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April 2 2016 / 865 Saint Marks Ave


The word "culture" has a slightly sinister subtext, particularity when discussing public exhibitions. As an industry, the presentation of rarefied objects implicitly reinforces age-old hegemonies. This has everything to do with deciding what gets shown and to whom, choices required to intelligibly present visual information. Given the relatively recent uptick in attendance at the largest art museums across the country, abetted by physical expansions and steady advertising campaigns, it is well established that the apt precedent for the current museum model is not royal, mercantile or religious collections but "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations," organized in Her Majesty’s name in London in 1851.


This five and half month exhibition necessitated the rapid construction of The Crystal Palace, as well as importing and arranging thousands of objects of fine art and industry from around the world, but mostly the British Empire. Numerous innovations in building construction resulted from the Palace's scale, materials and timeline, and it has propagated as a semi-public, literally transparent archetype. All this fuss wasn't just in the name of the Crown and its moral superiority, but was necessitated by the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of leisure time. Tony Bennett's The Exhibitionary Complex makes clear that in addition to showing off a bit, the state needed to craft opportunities for lower classes to congregate in a dignified manner, rather than getting drunk and damaging public property. Allowing the masses to see themselves within the context of imperial objects, Simpson argues, was its true "civilizing" intent.

Similarly manipulative operations took root at The Museum of Modern Art when the brilliant curator Kathy Halbreich became its Associate Director in 2008. In an essay published in Art Forum in 2010, Halbreich recounts how laudable stats for increased community engagement at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis resulted from studying corporate demography. Really studying the audience, rather than the pictures on the wall, has led to increasing representation of women, LGBT, Asian, African and South American artists. It has also led to ghettoizing survey exhibitions and, conversely, the smack of popular appeal. Halbreich telling cites a working-class black girl who visited MoMA and reacted palpably to a haunting, deliberately sensational installation by Kara Walker. Halbreich presents this encounter as an example of effective curation made possible by knowing her audience. Such studied effort allows museum directors to promote a culture, subsuming its objects into the History of Modern Art and civilizing us all to boot.

 - Kathy Halbreich / Art Forum / Summer 2010

 - The Exhibition Complex / Tony Bennett / New Formations, 4, Spring 1988


This talk explored the connection between museums and museum-sponsored pop-up 'laboratories' for social good and innovation. Several ‘labs’ have been founded by major museums in recent years in an effort to reach new audiences outside of their traditional base.


As museums break with their Fifth Avenue roots and set up shop in “up-and-coming” (read: gentrifying) neighborhoods, they have also focused more attention on social problems. Issues like poverty, gentrification, and environmental vulnerability have become fair game for creative programming. Labs and festivals, which have emerged in the last five years, seek to bring this new programming beyond the institution’s walls and out into the (re-politicized) streets, plazas, and parks. A major focus has been the use of design to tackle the “wicked problems” of today’s polarized cities.


The emphasis on design rather than art reveals a telling difference in the way cultural institutions, increasingly situated in gentrifying areas, think about their neighbors: while high-income patrons come in to consume art, low-income members of surrounding communities need to be engaged through design. The museum remains a guarded repository for objects of value, while the neighborhood around it becomes a laboratory, primed for experimentation.


This phenomenon goes back to the Settlement House Movement (Hull House had a museum component) and feelings of noblesse oblige in the cultural sphere. While much maligned for their stodgy moralism, settlement houses were different from early charitable organizations in that they actually sought systemic change in the communities where they were situated, rather than just offering temporary handouts. The houses—permanent physical structures that became part of their neighborhoods—offered poor people the services they needed, while the wealthy got their altruistic kick. But they also helped to incubate more radical forms of activism, like tenants’ leagues and pacifist groups. These groups were able to shrewdly use those spaces and alliances even if they broke with the politics of the house’s founders.


Today’s “labs” suggest a similar trade-off, but with far fewer tangible benefits for community members and activists. Their top-down approach to urban ills mirrors that of the settlement houses—without offering the permanent structures that allowed communities to turn the “settlements” to their own ends.



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