Keeping museums responsible: Social, political duties


Art and culture are deeply intertwined with one another, and museums serve as a platform to display this tight, undeniable connection. 

Cultural institutions like art museums have the power and thus, the responsibility to represent art and the world in an honest, just and diverse way. While art museums, by and large, do uphold the right values in their visions and missions, their sources of patronage can often be quite problematic.

In the 21st century, the relationship between the art world and its wealthy patrons has been scrutinized for donors’ ties and approaches to certain social issues and being on the wrong side of history. 

In the past year alone, there have been multiple instances of ethical appraisals in the art world. Lovers and consumers of art increasingly find themselves questioning the moral role and social duty of museums.

Most recently, the reimagined Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened its doors to the public on Sunday, Oct. 20, but its grand return to New York City’s bustling art scene was rocked by some controversy. Two protests took place in regard to the donors that backed the MoMA’s $450 million expansion and renovation project. 

The first was at the MoMA’s reopening party on Friday, Oct. 18, and protested Larry Fink, a trustee at the museum and CEO of BlackRock Inc., a New York-based global investment management firm that is a stakeholder in private prison corporations. Protestors lined up outside the luxe art world gathering in Midtown, urging the MoMA to remove Fink from the board.

The second protest took place soon after on Monday, Oct. 21, and protested Steven Tananbaum, a private hedge fund manager also on the board of trustees at the MoMA. Tananbaum is the founder and chief investment officer of GoldenTree Asset Management and is tied to the exploitative handling of around $2.5 billion worth of Puerto Rican debt. 

The island territory is currently facing an economic crisis in light of recent austerity measures imposed by the American government and the lasting aftermath of the 2017 Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

A marquee moment in art world scandal was associated with this year’s Whitney Biennial. Warren B. Kanders, the vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board, resigned on July 25 after eight artists asked for their work to be removed from the Biennale Exhibition in protest and a series of demonstrations took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Kanders owns Safariland Group, a manufacturer of tear gas that has been used against migrants at the Southern border and allegedly at protestors in Puerto Rico in July. 

Perhaps the most infamous patrons in the art world are the Sackler family of pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, notorious for contributing to and benefitting from America’s opioid crisis. 

Their company essentially withheld information related to the addictive nature of the drug OxyContin for many years, worsening the opioid epidemic. As of September 2019, Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy in order to settle thousands of cases related to OxyContin and its detrimental effects. 

Institutions like The Louvre in Paris have removed the toxic Sackler name from its galleries, but legalities have made it harder for American institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) and the Smithsonian Institution to react quickly to public outrage. 

The Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York said it would not be accepting further donations from the Sackler family after a momentous protest in February in which activists threw prescription slips from the spiraling galleries of the museum’s iconic spiraling building. 

The Met has also stopped accepting gifts from the Sacklers. Its president, Daniel H. Weiss, said that “it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest, or in our institution’s interest.”

Donors need to be better vetted by museums when representing culture because money has moral meaning and implications in today’s art world. The standards for who should be making gifts to cultural institutions have evolved in the contemporary art world and in the public eye, and it's imperative that museums meet these standards. 

All of the aforementioned institutions support and exhibit the work of a diverse array of artists, many of whom are socially and politically active through their work. 

Museums, slowly but surely, are being responsive to social and political movements, making progress toward real accountability and addressing the real ethical issues regarding their funding.


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