Should We Support Museums? —Getty Week 4

I love museums. I know my title belies this, but I promise, I do! I grew up going to them: art museums, natural history museums, children’s museums, etc. I remember being about five years old and playing at a children’s museum in DC, I think in an exhibit on manholes? I can’t remember the details, but I know there was an underground component. In middle school, the First Ladies’ dresses, including Michelle Obama’s Jason Wu gown, awed me with their elegance. I have filled high school and college with trips to the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan, the Whitney, etc. Studying abroad in Paris, I attended class in the Louvre. Suffice to say, I love museums. They make me feel at home, they inspire me, they comfort me.

However, this is not the only truth about museums. Museums, very often, are populated with stolen artifacts, founded on or kept alive by money from unsavory places, filled with established people interested in maintaining the establishment. They sometimes pay lip service to progressive movements, maybe having an exhibit on protest art or inviting local artists to talk about their experiences, but they are often still putting their money behind/towards the same (white, upper class, able-bodied) people.

Museums are at a cross-roads right now. Their audiences are changing, their inner workings more scrutinized. Art restitution cases and editorials on the “stuck-in-the-past” mentality of art museums unwilling to listen to younger artists or to the cultures whose artifacts grace their display cases have been filling the news cycle.

Being part of the Getty has been a fascinating look into another part of the conversation. I’ve seen how, in some ways, they are leading museums in accessibility. The museum is free to enter, and will remain so always. The Getty hosts talks by very different people, touching on diverse topics (we had one recently on whether or not there is hope for civilization!). We just had a large event where art from local teenagers and USC students was projected on to the walls of the Getty.

I had the privilege the other day of listening to a few different people working in the arts as they addressed this year’s class of Marrow Undergraduate Interns, which is an awesome program put on by the Getty Foundation in order to, in their words, “encourage greater diversity in the professions related to museums and the visual arts, [by supporting] substantive, full-time summer work opportunities for college undergraduates from cultural backgrounds that have traditionally been underrepresented in the arts.”

This program is a great example of museums actually putting their institutional resources and weight behind underrepresented people.

However, listening to this diverse group of arts professionals—some LA natives, others East Coast transplants, most bilingual, most differing in some way from white, straight, and male— you could hear where institutions have failed them. They talked about not seeing work by anyone like them on the walls of museums, being the only Latinx or queer or Black or not-male person in a room making curatorial decisions, being mistaken as janitorial staff when they walked into their job without their museum badge, being questioned by their communities on how they could work within these large-scale institutions.

Their advice was wide-ranging, and practical: talk to your peers, keep your community close. Hold each other up, make space for your own mental health. Be the example you wished you’d had as a child. Some held doctorates and were working from inside the so-called “ivory tower,” while others had pursued more of an arts activism career. All of them saw hope in the future of museums, while understanding the current reality.

I believe museums are vital, and that they still have so much room to grow. I want to be involved in the work to make museums more accessible (physically, financially, content-wise, etc.), to investigate where art is happening that institutions have traditionally ignored. I want to see more museums shifting their priorities to include underrepresented people and interrogating where they have failed to do that in the past.

Museums, when working from a mutually learning posture, are wonderful resources, able to open windows to other worlds and cultures and times. They teach us about our past, inspire our future, and beautify our present. They are hands-on learning laboratories, balm for the soul, supporters of artists.

But in order to achieve this, museums (and people like me, hoping to work in them) must be willing to give up money or prestige or personal/institutional power or even artifacts in order to welcome more people to the table. Museums must actively work to counter their institutional inertia. We all benefit when we hear from more voices, when we listen to and preserve more stories.

I love museums, and that is why I support them, in this pursuit of growth.