Breaking away from the white cube

Brian Droitcour

Following recent eruptions around museums' treatment of race, class, gender, and more, writer and editor Brian Droitcour looks back at how artists and curators approached new strategies for display

On one day in January, I saw two videos about going to museums. In one passage of her video installation IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (2017), Sondra Perry walks among the displays of African art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the British Museum in London, where colonial spoils are held behind glass as specimens. In Perry’s video, some of the objects are halfway freed from that context, appearing as 3D models superimposed on her footage. ‘Unholding,’ an exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art at Artists Space, included Culture Capture (2017) by Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, in which a figure walks through the American Museum of Natural History’s collection of Native American objects. He wears a mask resembling flayed, glistening flesh, as if to externalize the horror of seeing elements of community life as zombies, divorced from ritual context and social significance, inhabiting an afterlife as artifacts.

Recent years have seen loud controversies around museums and their failures to communicate with the diverse audiences that they seek to engage. In 2016, activists protested Kelley Walker’s show at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, and as a result, a monumental mural of police beating Civil Rights protesters was partially obscured. In 2017, the Dakota tribe denounced a piece by Sam Durant installed in the Walker Art Center’s renovated sculpture garden that replicated parts of the scaffolding that was used to hang 38 men of their tribe in 1862. After a closely-followed public dialog, the Walker ultimately agreed to remove the sculpture. The year 2018 has been quieter in comparison, as if museums hunkered down to reckon with the situation and figure out what to do next.

One solution in the air was the development of new institutional forms; if the white cube is alienating and corrupted by associations with past crimes, put art somewhere else. The Shed – which going forward will be known as the Bloomberg Building, after a $75 million donation from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg – will host a genre-bending program of performance-based work when its flexible structure opens on the city’s West Side in April 2019. ‘A Prelude to The Shed’ took place in the shadow of a construction site in May, with a program that sketched out the direction that the new institution will take. A work by Tino Sehgal flowed into a demonstration of acrobatic Flex dancing and a show by electronica auteur Arca. In a manifesto published as a brochure accompanying it, curator and theorist Dorothea von Hantelmann says the institution offers a new model of congregating in public, one that will overcome the 20th-century industrial world’s excess focus on isolated individuality.

Jennifer Steinkamp, Retinal, 2018, a two-channel nocturnal video installation shown in Open Spaces Kansas City. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin gallery; photo by Jennifer Steinkamp.

Open Spaces Kansas City, a new biennial, debuted in August. While it has become common for periodic exhibitions to extend into cities, luring viewers on a scavenger hunt to places off the usual route of museums and galleries, Open Spaces is the first I’ve been to without a central hub. There was no gallery where juxtapositions of works could outline an overarching curatorial vision. Instead, artistic director Dan Cameron lined up a unique venue for each work. Most were outdoors, and many were in the sprawling Swope Park. The rarefied museum atmosphere was eschewed entirely, which helped highlight the importance of the accompanying program of performances in all sorts of genres; the singer Janelle Monáe, who headlined Open Spaces with an October appearance at Starlight Theatre in the park, graced the cover of the exhibition guide.

Dawn DeDeaux, Free Fall: Prophecy and Free Will in Milton’s Paradise Lost, 2018, installed in Swope Park as part of Open Spaces Kansas City. Courtesy of the artist; photo by Chris Alfieri.

The controversies in St. Louis and Minneapolis foregrounded the importance of including of nonwhite perspectives in administrative and curatorial decision-making. One could argue that developing new ways of framing art and culture goes further, by changing the very structure of how institutions work. But as critics of ‘A Prelude to The Shed’ pointed out, for all of von Hantelmann’s theorizing regarding spaces that activate ‘modalities of association and interrelatedness’ rather than ‘separation and further liberalization,’ the Bloomberg Building is funded by developers of the Hudson Yards, and its presence adds some cultural legitimacy to a neighborhood of luxury condos and shops. The logic of presentation may be different, but the structural inequalities around it remain the same. 

R&B singer ABRA performs in The Shed's sneak preview of its genre-blurring performance programming, 'A Prelude to The Shed,' in April 2018. Photo © Stephanie Berger/The Shed.

In May, Andrea Fraser released her book 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, a directory-style tome of research into museum finances. It shows that while art institutions promote themselves as politically progressive spaces, in many cases the bulk of their funding comes from the same wealthy individuals who donate to conservative causes. Fraser’s projects have addressed the language and architecture of museums, and the exchanges of power they facilitate. In a time when institutions are being challenged and reinvented at the levels of representation and structure, 2016 suggests that the most effective form of critique is divestment.

This story originally appeared in the 2018 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach magazine, which can be downloaded here.

Top image: Ebony Patterson's …called Up, 2018, a mixed media installation of funerary wreaths, artificial flowers, stuffed toys, candles, and customized benches, on view in an abandoned public pool earlier this year as part of the Open Spaces Kansas City biennial. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery; photo by Brian Rice.