On a free admission day at the Guggenheim, museum-goers were caught unaware when showers of mock prescription pamphlets were scattered across the white spiral atrium from the upper floors of the museum. The pamphlets were part of a larger initiative by artist Nan Goldin’s activist group on drug policy, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). The intervention was followed by a die-in on the atrium floor as well as a march down Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile to the Metropolitan Museum, where a public protest had been organized.
The protest, held on Feb. 9, was organized in retaliation of the Sackler Family, the owners of opioid-manufacturers Purdue Pharma. The Sackler Family has long had a legacy in the art world and is linked to art institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Met through donations and naming rights.
The leaflets that were scattered depicted an incriminating email exchange between Robert Kaiko, the developer of OxyContin, and Richard Sackler. In these emails, Sackler acknowledges the addictive nature of OxyContin and the dangers of abuse as an opportunity for higher drug sales. The opioid crisis, an epidemic that according to the Center for Disease Control took 45,000 lives in 2017, has provided a new lens through which to view the underlying power structures of the pharmaceutical industry, and by association, the art world and its institutions.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Nan Goldin, who founded PAIN while recovering from an OxyContin addiction, explained the protest as a reaction to the dark and evil motivations of the Sackler Family and the inaction of museums against it, “We came to the museums a year ago. We came to the Met and did an action. We asked that they take down [the Sackler family’s] name. We asked they refuse to future funding — There has been no response.”
This demonstration is part of an increasing trend of protest at museums that ranges from demands for divestment from corporations and board members, to the unionization of museum workers, to demands for increased diversity in the artists represented by museums. Museums for their part, have also embraced the culture of protest, staging exhibitions on resistance such as the Whitney’s Incomplete History of Protest and the Brooklyn Museum’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. This has underscored the fraught and often contradictory roles- that of public forum, cultural bellwether and art institution, that the museum hold. One result of this was a meta protest of an exhibition on protest at the Design Museum in London in 2018, where artists featured in the exhibition removed their works in retaliation to the museum’s decision to rent out space to Leonardo, one of the largest aerospace and defense companies.
Protest, however, is not new to museums. In 1969, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition protested the Met’s exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of America for excluding black artists and the Harlem community and propagating racism and anti-Semitism through the exhibit. Adjacent to this protest, the Art Workers Coalition staged protests from 1969 to 1971 to demand free admission to all on weekends, increased visibility for women and Latino artists and benefits for artists and art workers as cultural laborers.
It is clear that change is slow, as many of these problems with regards to representation, labor and discrimination are still being addressed today. In a Trumpian society, art museums have had to pick a side, to politicize or face becoming culturally irrelevant or worse, accidentally aligning with an administration and ideology that has repeatedly undermined the cultural value of art. Whether this trend is performative or not, it is undeniable that protest and its relationship with museums has created a mutually beneficial space for dialogue and progress in the reimagination of the museum. In this case, progress is tangible, with the Museum of Modern Art’s upcoming renovations to reformat gallery space to focus attention on works by marginalized and overlooked artists and the joint rejection of Saudi funding for programming by the Brooklyn Museum and the Met in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s execution.
Good art is political. As long as it remains political, museums will be sites of contention. Art activism movements similar to Nan Goldin’s PAIN such as Decolonize This Place, Occupy Museums and the Guerrilla Girls, who are credited for much of the organized resistance against museums, exist in order to force these institutions to reevaluate their ethical philosophies and relationship to art. I argue that these movements don’t necessarily want to abolish the museum as an institution, but rather have identified them as sites for potential, as a public good that should be held to higher standards. In an interview with Artnet, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, cites the need for museums to “lean in to controversy.” In this framework, protest acts as a tool for participation, one that allows for the negotiation of controversy with hopes on both sides for a better museum and a better community.
Museums provide us with the space to center ourselves, to feel like we are a part of something, to learn something new about ourselves or someone else. Although the museums I reference in this column are iconic for making fine art accessible to the public, they are also large cultural institutions that wield immense power. It is because of this power dynamic, that self-aware museums ought to embrace protest. The beauty of art and thus art museums lies not in a shared value system but in the ability for various value systems to coexist.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.