Looking at Museums, from the Outside Now

I love quiet places. Even as a fourth grader, I wondered if all that yelling at recess was really necessary. So I hid in cardboard box forts with library books. I hid in the back seat of my parents’ Dodge van. And whenever I could, I hid in museums. I’ve loved them ever since for their quiet treasures, for their patience and safety, for their endless surprises hidden in plain sight. Even, I have to admit, for their unwillingness to evolve.

With only the loosest of career intentions—dusting mummies? wearing chunky necklaces while herding school children?— I moved to New York in 2005 to get a Master’s degree in Museum Studies. I had failed to get into the same program at San Francisco State, where the director explained that the primary issue facing contemporary cultural institutions was keeping teenagers from spitting on things. That conversation was my first lesson: museums are, historically, places where old white people clutch ill-gotten treasures to keep them “safe” from the masses.

My education was quick. I cranked out a thesis on the national Museum of Iraq (founded by a female British colonist, sacked during the U.S. occupation, etc.), then jumped squarely into the mess as a communications assistant at a respected institution on museum mile. Here it all was: educators working in the shadows of curators, who were inextricably entwined in grotesque pseudo-romances with board members, and of course, artists themselves. Everyone, it seemed, was vampirically sucking up something from somebody else. For the board members, it was the cultural capital of the museum and the cleansing effect of having done something nominally philanthropic. For the curators, it was the thrill of being near the artists and their work, and of having their interpretations of art held up as art itself. For artists, it was long-awaited vindication (but not necessarily a paycheck) after years of substandard living and general societal sidelining. For me and the other thirty-thousandaires I toiled alongside, it was cheese cubes left over after press previews, and the occasional hushed tour of a gallery after closing. Which was lovely, but didn’t pay the rent. I ate from tupperware containers and glued my shoes back together against the backdrop of million-dollar fundraisers and Oscar-worthy red carpets. Some people, as it turns out, do quite well in museum economies.

None of this is news to anyone who has ever torn a ticket, planned a gala, served a cup of coffee or drafted a press release in a museum. But now it’s real news. News news. The money and the power in our spiritual bathhouses, our monuments to the cleansing property of high culture, are filthy fucking crooked. Everybody knows it, or everybody should. It’s suddenly very visible.

Nan Goldin’s recent protest against the Sackler family drug cartel was a good old-fashioned, ACT UP-style party, big and bold and gorgeous. It loudly outed the drug money that fuels the “good” that the Guggenheim does (among other museums), which, as one shells out more than three hours’ worth of the Federal minimum wage for admission, feels increasingly unclear. Downtown, the Whitney has faced a different PR disaster as Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the board, was outed as a dealer of tear gas implemented against migrants at the U.S. border.

Of course, there’s progress too. Workers at the New Museum, which is planning an $85 million dollar expansion, recently voted to unionize. And these days the Brooklyn Museum turns out a steady stream of smart, beautiful, radical exhibits of work by and for people of color. Art in the Age of Black Power. Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. The list goes on, but the museum still backs itself into incredibly obvious corners. How hard is it not to hire a white person to curate African art?

I’m watching all of this from the outside now, because five years ago I found I could no longer afford to work in museums. The industry, after all, is build on a scaffold of labor abuse. It has undervalued or outright stolen the works of artists, known and unknown, particularly and most egregiously from indigenous people. It was founded on, and is still largely propped up by the unpaid and laughably-paid labor of women who are often partially supported by their parents, partners, or second jobs (I took restaurant reservations). Today’s museum laborers do battle with this long-established system every time they open their paychecks.

Solving the problem frightens those in power because it wouldn’t just transform the museum’s labor structure. It would lead to the reimagining of the museum itself, by removing economic barriers to participation. With the promise of a living wage, workers of any background could contribute their vision and their labor. Priorities would shift. Exhibitions would look different. Power would be redistributed. But for now, low salaries make it difficult or impossible to sustain a career in the field for those who are unsubsidized. Heavily in debt and demonstrably underpaid, I left my last museum job for a nearly fifty percent pay raise at a social service nonprofit doing identical work.

So. There is not enough money in museums. Or there is enough, but it’s from the wrong places. Where, they will say, are we supposed to get the money, if not from the Sacklers? If not from the tear-gas makers? It’s a good question. Maybe museums can reconsider the necessity of multi-million dollar salaries for executive directors. Maybe they can redirect the funds tagged for monumental, self-aggrandizing expansions and record-setting acquisitions that make news, but don’t mean much to anyone living next door. Maybe museums should ask the neighbors what they think. Maybe the point is to be quiet and listen, after all.