It was one of those exercises where you're presented with a list of 50 motivations, that you have to whittle down to 20, and then to 10, and then 5, and then to 2.
And at the end of the exercise, the two motivations I had left standing were "responsibility" and "adventure". This pairing told me such a lot about myself. I like to take on responsibility: not just so I can be the boss, but to fulfil my need to take care of things, to make them better. And while taking on responsibility makes me feel secure, I also crave adventure: I need intense experiences, I love the feeling of being on the brink. Being responsible is what makes it safe for me to go into risky places.
This linkage, between responsibility and adventure, is what drives me. And it's what creates the most stress and the most reward in my working life.
When Tash asked me to speak at Webstock I had to ask myself: what value do I have to offer here?
I started by thinking about being in this audience myself, and what I've taken out of ten years of being part of this community.
The defining characteristic of the Webstock kaupapa for me is the shared understanding that as people who create experiences and services for a living, we have the ability to create great benefits for society, but also hold the power to do harm. This morning then I want to explore this familiar idea of responsibility in our working lives, by going deep into what is hopefully a less familiar topic for most of you: the world of museums.
Museums are places of joy, learning and connection. They are also sites of inequity, institutionalised bias, and repression. As a Pākehā New Zealander who has made a career in museums, I spend a lot of time in quite an uncomfortable place - and so I should.
A phrase I often hear is that museums "hold a mirror up to society". This suggests some kind of inherent objectivity, and almost an absence of human intervention, as if somehow the truth automagically appears in front of you when you walk into a museum.
I find museums endlessly fascinating places to work in because they are absolutely the opposite of this. Every choice we make is a choice about value and representation. By driving a museum's intellectual agenda, its funders, management, and staff create the stories and imagery that informs (or confirms, or challenges) how a society thinks about itself.
The way we develop collections places permanent value on selected creative acts and lived experiences. The way we interpret and share these collections out into the world instructs the public on how to think about the past, the present and the future. The voices we give power to are the voices people hear.
|Jenny Holzer, Untitled, Times Square, NYC, 1982|
As much as we may have liked to believe in the past that we exist above the political fray, museums are the products of colonialist and capitalist systems, as exposed to and implicated in abuses of power as any other institution emerging from these contexts.
This is why museums are not, and can never be, neutral. As a museum worker, as a museum leader, as a person charged to make decisions with public money, with our nation's cultural heritage, and with the attention and trust of our audiences, this is the knowledge I strive to apply every day, with the myriad decisions I make, big and small.
We are also living in a time of elevated public interest in our public institutions. Social media, as we all know, has given voice to groups who have long been silenced. Institutional choices are no longer a private matter, negotiated between management and funders and identified stakeholders. The mainstream media is no longer the dominant conduit of public information.
Museums and their leaders have been swept up in the tide of things that "used to be okay". Like many institutions of power, we got a bit lazy, a bit complacent. And like many institutions of power, we can be bewildered when we're attacked for the habits we've developed over decades, which have rarely been questioned, and certainly not at the volume and frequency they are being questioned today.
Most museums, around the world, have to make money. Depending on whether you're in a context that favours public or private support of arts and culture, your institution may have to raise anything from 5 percent to 95 percent of your annual operating budget. Fundraising is an important facet of any museum director's job, and depending again on your funding model, might even be the most significant measure of your performance.
Commercial sponsorship - effectively, paid-for brand alignment - is one important source of revenue. Private patronage is another, and in American and larger British museums especially, this hinges not just on the director's networks, but those of the Board.
There's an American phrase - "give, get or get off" - that summarises the primacy of revenue generation for what is presented as a governance system. Many American boards expect a minimum annual donation from their members - an expectation, it's worth noting, that greatly impacts the diversity of people you'll see around the board table.
Supporting cultural endeavours has long been seen as a way to "give back to society" - especially when your wealth has been gained, in some way, by exploiting people or the environment. Museums may have had some squishy feelings in the past about the donations they've pursued and received, but for a long time the purity of our missions has insulated us from the taint of dirty money.
Not so much any more.
Last week, for example, Yana Peel, CEO of London's Serpentine Galleries, resigned after the Guardian revealed her connections to a cybersecurity firm whose spyware has been used by governments to track journalists and activists. Peel owns one-third of Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm co-founded by her husband. In March, funds controlled by Novalpina bought a controlling stake in NSO Group, an Israeli company offering technology developed by former intelligence operatives. Although Peel argued she had no influence on Novalpina Capital's investment decisions, her resignation took effect immediately.
Following the announcement, Peel hit out at people leading campaigns like the one that unseated her:
“The world of art is about free expression,” she said. “But it is not about bullying and intimidation"
If campaigns of this type continue, the treasures of the art community — which are so fundamental to our society — risk an erosion of private support. That will be a great loss for everyone.
I'm part of the vanishingly small group who still uses a feedreader. Every day, I check in to see what's happening in the international art world, particularly following the British and American commentary, as the issues that arise there tend to flow through to us here in Aotearoa.
One of the most significant developments in the area of philanthropy over the past 18 months has been the conscious uncoupling between art museums and two foundations, the Sackler Trust and the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. The foundations are built on the wealth of Mortimer Sackler, who with his younger brother led Purdue Pharma while it pioneered and sold OxyContin, one of the drugs at the heart of the American opioid crisis.
The two foundations have ploughed tens of millions of dollars into English and American art institutions. In January last year American photographer, and recovered Oxy addict, Nan Goldin launched PAIN, an activist group with the mission of addressing the opioid crisis by targeting the Sackler family through the institutions that receive their patronage. The group has staged multiple protests, including a die-in where protestors lay prone on the ground, scattered with prescription bottles, in the foyer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has been associated with the Sackler family for over 50 years.
In March this year, the National Portrait Gallery in London announced they were no longer pursuing a million pound grant from the Sackler Trust, which they had been negotiating for over a year for a building redevelopment. Among the pressures on them was Nan Goldin, who publicly announced she would not go forward with a planned retrospective at the Gallery if they took the money.
Days later, the Tate announced they would not take any further Sackler money.
A few more days, and the Guggenheim announced they too were opting out (though it turned out they had not received any Sackler funding since 2015 and were not currently negotiating for any, leading some to see their announcement as virtue signalling).
The announcements came at the same time New York State laid a civil complaint against members of the Sackler family and others involved in the opioid crisis. It accused defendants of seeking to “profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.” And the lawsuit explicitly attacked how the Sacklers had deployed philanthropy:
Ultimately, the Sacklers used their ill-gotten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a philanthropic campaign intending to whitewash their decades-long success in profiting at New Yorkers’ expense.
In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced they had ceased taking Sackler funding. "On occasion", the Met's president, Daniel H. Weiss, said in a statement, "we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest."
There are plenty of museum wings built over the past 50 years that carry the Sackler name. There may not be any more inaugurated in the future. The two Sackler foundations I mentioned have announced they are halting all new giving "until we can be confident that it will not be a distraction for institutions that are applying for grants."
In another long-running example, since November 2018 a campaign has been directed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, calling for the removal of board member Warren B. Kanders. Kanders is chief executive of Safariland, a company that amongst other products manufactures tear gas, which campaigners say was used on migrants at the Mexican border and water rights activists at Standing Rock, among other instances.
After arts website Hyperallergic published an article detailing Kanders' position at Safariland and the use of the company's products against migrants and protestors, over 100 members of the Whitney staff wrote to their leadership demanding a response to the allegations in the article, arguing that the museum's silence on the article, and willingness to accept Kanders' position on the Board, made it complicit in these injustices.
Kanders' public statement in response to the letter was unequivocal:
Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed. Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed. The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality.
.... I am proud that we have broadened the Whitney’s role as the preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States. While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society. This is why I believe that the politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy.
Despite protests from staff, public protests in the museum, and significant media coverage, Kanders remains in place.
These examples illustrate one of balancing acts museum leaders are performing. We're responsible for the financial sustainability of our museums. We are also responsible for their reputational sustainability; these two things are inseparable. And we're responsible for the ethical sustainability of our museums; not just our internal actions and immediate influence, but our much wider and more diffuse connections with the rest of society. Balancing these responsibilities and understanding how to make our decisions - in an atmosphere of growing public scrutiny - is one of the biggest challenges we face.
In his statement, Kanders also wrote:
More than ten years ago, I became involved with the Whitney because I believe its mission is bigger than any one person and that creating a safe space for artists and expression is critical.
When the Whitney director, Adam Weinberg, wrote a response to his staff he elaborated on this idea, calling out to the museum's mission as he asked them to open up a "safe space for conversation". He wrote:
Our community united in common purpose to reimagine a home for artists in the 21st century where they can envision, experiment, struggle, risk and even protest openly, unencumbered and uncensored. We have fashioned this protected space together through mutual trust, respect, openness and discussion even when opinions differ. We respect the right to dissent as long as we can safeguard the art in our care and the people in our midst. As one director colleague describes the contemporary museum, it is “a safe space for unsafe ideas.
This idea of safe spaces is something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. It is a concept I daresay I've used myself in the past, as a defence against what I felt to be conservative criticism and as a statement of pride in the role of museums in society.
It's a statement I've become far less sure about recently.
Since about 2017 we've seen a series of controversies play out in contemporary art galleries – situations where artists, activists and indigenous groups have protested museums’ activities and decisions. These events have given rise to freshly invigorated discussions about censorship, cultural appropriation, and the power imbalances that pervade museums and society.
In 2017, Dana Schutz’s small-scale figurative painting Open Casket was included in the Whitney Biennial.
The painting is based on posthumous images of Emmett Till, the black American teenager who was brutally lynched in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted that his body be presented at his funeral unembalmed and undoctored; photographs from the funeral ran in two African-American publications.
Schutz’s painting had been exhibited in Berlin without comment before being presented at the Whitney. In America, the work triggered a vast array of responses, centred on who has the right to work with which stories and histories, and where the line lies between censorship and perpetuating violence.
Parker Bright, a black artist, conducted a series of protests in front of the painting, standing before it blocking other visitors’ view, wearing a t-shirt that read "Black Death Spectacle", livestreaming his action on Facebook.
British artist Hannah Black posted a widely-circulated open letter online that demanded the work be removed and destroyed. "It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun," she wrote.
In a statement following the opening of the Biennial, Schutz said:
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.
Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.
The painting remained on display throughout the Biennial, with alterations to the wall label that noted the protest actions.
Also in 2017, Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold was due to be installed in a revamp of the famous sculpture garden at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis.
The work, originally displayed in documenta, a contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Germany, was based on gallows used in seven state-sanctioned executions conducted around the world between 1859 and 2006. This included the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, in 1862, in which 38 Dakota Sioux men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, an hour’s drive from the museum. Visually replicating the angular lines of the gallows piled on top of each other, the sculpture was designed to be walked over by viewers.
The Dakota community learned of the sculpture only when promotion of its installation began. Dakota people assembled to protest at the construction site, and after a series of facilitated meetings, the museum’s director Olga Viso and the artist agreed that the sculpture and its IP would be handed over to tribal elders to dispose of as they wished.
The museum had failed to conduct any discussions with Dakota representatives prior to this. In an open letter of apology Durant wrote:
I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations.
Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.
The Dakota elders made the decision to bury the sculpture. The museum is now working to consult more with indigenous people, and put more of their programming resources into the hands of indigenous artists. Director Olga Viso has left the museum.
I find these examples compelling and concerning because in both cases, the artists were trying to use art to think through and present issues of violence, racism and oppression. These artworks were not casually created or presented, or made by naïve people. They were presented at two of America’s leading contemporary art museums. The art works had both been previously exhibited without controversy. The museums were seemingly unprepared for the response they received. The safe spaces fallacy, I think, had been cracked open.
In 2018, controversy broke out around the American artist Chuck Close, after a number of women alleged he harassed them when they were modelling for him. The National Gallery of Art decided to cancel a scheduled exhibition of his paintings because of the allegations.
After this announcement, two New York Times arts reporters went out and canvassed museum leaders for their opinion on whether Close’s work should be taken off display in art galleries, or shown with a warning.
Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, was quoted as saying:
How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave? Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?
And Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chairman for modern and contemporary art, said:
By taking action in the form of canceling an exhibition or removing art from the walls, a museum is creating an understanding of an artist’s work only through the prism of reprehensible behavior. If we only see abuse when looking at a work of art, then we have created a reductive situation in which art is stripped of its intrinsic worth — and which in turn provokes the fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be.
This is what I think about a lot these days. The fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be. And especially that line: that museums are safe spaces for unsafe ideas.
For several decades now we have acted as if somehow museums are a neutralising force, a separate space into which people can enter and engage differently with these works and these ideas than they would elsewhere. And to some extent that is true, and that is what we have taught our audience to expect: it is true, because we have made it so.
But what these examples all show is that museums are still capable of doing violence – unknowingly, or thoughtlessly, or because we value the presentation of art and art history over the individuals, communities and cultures who may have been harmed in its making, and may continue to be harmed in its public display.
Te Papa's current statement of intent includes the strategic priority "Taking a lead in creating safe places for difficult conversations". As the director of the museum's programme, this priority falls into my remit.
I fully believe that it is Te Papa's role to support New Zealanders in having important and informed conversations. But I have to admit that I have struggled a great deal when I ask myself how we deliver on this goal responsibly and meaningfully.
For example, in the wake of the shootings in the Christchurch mosques on March 15th, I received some pressure to start planning public programming around the topics of white supremacy, hate crime, and institutional racism.
At first blush, these suggestions seemed totally aligned with our ambition - "Taking a lead in creating safe places for difficult conversations".
But what I asked myself was - are we in the position to create that safe space? Te Papa is only just now building links into Muslim community groups. We don't have a high level of existing cultural competency with Muslim histories, protocols or experiences. Our first responsibility, I think, is to becoming a safe partner for the community to work with - if they wish to.
Organising events around a topic like white supremacy also risks turning the museum into a site for these groups to gather and generate attention. It gives them legitimacy by giving them airtime. I question whose safety is protected in this situation - and whose goals are advanced.
I also question whether this is what the community wants or needs right now. Grief needs time and privacy, and those who are close to you, not strangers and extra demands. Coping with a sudden death - especially such traumatic and public events - does not require fulfilling other people's well meaning efforts to help you, or their desire to understand what you are going through.
My response to this situation is deeply coloured by my own personal experience. Seven years ago, I was widowed. My husband, who was a curator in Te Papa's art team, killed himself. It was a reasonably big deal in the little New Zealand art world.
I am not drawing a comparison between his death and the deaths of 51 people in Christchurch. But my experience of a reasonably public loss has forever coloured my feelings around public responses to grief and trauma.
When my husband died, I briefly became a celebrity in a very little world. There was a lot of sympathy, and also some morbid, almost voyeuristic, curiosity. There's a strange glamour that can come along with a tragedy. People want to get close to you, want to share. Some, it seems, are just excited by the emotional intensity, are chasing their own contact high.
At the wake, someone asked me if I still wanted to have kids.
Several men took me aside to warn me not to jump into bed with the next guy who came along.
People asked me how he'd killed himself, how I'd found him, if he'd left a note for me.
And people shared. People shared and shared and shared their stories of suicide: their own attempts, and the deaths of people they loved. People poured their grief into me, and although it was well-meaning, it was overwhelming. There were so many of them doing the sharing, and only one of me to absorb it.
As the years have passed, I can see from my own behaviour how new trauma triggers old trauma, and how sharing is one of the ways we deal with this.
But I can't forget how ghoulish it was to have people wanting to warm their hands on the fire of my loss.
I also remember feeling obligated to reciprocate people's interest. It took me months to learn to say to people ... "thank you for asking, but I don't want to talk about that right now".
So when these questions came to me about museum programming, my instinctive reaction was to say no. Until I could establish that we would be helping, I could only see the potential of being intrusive, demanding, and doing well-intentioned harm.
This, for me, is the problem with the notion of "creating safe spaces for unsafe ideas". "Unsafe ideas", in practice, usually means "not the majority view". Often, we are asking people from minority communities and experiences to come in and do the labour of educating the majority. And while the majority - and I count myself in here - need this education, I question whether this is the way to fairly and safely achieve it.
So, where does this leave us?
At the start of last year, contemporary art curator Helen Molesworth left Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art under a cloud. The museum's statement said she was stepping down over creative differences; the art world's consensus was that she'd been driven out over her progressive politics, and lack of willingness to pander to conservative museum donors.
In an essay published in ArtForum around the time of the announcement, Molesworth wrote:
The museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise. Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by. I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.
Given this grim recital, how do we stay positive and keep doing things?
I don't want to end on a glib note, or simply to promote my place of work. But we've done something big recently, that has involved weighing up thousands of decisions on the basis of research, ethics, and community and iwi collaboration.
Te Papa opened Te Taiao | Nature, the redevelopment of our natural history galleries, on the 10th of May this year. It is the biggest project, physically and financially, we have undertaken since opening in 1998. It is also our most indepth interweaving of mātauranga Māori with Western systems of knowledge, and te reo Māori with English interpretation.
Every decision that went into the making of Te Taiao is based on the impact we are hoping to have. As you move around the exhibition, we hope to lead you on a journey through which you become more knowledgeable about our unique environment, more aware of the threats to it, and more motivated to make changes in your life to help protect it.
We dazzle you with specimens, we stun you with science, we engage you with shadow play and interactives, and we move you with the silenced voices of extinct species. If we really do our jobs though, you go home and make a change; in your own life, in your community, in the way you get involved in political decision-making.
Using our audience impact model - developed in house by one of my colleagues - we're seeking to track and understand our success against these objectives. This isn't a short-term thing: the exhibition will likely be around for 20 years, and we're hoping to affect generation after generation with it. With 1.5 million people through the building every year, in addition to our education, social and online reach, the museum has a significant opportunity to lead social change by shaping how people see their environment and their responsibility to it. It is a privileged position, to hold the resources to do this mahi, to build the knowledge and the relationships to do it responsibly, and to experience the joy of creating things that people will use.
And that's the crux of it, isn't it, really?
The ability to affect social change, to change people's minds and lives, to correct past wrongs and not create new ones.
The responsibility of holding power.
The joy and the weight of our working lives.
Sources of thought and direct quotes
Sponsorship and Board conflicts