Museums and Privatization: Beyond the Survival Paradigm

The following essay by Nizan Shaked is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

A major justification used in the struggle to preserve public funding for the arts is that it fuels private giving. But this serves an increasingly successful neoliberal agenda to transfer public services to the third sector, allowing philanthropists considerable control over the direction of civil society. The private/public nonprofit system is flawed at a deeper lever, as it assumes the existence of a profit system and relies on it as a lifeline. This limits the boundaries of discussion and the horizon of possibilities at the onset. The agency of individuals and organizations has been corralled, reduced to lobbying, resulting in the erosion of public monies, leaving the arts community begging for fewer and fewer public crumbs and groveling for private dollars.

The scramble for public and private funds forces institutions into fierce competition with one another. This serves to fragment the powers of those in charge of administering creativity, imagination, and intellectual advancement. In museums, content approved behind closed doors in consultation with governing boards is ideologically compromised. Artists and art workers are given limited slack to question the status quo. Museum programming and collecting processes should be made transparent, and further democratized. Instead, we have institutions thanking philanthropists for their so-called generosity, while in effect “giving” for tax breaks is donating what already belongs to the public.

This error is rooted in accepting as a given the current distinctions of public and private, overlooking the fact that as juridical concepts they shifted very dramatically throughout history as well as in the recent past, and are therefore open to future change. We should find ways of analyzing and collectivizing beyond the forms prescribed to us by state-designed institutional systems. A good start is to put on the table the fact that museum structure and the demographic makeup of its governance contradict the needs of the public. As the artist Andrea Fraser has shown, many wealthy individuals that populate art institutions’ boards actively lobby to weaken public welfare. Administrators working on their behest inadvertently advance their agenda. This needs to be openly spoken relentlessly.

When the unnaturalness of this state is clearly seen, then we can discuss solutions for art and society. Personal and collective accountability should replace self-interest as the status quo. Another imperative is to reject pitting one form of diversity against the other. This means emphasizing the place of class and opportunity as an essential component of intersectional analysis and action. Since art has been coopted into the realms of the creative economy and arts-driven real estate districting, artists and institutions have found themselves to be complicit in gentrification and displacement. Foregrounding ascriptive “diversity” cannot cover up for the negative economic effects faced by segments of the population. We need to think about the larger picture beyond the survival paradigm, or we will be stuck reacting to changes and responding to crisis—behind, rather than ahead of, the horse.

Nizan Shaked is professor of contemporary art history, museum and curatorial studies at California State University, Long Beach, where she heads the Museum Studies Track in Art History.

The next response in the Beyond Neoliberalism chapter is “Shaping the Change” by Amy K. Hamlin.