Almost every single industry out there took a hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The arts and culture sector has seen a sharp decline in its revenue. When it comes to the case of museums, the pandemic, along with ongoing uprisings and conversations about racial inequality and systemic oppression, have truly highlighted a crisis in museums that has long been dormant.
Over 50 years ago, European art museums were removed from the daily lives of working people. They were, in fact, exclusive to the upper class and the elite. “Lovers of art” were almost always considered from the upper echelon. But with the expansion of the cultural industry, and most museums being free to the public, students, and many walks of life, museums became more and more accessible.
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art established a mandatory admission fee of $25 for out-of-state visitors in 2018, it caused a big roar in the art world. Why were they charging admission fees when their whole collections are based on plunder? Stolen artifacts from Indigenous communities from all around the world? The statements of the president and CEO reflected the importance of visitors in the funding of museums, but it still sparked a conversation around the ethics of keeping art.
When COVID-19 hit, and the ripple effect on the economy started showing its teeth, we all started seeing the cracks of social injustice and racial inequality in big institutions. With museum layoffs growing exponentially, many wondered about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan (in the range of $150k-$350k) that most museums received, and where that money disappeared to. If they were receiving loans to keep their employees, then why were they laying them off? And why were these layoffs affecting people of color mostly?
These are all questions that came to light over the past seven months. And now, the straw that broke the camel’s back: The Whitney Museum has announced that they will be cancelling an exhibition which was primarily featuring artworks purchased from Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 benefit sales. The museum has faced widespread criticism and the artists denounced their acquisition process.
This makes me wonder, after spending time and energy to go through all these diversity training classes that they claim to have done, and readjusting their missions to address and actually repair racial injustice and systemic oppression in their institutions, will they ever really truly follow their own word? Or will museums and institutions continue to exploit and plunder?