March 21, 2019

LEUNG | The Private Agenda of Public Spaces

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The exhibition read The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Nan Goldin, an American artist most known for her photography, took over 700 photographs of her own most intimate moments of love and loss. Some of her subjects experience pleasure and pain from ecstasy and drug use, some dance and spend time with family and others suffer from domestic violence or AIDS. The visual diary shows humans’ need to connect, especially through struggle and pain. In my favorite photograph, a man sits at the edge of a bed smoking a cigarette while a woman lies in the background. The first time I saw this shot, I appreciated the intimacy of two lovers who shared a space. But now, I see the gaze of one who recognizes her dependency on a man while she slides into the depths of drug dependency.

Goldin, who became addicted to the opioid OxyContin after being prescribed to it, led a campaign against the Sackler family, whose U.S. pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma makes the painkiller. The National Portrait Gallery in London recently became the first major art institution to give up a grant from the Sackler family. Other U.K. cultural institutions such as the Serpentine’s Sackler Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London have benefited from donations from this trust. The family gave the Gallery £1 million to help fund a new project for building development, a new education center and a redisplay of the collection. Purdue Pharma has been facing lawsuits in the U.S., alleging that it sold the drug marketing it with having a low chance of causing addictions while knowing the actual truth behind its power.

Goldin threatened to pull out of a planned show if the donation was accepted. This is not the first time she has shown discontent towards the Sackler family and its connection to OxyContin. In February of this year, scraps of paper that looked like OxyContin prescriptions fell from a walkway of the Guggenheim Museum, bringing awareness to the donations the museum has received from the family. One hundred activists infiltrated the museum, unfurling banners that read: “400,000 DEAD,” “SHAME ON SACKLER” and “TAKE DOWN THEIR NAME.” A die-in took place on the museum’s floor; scattered around the lobby were empty orange medicine bottles with labels reading: “Prescribed to you by the Sackler Family. OxyContin. Extremely addictive. WILL KILL . . . Rx# 400,000 dead.”

In response to the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to turn down the donation from the Sackler’s, Goldin said: “I’m so happy, I’m very glad about it. We have to hold museums to a higher standard, they are supposed to be a repository of the best of humanity, a repository of learning and culture.”

The donations and partnerships of art institutions should be questioned. We live in a time of increasingly rapid change with the ability to question the role of public institutions. Our relationship to them aligns with our changing dynamic between figures of authority, technology, validity of images and the content we consume and the power structures behind the circles we participate in.

The push back against the Sackler’s donation at the National Portrait Gallery is not the only example of increased discontent with partnerships and board members. The response of a protest group called “B.P. or not B.P.?” to the British Museum’s relationship with British Petroleum pointed to the curatorial decisions used to legitimize B.P.’s own business decisions, as they sponsored an exhibition on ancient Siberia tied to its oil-drilling ambitions in the Russian Arctic. Decolonize This Place, Chinatown Art Brigade and Working Artists and the Greater Economy have come together to demand that the vice chair Warren B. Kanders be removed from the board. His company sells “law enforcement products” such as tear gas canisters used by the U.S. government at the U.S. border with Mexico. What is the relationship that arises between private collections and institutions with public missions? How often does private funding shape what the public sees?

As Sun arts columnist Isabel Ling ’19 explained, these movements do not seek the degradation of the museum as an institution but identify them as spaces for potential public good that should be held to higher standards. Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern, stated at the SFMOMA symposium on the public-private partnership between foundations and museums: “If you open yourself up as an open or civic space, where ideas are protested whether you like them or not,” the museum becomes “a blank canvas for the public to act on.” Other discussions looked at alternatives to the ways in which art institutions are funded — such as through increasing government funding or self-funding — that could keep individual agendas from interfering with public, cultural space.

My decision to study art history came from how it shows the way humans react to their world. While history gives the sequence of events, art history shows how we deal with it. From commissions and religious paintings to the desire to capture the sublime, from the first attempts at abstraction to the desperate search for meaning, art has become a way to engage the public, challenge it, seek understanding and find answers. Learning about Nan Goldin’s work in a purely art-historical context would disregard the cultural environment it is now placed in. To not question the dominant public structures that contribute, fund and even curate their own agendas would be dishonest to artists and the very work they do.

Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gleung@cornellsun.com. Serendipitous Musings appears every other Friday this semester.