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Feedback from Museumgoers May Be Changing the Art World

Curators are paying attention to audiences at large.
Photograph via AP Images

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A testament to the times we're living in, even the most mainstream gallery and museum curators and directors have been directly influenced by the rising tides of the resistance and its power to sway our national conversation. In August, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago installed We Are Here, which focuses "on the relationship between artist and viewer," and this month, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is displaying Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950–1980 at the Met Breuer. The show relates our present political and cultural situation to that previous period of worldwide turmoil, a parallel that's been highlighted by protest movements continuing to fight for civil rights today. The museum's description of the exhibition asserts: "Delirious times demand delirious art."


Recent attempts by curators and directors to join the tradition of using art to spark dialogue around questions of social justice, well-intentioned as they may have been, have varied in success. Some exhibits have been so maligned by the public as to influence institutions to overhaul their approach to programming altogether, leaving leadership changes in the wake.

In 2016, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) faced a backlash after artist Kelley Walker, whose exhibition there included images of police brutality smeared with chocolate, refused to answer audience questions about how race was represented in his work during a panel. St. Louis artist Damon Davis called for a boycott of the white artist, saying, "If you don't respect your audience, if you don't even know who your audience is, you don't deserve one." Ten days after Walker's exhibit opened, CAM modified it with a content warning, and in August of this year, Wassan Al-Khudhairi replaced CAM chief curator Jeffrey Uslip. Of the reason for the content warning, Lisa Melandri, CAM's executive director, said, "It was a chance for us to show we were indeed adaptable, not just in terms of the way that we change who we are for various exhibitions, but in being able to change very quickly the way even the display of the artwork looks."

This past spring, protests erupted over the inclusion of Dana Schutz's Open Casket painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Museum's Biennial. Less than a month after the show opened, the Whitney responded by teaming up with poet Claudia Rankine's Racial Imagery Institute to host a public discussion titled "Perspectives on Race and Representation," with the discourse sparked by the painting as its starting point.

A protester blocks museumgoers' view of Dana Schutz's Open Casket at the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

In May, the Walker Art Museum took audience feedback even further. With the blessing of artist Sam Durant, the museum allowed for the destruction of Scaffold—a 2012 sculpture resembling the gallows used for a number of executions, including that of 38 Dakota Native Americans in 1862—by the Dakota people who protested its installation in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Each of these pieces included imagery by white artists of violence toward people of color, and in each case the institution responded relatively quickly, suggesting that we exist in an age when, even in the often supercilious world of museums, individuals can ignite institution-changing actions, forcing the powers that be to further democratize the curating process. Still it remains to be seen if the museums of tomorrow will continue to evolve, or if they'll fall back into the hierarchical traditions of the past.