Something out of Nothing: Marcia Tucker, Jeffrey Deitch and the De-regulation of the Contemporary-Museum Model
“Who needs yet another anthology about Andy Warhol”!? The question came to mind upon seeing, in 2010, the October special issue devoted to an artist for which there seems to be a constant abundance of critical attention. A satisfactory answer did not fail to arrive soon thereafter in an interview with the former dealer and newly appointed director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Jeffrey Deitch. “For Jeffrey Deitch, Andy Warhol is a longtime influence,” wrote Jori Finkel in her tellingly entitled interview “His Pop Idol,” which, one sentence after another unraveled Deitch’s layman understanding of Warhol’s practice, stripping the work of its subversive, radical, and queer complexities. Deitch’s translation of Warhol’s artwork, actions and intensions shifted the artist’s infamous proclamations just enough to seemingly remain felicitous to their original context, but in fact left the Warholian operation flat by taking its highly contrived words literally. As Finkel cited Deitch:
‘Andy loved American establishment institutions like Citibank, the same way he loved kids who just graduated from Princeton dressed in their preppy clothes,’ Deitch says of the self-proclaimed ‘business artist’ who once quipped, ‘Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.’
Clearly, this is an a-historical reading of Warhol’s performative opposition to expressionism and its suppression of art’s relationship to money. To take Warhol at face value seems convenient, especially for all the art dealers who are raking in record amounts set by the trade in his work, as they scurry to sell it sans its campiness and often to collectors steeped in homophobic culture. But if art dealers care to devalue the work’s meaning for gain there is probably not much that we can do about it—commerce in art in the United States has never been regulated. However, mandated to self-regulate are museums, whose guidelines do in fact suggest that they have an advanced understanding of art and adhere to ethical standards.
Herein lay the stakes of the corporatization of museums that has been escalating in the U.S. since the 1970s. The increasing sway of a power/money nexus over the operation of museums has been rapidly turning into control over content executed by individuals who are unprepared for the task and hence substitute opinion for knowledge. Acquisition, scholarship and curatorial work in museums should not only be in the hands of specialists, but should also adhere to the ethical guidelines—there to ensure that institutions holding patrimony in public trust are capable of making decisions for posterity.  I argue that this is particularly important in the case of contemporary art as we lack the perspective of time to determine significance. Given our proximity to the subject matter it is only sensible that, in order to make sound decisions about acquisitions and programming, leaders should either have an understanding of historical processes or be versed in theoretical frameworks to help guide decisions that will impact the future.
Deitch was recruited from New York to Los Angeles by Eli Broad, a patron well known for his insistence on control in return for his gifts. On the one hand there is nothing new under the sun when a businessman has sway over cultural issues, as Jennifer Donnelly explains about the U.S. context:
The link between business and museums is evident in the profiles and policies of directors, as well as in the contents of the collections themselves. In a country without the tradition of royal, religious, or federal patronage the cornerstone of the first European museums, it has been private individuals, often businesspeople, who have stepped in to help fund buildings, donate artworks, and fill leadership positions as board members and presidents. U.S. museums still receive far less public funding than their counterparts abroad. As a result, American art museum directors have long had to maintain links with private business, in order to fulfill the fundamental objectives of acquiring, exhibiting, and interpreting works of art.
On the other hand, the degree of control exercised by patrons has varied historically, and also varies according to individual institutions. Yet, what has become increasingly problematic in the atmosphere of deregulation, escalating since the 1970s, is the return to a model Vera Zolberg has characterized as the: “pre-professional era,” where businessmen controlled the function and content of museums. Most recently, blatant undemocratic practices have been openly exercised, becoming practically permissible. It seems that anyone footing enough of the bill can institutionalize their personal taste while exploiting the benefits of tax deduction. For example, rather than choosing to strengthen one of the city’s existing institutions, Broad, other wealthy Americans before him, opted to add another museum that will carry his name, taking control over urban-scale design decisions while receiving rebates from public monies. Like many of the other private museums, decisions are made autocratically, oblivious to appropriate democratic processes that were specifically outlined to sustain a self-regulating system. As successful as they may be in boosting or dealing, Broad or Deitch each have a very different set of expertise than scholars, or other professionals, who have the depth and breadth to foresee what will matter for future generations. Being a successful collector or dealer does not qualify one to make substantial decisions towards our collective cultural patrimony. The problem is not with their taste per se—both figures have a proven track record in collecting or the business of art. The setback is that they have not the critical capacity to understand the facts of their limitations, and it is in these hands that decisions about acquisition, and more dangerously de-accession, will be placed. I claim that having failed to absorb the critical lessons of the postmodern period, the corporate model today can be compared not only with the U.S. pre-professional model, but even with an early framework of Renaissance collecting and classification.
This paper imagines a future where there exists a distinction between opinion and knowledge, and that museums remember that it is their job to evaluate quality outside market considerations and programing driven by ratings. Since in the U.S. the reality is a dependency on private and corporate funds, it is there that the need for a scholarly approach should be impressed, and it is museum professionals that have to advance this imperative. Change can only happen if we continue to press for a cultural shift in values, and it is the onus not only of professionals but also scholars and intellectuals to exercise their knowledge and positions ethically and to resist the “networking imperative” highlighted by Isabel Graw. A model for a better money/art relationship exists already, particularly appropriate for the medium-sized contemporary art museum. The unprecedented structure developed by Marcia Tucker, the founding director of The New Museum, was a non-corporate contemporary art museum in the U.S. context that emerged at the same time as a new market structure is emerging, with Deitch largely at the helm.
Given the influence of the New Museum and its importance in defining and sustaining artistic practices that matters now, this paper highlights the unique relationship set up by Tucker between institutional practices and programs, urging a return to her museum structure. Putting her writing and lectures into context I outline a position within a history of perspectives and debates regarding the appropriate expertise and ethical guidelines of museums and collecting. It examines the waning of museum self-regulation in the context of the escalation of the global art market and asks what it may mean to attempt objectivity and scientificity in an age that challenged these modern notions, and what kind of guidelines we may set to insure that our museums mount substantial exhibitions and collect significant and representative work.
An Abridged History of Curatorial Expertise
It is perhaps best to first ask what is the museum’s scholarly framework and how has it evolved? The development of collecting and classification between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment can be generally described as a gradual and highly flawed stride towards the “scientific,” ending with doubt of the latter’s methods with the advent of postmodernism. In the 16th and 17th century collecting and classification relied on the categories of the curious and the marvelous inherited from the medieval emphasis on wonder as the organization principle of the world. For the most part, princely and aristocratic collections strove for some scheme of order based on poetic or literary structures, and were more formal than didactic. It was scholars, Jesuits and professionals (such as botanists) that began building private collections of natural and artificial objects as depositories of resources, refining their encyclopedic impulse into the early methods for scientific classification. Scholars still debate whether and to what degree those methods were indeed scientific, as they were of course tied to contemporaneous belief systems, their knowledge often subjected to ideologies in support of networking and the perpetuation of commerce, self-aggrandizing or religious proselytizing. Notwithstanding, the point here is that scientificity became a value, a form of authority that necessitated either being a specialist or hiring one, significant for example in the case of the Medici family, as Giuseppe Olmi writes:
The need to legitimize the Grand Duke and his dynasty meant that the glorification of the prince, the celebration of his deeds and the power of his family had constantly to be exposed to the eyes of all and to be strongly impressed on the mind of every subject.
This transition from private to public also entailed a new arrangement of the collection. Works of art and antiquities gradually came to be seen as status symbols and instruments of propaganda, while grand-ducal policy increasingly brought scientific research under state patronage.
As Olmi concludes, it was ultimately a turn to specialty knowledge that influenced the reorganization of museums in the 18th century.
During the Enlightenment period the earlier connoisseur and gentlemanly hang of the fine arts eventually gave way to classification by national schools and chronological installation. These methods then served to promote the ideology of the nation state, while museum treasures came to be considered as the heritage of the entire nation. Based in the rational and reformative intentions of the Enlightenment progress paradigm scientificity and scholarly approaches became the articulated means for the organization of materials, also supporting the architectural scheme and the design of the space. Throughout the Modern period museums engaged in gradual self-correction, advancing through dialectical criticism of former methods. Two major philosophical underpinnings underlie the resulting models. A depoliticized Hegelian contemplative museum and the didactic one, both nevertheless relying on authority derived from scholarship.
In the U.S. context the establishment of art historical departments in universities propelled the professionalization of museums in the early 20th century and curatorial and managerial roles from the late 1920s and on, mostly under the influence of Paul Sachs’s “museum course” at Harvard. A generation of museum professionals became his legacy, forming such strong art historical positions as Alfred Barr’s at the MOMA. Between the late Modern age and postmodernism, advancement of social, political and philosophical critique culminated with the discrediting of scientific certitude and curatorial method became an arena for political debate. From the late 1960s into the 1990s a wave of protest followed by subsequent scholarly analysis challenged museums, and in the 1980s and 1990s focused on the questions of representation in the institutional context. Institutional ideology and methodologies were analyzed, examining in detail how they framed and contextualized the meaning of objects. The demand that museums change their administrative structure and content was voiced strongly by women and minorities, such that it practically characterizes the period. These insights were so significant that they manifested publically, demonstrations commencing with the campaign against the Metropolitan Museum’s Harlem on My Mind (1968), followed by protests against the Whitney Museum for American Art (where Marcia Tucker had worked until 1976) and the Museum of Modern Art, leading to the formation of new alliances between different minority groups, and also Leftist artist groups, demanding that museums better serve the public by changing administrative approaches.
When museums began responding to these public demands, the process was dialectical. When well-intended display and exhibitions were found to have been based in inherited historical biases that replicated structures of social injustice, they were then followed by attempts at correction, and so on the cycle repeated. My point here in presenting this complex history in its abridged form is to underscore a development towards an ideal of social justice. For the most part today museums are still operating between the two historical poles of the didactic versus the contemplative, which can be said have been replaced by an opposition between the political and the experiential. It is widely acknowledged that political work can be easily subsumed into the experiential model, but there still exist a difference between art that associates human development and progress with social justice, and that which is concerned with market value and profit.
Spinning the Loophole: the Monetization of the Art Object
In 1970s U.S. financial decline and inflation drove museums to heavy dependence on corporate sponsorship, which in return influenced content in direct and indirect ways. As Hans Haacke observed:
Certainly, shows that could promote critical awareness, […] have a slim chance of being approved—not only because they are unlikely to attract corporate funding, but also because they could sour relations with potential sponsors for other shows. Consequently, self-censorship is having a boom.
Led by a way of thinking exemplified by the Guggenheim’s director Thomas Krens, attitudes shifted in the late 1980s and early 1990s when museums themselves began to assume a corporate logic, to a greater degree of consequence, as Rosalind Krauss outlined:
This bizarre Gestalt-switch from regarding the collection as a form of cultural patrimony or as specific and irreplaceable embodiments of cultural knowledge to one of eying the collection’s contents as so much capital—as stocks or assets whose value is one of pure exchange and thus only truly realized when they are put in circulation—seems to be the invention not merely of dire financial necessity: a result, that is, of the American tax law of 1986 eliminating the deductibility of the market value of donated art objects. Rather, it appears the function of a more profound shift in the very context in which the museum operates—a context whose corporate nature is made specific not only by the major sources of funding for museum activities but also, closer to home, by the makeup of its boards of trustees.
Krauss traces the process by which the bonds issued by the Guggenheim to fund their expansion were ultimately leveraged by the collection. In effect placing what was entrusted to them for safekeeping at a risk of falling into private hands, this move directly violated the public trust for the sake of what Marcia Tucker termed the: “mindless expansion in American museums.” Indeed, why would growth, the logic of the so-called free market, even be an ideal for museums? Doesn’t sustainability seem more appropriate? The automatic adoption of the model of growth was part and parcel of the overall atmosphere of deregulation, as Philip Weiss wrote: “To a great extent the museum community’s crisis results from the free-market spirit of the 1980s. The notion of the museum as a guardian of the public patrimony has given way to the notion of a museum as a corporate entity with a highly marketable inventory and the desire for growth.”
Initially, other museum directors criticized the overall direction the Guggenheim was taking.Yet soon thereafter the MOMA and the Metropolitan began emulating some of what their directors initially criticized, mounting what are termed “fluff” exhibitions—populist and easily funded. In an article named after a remark made by then director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello: “A museum is not a business. It is run in a businesslike fashion,” Andrea Fraser observed the extent to which this structural shift has further taken over every aspect of the museum:
The continuing rise in corporate sponsorship and decline in public spending is only a small part of this trend. Much more striking are the changes in the structure, organization, and orientation of institutions themselves, as well as within art as a professional field.
In our contemporary situation the blatant conflicts of interest are so extreme such that the authority of our institutions of public trust become questionable. As Isabel Graw writes:
This kind of mix-up occurs, for example, when museum trustees try to influence the institution’s acquisition policy in such a way as to enhance the perceived value of works they themselves own. Another example is the now-pervasive figure of the “collector-dealer,” who tends to claim the additional function of a curator or publicist. He collects and deals in art, speculating on the appreciation of his purchases, which he buys at attractive prices, possibly splitting resulting resale profits with the gallerist. Practices that in other fields would be denounced as criminal or insider-trading are commonplace in the art market.
The corporatization of museums ran parallel to an unprecedented growth of the art market, which I hypothesize is the direct result of the establishment and promotion of the art-advisory departments by major banks and auction houses. The art-advisory department at Citibank, in association with Sotheby Parke Bernet, was modeled after a program developed by the British Rail Pension Fund, which ceased its operation because of the clear conflict of interest created when specialist advice came from the same source as the sale. As Lee Rosenbaum writes: “[l]ike the British Rail Program, Citibank’s program is rife with conflict of interest and will not necessarily benefit the people is purports to serve.” In the U.S. the art advisory service was devised primarily by Jeffrey Deitch and according to him aimed to bring “stability and liquidity to the art market.” Liquidity and its aftermath were indeed introduced, but stability not. Following the 1970s recession there was a perceived notion of art as boom/bust resistant and thus more stable than other investment vehicles, but this was partially refuted in the 1990s when art prices fluctuated dramatically. The selective elite services, expanded later to other banks and auction houses, provided uninitiated investors with information and assistance with art collecting, artificially growing the market and creating inflation of prices. The services expanded internationally, targeting and exploiting open markets such as Japan during its real-estate boom. In effect, the status of the art object had been reformulated as asset, with mortgage-type deals offered by banks and auction houses. The influx of new collectors, a globally expanding market, and the new system, drove prices to unprecedented peaks, followed by dramatic fluctuation. Art turned into big business, pushing museums out of the market. Unable to purchase art at bubble prices dependency on collector gifting increased. The consequential current reign of the philanthropist effect is a throwback to the pre-professional condition of the late 19th century.
Today, where there is miniscule governmental support of the arts, in the U.S. cultural institutions are so bound to private interests that the prevailing sense is that there exists no way out. In 2006 the threat on fractional giving evoked a massive outcry from museums fearing the loss of their major acquisition avenue. Letter-writing campaigns were effective, and the law changed in part in 2008. It seems that this is the extent to which museum professionals can have a say in the system, begging the government to retain tax-deductions that grants advantages to wealthy individuals and is thus glaringly unequal. This creates a paradoxical situation where in this late age museums are still servicing class discrimination. Of course, fighting partial giving would be detrimental to museums within the existing system, demonstrating the powerlessness of these institutions to support any kind of broader structural change, and underscoring how they are confined to serve the existing socio-economic order.
“By conviction Alone:” Marcia Tucker’s New Museum, the Self-Regulating Institution
Yet the sense of helplessness in regards to bettering the system is false. One feasible project that worked against the grain took place simultaneously with the corporatizing of museums and at the same time when art advisory boards were artificially expanding the commerce in art. There exists a concrete model worth revisiting and foregrounding as an option. From 1977 to 1998 Marcia Tucker theorized and implemented an unprecedented experimental approach to exhibiting contemporary art, and brought the museum and its program to international prominence. Her decision to open yet another museum in an already culturally rich city aimed to fill a gap created by the limited attention paid to the work of living artists, as well as address discrimination of women and minorities by existing New York institutions. Tucker based her administrative structure on an academic rather than a corporate system, implementing peer-reviewed selection processes and committee-based decision making. Importantly, many of the boards and committees consisted of artists and took diversity as its primary criteria. An experimental model of a rotating, rather than a permanent collection, was in constant consideration. Tucker developed a working model for a contemporary museum, persuading her trustees and donors to allow the museum its intellectual freedom, effectively mediating between the radical ideas of artists and scholars and the mainstream reality of the museum as an institution. Unfortunately, it has been all but displaced since her departure from the museum in 1998, its feasibility as a system has not been considered in the planning, building, or expansion, of a host of recent contemporary museums (including the New Museum itself), all of which follow corporate models and seem to address first and foremost the concerns of private and corporate donors. The New Museum was far from perfect during Tucker’s tenure, riddled with internal conflicts and multiple crises. Yet as experimental and difficult to sustain as it was, it nevertheless offers the best case study for thinking and rethinking the administrative structure, the program and their inter-connectedness in the American museum dedicated to contemporary art.
In the museum’s nonprofit proposal Tucker outlined the mission and structure of the museum:
It will focus on work which does not have sufficient outlet in the present museum or gallery structure of New York, and/or work which is not being presented within a critical and scholarly context. […] It is intended as a forum for the kind of visual and verbal exchange between artists and the public that existed in the 1920’s and 1930’s when the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Studio Club were first formed.
The New Museum’s projected scope would cover the area between the small, non-historically oriented “alternate spaces” which deal with the work of younger and lesser known artists, and the larger, bureaucratically top-heavy museums. […] Establishment of a permanent collection, while not an immediate priority, is intended to provide an extension of the historical framework offered by critical essays and documentation.
The description of the planned exhibition program also discussed: large solo exhibitions for artists whose work has not been shown in depth in NY; group exhibitions covering themes in contemporary art which have not yet been examined in depth; a regional exchange program; circulating NY artists around the U.S. and visa versa; small solo shows for artists with no NY representation; and community access exhibitions of modest scale, showcasing visual material which is not generally considered to be within the aesthetic mainstream. The museum intended to collect slides of exhibitions as scholarly materials, and expressed a strong commitment to forming a depository of scholarly resources that could also support artists and collectors interested in artists working outside the gallery system. The intent was to reach as large audience as possible through multiple programs that would cross audience, as well as offering free admission.
“I know how ambitious the project is, and how impossible it must seem to those who do not feel that a museum can be created by conviction alone. I believe otherwise. I am convinced that the best and the most difficult art of our time is essential to human development.” Passion, and the tenacity to sustain it, drove Tucker to continue and fight for what she believed was right. Her letters, minutes from boards meetings, and lectures, all show her working relentlessly to persuade her trustees rather than allowing them to dictate content. Describing her administrative and programming vision as an “egalitarian mode,” Tucker was nevertheless not anti-corporate by any means, for she understood very well the realities within which she was operating. Instead, her actions reveal a persistent attempt to change the ways in which the relation of corporations to museums was established, and to convince corporate entities and private donors that it is ultimately in their best interest to allow museums to function through a cultural and not a free-market logic. Talking to a group of corporate collectors in Toronto in 1985 Tucker emphasized that: “we show work, ideally, which is experimental, difficult, challenging, intellectually provocative.” Through the structure and style of her presentation Tucker issued a gentle yet forceful criticism of the relation of corporations and museums, culminating a list of negative trends with:
6. Museums only doing funded shows.
7. Museums only planning shows, which can be funded.
8. Museums doing post-opening receptions at discos like the palladium.
9. The Palladium doing shows that museums should be doing.
And about three dozen other examples of expediency, conflict of interest, exploitation, showmanship, and decadence. Sort of a fall of the Roman Empire scenario…
Instead Tucker offered examples of collaborative or performative practices and those that are not market-driven or even based in the art-world, also giving concrete examples for how corporations could support these modes of art-making and contribute to art and education without exercising direct or coercive control. She detailed how and why content control would in fact prevent museums from supporting practices most likely to retrospectively become significant. As the very essence of contemporary art lies in the unknown and not in what is already known or expected, museums should be given the room to facilitate what is radical, or at that point may seem radical.
In her notes for a talk entitled “The New Museum and its Programs,” Tucker discussed bringing to the New Museum various exhibitions that subverted her own taste, that were incredibly difficult for the trustees, or that deliberately juxtaposed multiple points of view on truth and history—all of which caused her: “a lot of problems with trustees, who remember ‘the good old days’, i.e., the days when the value of art had to do with its appearance.” Nevertheless, her ability to communicate to her board that a moment’s present will be the future’s past gained her the freedom to program controversial materials, some of which of course became important in retrospect. Leading trustees to allow for artistic speech with which they disagreed, Tucker facilitated a democratic structure. Giving the Hans Haacke Retrospective as an example, she explained how: “the Museum was not a political platform in and of itself, but […] many artists were making art which was socially committed.” This way of thinking and her ability to “sell” political art to a board of trustees was key to her vision.
In a letter to her board in 1993 Tucker emphasized how the relation of program and structure was facilitated through participatory management, various kinds of advisory groups, and housing a semi-permanent collection.  She discussed the museum’s aspiration to be multicultural and multi racial not only in exhibitions, but also in staff and governance on all levels, describing how the radicalism of the late 70s and early 80s has by then been accepted and emulated by institutions. Detailing the programming focus on specific socio-political concerns; on interdisciplinary work that collapses media divisions; on the underrated work of women and minority artists; the critical exploration of popular culture; and the intersection art and life, Tucker underscored that the museum aimed to create a lab organization where curators could experiment. This was achieved by inviting independent curators to create exhibitions un-supervised, co-curating with other institutions, paying honoraria to artist, commissioning major work, and placing a strong emphasis on education by incorporating viewer response into exhibitions as well as training on site staff to interact with the public. Citing the publications and grants as evidence of the museum’s strong commitment to scholarship, she summarized how highly regarded it has come to be as a model of radical pedagogy. Nevertheless, she mentions accessibility of the materials as one of the challenges to the museum. Pointing to how artwork today is done not only for the sake of aesthetics but within a social context, she mentions how challenging it is in terms of display and the flexibility required in order to exhibit it. Aware of the shortcomings of her idealistic structure, Tucker also responded to the board’s expressed concern regarding the reduction of the original ambitions plans, cut down due to budget and staff shortage. She explained that, sixteen years after the opening, people are no longer willing to work for low wages or for free for the sake of a cause.
Tucker worked relentlessly to convince publics about her way of thinking. In a lecture entitled “The Fight for the Right to be Wrong: Museums and the ‘Cutting Edge,’” delivered at the Aspen Design Conference in 1988, she framed the historical structure of museums as institutions frozen in time, proceeding to elaborate upon recent changes, while highlighting the paradox of contemporary art museums that institutionalize the present. Identifying that the restructuring of institutions was gradually following the corporate model, she contrasted the corporate model’s constant aim for success with the idea that contemporary art museums should be allowed to fail. Her humorous example of how Hilton Kramer’s bad reviews of her work have helped her built a successful career gave realistic traction to her argument. She then continued to emphasize why it is so important to constantly question the concept of cutting edge, as otherwise it can so easily be co-opted as a commodity, fashion, or style of the new.
In “The Ten Most Pressing Issues for Contemporary Art Museums Today, and Some Uncommon Solutions,” delivered at the MOCA in 1988, Tucker discussed Museum Ethics stating that: “[…] museums today are clearly not simply motivated by pure scholarship (if there even were such a thing). All of us are struggling competitively for funds (and some for survival), and we’re differentiated only by the extent to which we understand our complicity in the process.” This sober proclamation serves as a reminder that running a museum based on scholarship, and governed by an intentionally and actively democratic structure, is in no way impossible or utopian.
Perhaps for larger museums a cultural change in values seems out of bounds, but for the medium-sized contemporary art museum it is possible to imagine that a sustainable ethical structure and an emphasis on scholarship are not impossible. Under Marcia Tucker the New Museum gained momentum as one of the world’s most important centers of contemporary art. Following Tucker’s track record I assert that in order to remain relevant as a museum of contemporary art it cannot be controlled by corporate interests, for the logic of business is always too conservative to be able to facilitate what art may need for its future. While historically the establishment of U.S. museums has always been by the wealth of private money, those that were museums of contemporary art at their time of inception have not managed to sustain their viability as such, and it is precisely into this gap that the New Museum had stepped in 1977.
Above and beyond Tucker’s model respected the intelligence of her audience as well as that of corporate entities. Confusing populism and accessibility, the logic of the corporate model attempts to make everything easy rather than consider the possibility of education seems condescending in contrast. Deitch’s invocation of Andy Warhol neglects to distinguish between popular culture, that can be subversive and political, and mass appeal, which is closer to entertainment and its focus on attendance as rating symptomatic. Art as celebrity culture fosters identification rather than critical distance and foregrounds experience over thinking. This content is echoed in the administrative structure, where dominant figures lead according to what they think is right—after all, they can always “prove” their success by showing attendance numbers. As such, debate and dialogue are rendered moot, denying museums of their societal role as arenas for scholarly experimentation and the development of consciousness.
Museums should be democratic, not autocratic, using peer-review and committee based systems to assure good practices and the sustainability of the symbolic value of their collections. Drawing from centuries of improvement as well as from recent scholarship that has refined its positions through endless debate, professional associations have developed guidelines, which in the U.S. today are simply not followed. Keeping with the guidelines of regulatory bodies not only contributes to their accumulative knowledge, but also has a proven track record for better chances of success. No system is perfect, nor can it make guarantees, but by facilitating broader perspectives it is most likely to have a healthier outcome. For example, observing diversity guidelines such as those outlined by the AAM, is more likely to yield a well-rounded program that will not in retrospect disappear into the sea of mediocrity. Democracy is not just an umbrella under which things happen, and it is the role of its institutions to practice it constantly in order to uphold it. What kind of culture are we facilitating if decisions about cultural heritage are made behind closed doors (as do those about deaccessioning) or for the direct benefit of an amateur elite? We have historically surpassed this structure, and should fight to resist this retrograde trend.
The recent shift to the autocratic museum is potentially unsustainable, as we may very well see a cultural shift that will render their criteria extraneous. With the recent budget crisis and its aftermath, the growing public mistrust of banks and corporations, and the invigoration of the left, it is possible to imagine a cultural shift that will devalue the spectacular and the populist, where much of the overpriced contemporary art will eventually take an unrecoverable dip. What would it take for curators, critics, scholars and intellectuals, to devise ways to work within and in between the system to affect such a change? Can we at least encourage self-regulation amongst ourselves?
The seed is still there. Some of the corporate museums harbor positive elements within them. At the (new) New Museum, projects such as Museum as Hub—a collaboration between five international organizations focused on intellectual exchange—has been facilitating sophisticated and timely forums. As for the L.A. MOCA time will tell, for some of the museum’s future plans still hold scholarly remnants from the past.
This article is written in hopes that not only will museum directors and personnel push to rethink their institutions considering Tucker’s model, but that they will also encourage their patrons to direct their energies towards self-education and leave decision making processes to professionals. As for the professionals, again, they too should practice a greater degree of self-regulation.