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Art Museums Need to Address Colonialist Theft—Not Diversity

The Museum of Modern Art will close this summer to include more works from artists of color. Activists say this does little to reconcile centuries of exploitation.

by Danielle Kwateng-Clark
Feb 8 2019, 8:51pm

Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

The Museum of Modern Art will be temporarily closing its doors for renovation this year. As announced on Tuesday, from June 15 to October 21, the building will be closing to accommodate a $400 million reconfiguration of its galleries—most notably, 40,000 square feet of additional space—"to focus new attention on works by women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans and other overlooked artists," as Leon Black, the museum’s chairman, told The New York Times.

“We don’t want to forget our roots in terms of having the greatest Modernist collection but the museum didn’t emphasize female artists, didn’t emphasize what minority artists were doing, and it was limited on geography,” Black said to the Times. "Those were always the exceptions, now they really should be part of the reality of the multicultural society we all live in.”

Every six to nine months the museum will rotate its galleries to accommodate works from lesser-known talents, like Igbo-Nigerian multidisciplinary artist Okwui Okpokwasili, whose work will show after the reopening. MoMa is also partnering with the Studio Museum in Harlem to present exhibitions curated by Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum's director.

The very clear shift for inclusion in the 89-year-old institution is a part of a growing conversation in the art world about representation and decolonization of traditionally white spaces. In recent years, the dialogue has come to include ownership over pop culture references, the return of stolen artifacts, and protesting of museums all over the globe.

"So here's the deal: Museums are colonial structures," Amin Husain, a facilitator at Decolonize This Place, a movement dedicated to the liberation of Black and Indigenous people tells Broadly. "We were at this moment, maybe in 2010, where across the world oppressed people are rising up, from Tunisia onward. During that moment, we saw renewed attention toward museums. People of color organized as arts and labor, and they were protesting in MoMA. The Sotheby's were on strike. People started looking at museums and art in the context of what is happening in Western civilization—that failed us —and we were speaking up."

Growing concerns about erasure and re-traumatization of Black and brown people, Husain believes, are what formed the catalyst behind the movement to rethink how modern museums work, what items they put on display, and how they treat the people of color they employ.

Currently, there are over 16 million collection objects in over 200 art museums across the country. A 2015 report from the Mellon Foundation found that 72 percent of the staff in these art museums are white people in curator, conservator, and leadership positions—while the remaining 28 percent are people of color who work majority in facilities and security roles.

"Part of the awakening and the work that we've been doing is [explaining] that there's a difference between diversity and inclusion, putting up radical shows, and the fact that the money is bad," says Husain. "It's basically art washing and being used to kind of funnel money in a particular way, and how you're treating your workers, who are largely people of color."

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Diana Buckley Muchmore the executive director of ProjectArt, an organization that works with public libraries to teach underserved youth, contends that the dialogue about decolonizing museums goes back even further, saying it began with curator Marcia Tucker, who started the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York as a way to disrupt the traditional white-leaning language of museums and how they represented white male artists.

"This issue really caught on in 1990 when the US government implemented NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act], which finally recognized that material culture and art from Indigenous communities truly belongs to those communities," Muchmore says. "This new law forced museums to comply for the first time in terms of ‘collection’ responsibility. I think it's milestones like these that caused a ripple effect for all museum curators to begin thinking in a more culturally responsive way."

Amin believes that even with inclusion efforts like MoMa is making with their new wing, the system needs to be gutted from inside out to amend for the centuries of exploitation and corruption at the hands of European colonizers.

"It's all about the process," he says. "Let the communities that have a stake, be at the table. That includes low wages, the right to unionize, for example, the return of artifacts. [Museums] could literally map out an inventory of what they have—we've laid out territorial acknowledgment."

"We can't just have conversations for conversations," Amin says. "It's complicated stuff, but we'll figure it out together."