allergic responses. Several years after the 16th Amendment to the US Constitution created a federal income tax in 1913, wealthy individuals could make deductions from pre-tax dollars based on philanthropic giving. In a 2019 article for Business History Review, Nicolas J. Duquette writes:

‘After World War II, these business founders discovered that, under postwar tax rates, they were better off giving away their wealth than consuming it directly [...] precipitat[ing] a surge in charitable giving and foundation establishment that transformed American civil society and led to a new public controversy over the appropriate role of donors in policymaking and the legitimate uses of the contribution deduction. The backlash to these reforms created both the modern identity of a “nonprofit sector” […] and a new conservative politics that emphasized philanthropy and voluntarism over public provision of social services.’

And herein lies the paradox of philanthropy: if volunteerism is prioritized, government and civil society can feel relieved from providing the kinds of programmes – from education and social services to culture, health and environmental advocacy – that a diverse public requires. The problem grows when these services are then privately funded by the businesses that participated in creating the conditions of inequity in the first place.

For instance, consider two recent examples of public ire over sources of museum funding: the Sackler family, who have sponsored institutions in the US, UK, France and Germany, and Warren B. Kanders, a prominent donor and former vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Sacklers made their fortune creating and marketing the highly addictive drug OxyContin, which has been linked to the US opioid crisis (which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of overdoses and deaths), while Kanders’s company, Safariland, produces the tear gas used against asylum seekers at the Mexico-US border. Public outrage that cultural spaces are supported by funders – congratulated for their generosity notwithstanding the role their wealth acquisition has played in violence and destruction – has resulted in the removal of the Sackler name from the walls of institutions internationally, and in Kanders’s resignation from the Whitney’s board of trustees.

Not all donors necessarily have such objectionable sources of wealth but, without robust support from the public sector, there is no counterweight to private interests. Ideally, the public sector would substantially fund annual operations for cultural institutions. This would mean that the people who pay taxes are supporting and engaging with the institutions and have a stake in their operations and programming.

The question of how to create new income streams has many answers. New sources could include proceeds from a wealth tax, like the one Elizabeth Warren has proposed; a fruitful, if flawed, lottery system like Arts Council England’s National Lottery Project Grants; or local taxes that explicitly fund the arts from a percentage of sales tax, like Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment.

Alternatively, increasing public support may be achieved by rejecting the assumption that we have to find a ‘how’ in the first place. The apportionment of tax revenues is always a highly politicized and ideological process. The massive tax cuts introduced by US Presidents George W. Bush (in 2001 and 2003) and Donald Trump (in 2017), which heavily benefited the wealthy and corporations, as well as both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, were deficit financed (meaning they did not determine a ‘how’ before the spending started). Could we imagine making this a reality for arts funding?

Let’s look at what we actually mean by public funding because, in some sense, the public – i.e. tax payers – are funding culture. The path of their support, however, is less direct than the explicitly revenue-generating examples above.

While many smaller organizations are significantly supported by local arts councils, city agencies and state sources of funding, large institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York – which are still private organizations, despite being non-profits that exist for the ‘public good’ – apply for and receive very little direct public support. This is not a problem, as MoMA and similarly scaled museums access the deepest pockets on the planet through their donor bases, leaving less-well-endowed organizations to reap public support.

However, such a narrow understanding about funding culture fails to recognize an extremely important aspect of what the public sector is actually granting to private institutions like MoMA. Look no further than the tax deductions that board members, donors via family foundations and other supporters receive for the many millions of dollars they give annually. We have ceased to see this as a benefit provided by the public not only to the arts, but also to wealthy people. After all, the taxes that would otherwise be collected without those tax deductions will never reach public coffers. By offering this benefit to private individuals and foundations, the public forfeits any say in how those deducted funds might be expended.

The publicly granted tax deduction incentive for charitable giving yields enormous support for ‘public institutions’, while driving decision-making into private, privileged hands; it is profoundly embedded in how culture operates in the US. Perhaps in tandem with recognizing the reality of the public support given to the wealthy funders of cultural institutions via the tax deduction, additional requirements should be mandated in exchange for this benefit, including low admission charges, increased public amenities such as child care, living wages for staff, transparency of funding sources, and other priorities the public might express. 

Like neutrality, we have to be able to see the public’s role in our ‘public institutions’ (and, especially, our privately funded ones) so that we may recognize that the public is powerful, even in the context of late capitalism where power seems increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. In order to enact better structures and spaces, we need to imagine them. Neutrality is a veil for wielding power and, because it is veiled, it becomes invisible and ‘just the way things are’. This is the status quo that requires resistance. We must forge further, engaging in a far more inclusive conversation about what our collective desires are for cultural and civic spaces, how these might be enacted in myriad ways throughout a diverse ecology of museums, and what this might mean for public support in all its forms. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 209 with the headline ‘The Public Is Powerful’

Laura Raicovich is a writer and art worker based in New York City. Until recently she served as Director of the Queens Museum. Raicovich’s recent books include, as author, At the Lightning Field (Coffee House Press, 2017) and as co-editor, Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017). She is currently working on a book about museums, cultural institutions and the myth of neutrality, which will be published by Verso later this year.