Days after climate protesters in Germany threw mashed potatoes at a Monet painting, four museum directors gathered in Qatar to answer a related question: Why are art institution such good stages for protest?
It was one of several points of debate discussed at a panel titled “Museum of the Future: Between Aesthetics and Social Responsibility,” which was organized by the state body Qatar Creatives and held at the Islamic Museum of Art in the capital city of Doha.
The panel included the Whitney Museum’s Adam Weinberg, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Tristram Hunt, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi’s Arturo Galansino, and Zeina Arida, head of the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.
Though nominally about the future, the hour-long conference probed pressing museum matters: when (and when not) to take a stand on social media, the worth of wokeness, and the point of hurling food at a Monet. Often explicitly, this panel asked: Who do museums really serve, the establishment or public?
Jelena Trkulja, who serves as an advisor for academic and cultural affairs at Qatar Museums, was the moderator. Early on, she asked, “Do you think that perhaps society these days might expect you to push for social change? One of the reasons we are seeing these constant protests at museum these days, mostly might climate change groups seem to be that they are perceiving all museums as a very conservative establishment that is protecting the status quo.”
Weinberg responded that the Whitney, despite its long history as hotspot of guerrilla activism, is the establishment: “Our money comes from corporate sources, private sources, but at the same time, we show art that is very much often counter to funders and supporters.”
He mentioned that an Iranian artist asked why the Whitney was not making a statement on the historic anti-government protests across Iran, though he did not name who this artist was.
“It’s not our role as our museum to stand up and give a take,” he said, as museums are “a microphone for the artists who want to stand up and address those issues.” Otherwise, “every week, we’ll have to say we’re in favor of this and against that, and then we’ll be totally political.” Art, according to Weinberg, can be an opportunity for subtle critique.
“We shouldn’t be vehicles for political protest,” Hunt said, “and we shouldn’t be vehicles in and of itself for political change. I regard museums as civic institutions playing their role in society as providing a frame and context for the political and social discussions while remaining highly trusted.”
Yet the Whitney, like other major U.S. museums, has periodically responded outright to world occurrences. In 2020, it put out a statement last summer in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Weinberg said it was “imperative” to respond to the killing of George Floyd in police custody because that issue is at “the heart of American culture.”
A museum’s civic responsibility, then, is defined—restricted—by an issue’s relevancy to the many, rather than individual. Hunt agreed, citing an ongoing programming surrounding England’s legacy of colonialism in Southeast Asia.
So, too, did Galansino, who pointed out that the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi had recently mounted shows focused on migration and national identity—topics that he said had only grown more timely, now that the country is right by “a far-right government with neo-fascist roots.”
“We have to talk about something that is touching on our culture,” Galansino said. He took a hard stance that the Fondazione isnotpart of an establishment. Asked about the risk to freedom of expression in Italy, he replied: “We are not afraid of talking about hot topics.”
Arida was more magnanimous. Museums, she said, “do need to take positions,” as real inclusivity means making room for a variety of voices. That position, however, “depends on the politic context one finds oneself in.”
As the only resident of Qatar present on the panel, she may have been, by default, the most forward-thinking. A young country compared to its company (at least as defined by modern notions of national borders), Qatar is still developing a cultural sector, with a slew of forthcoming projects. Its nascent museums are not “burdened by history,” as the moderator put it, a statement worth scrutinizing given the dubious record of labor rights across the Gulf.
Everyone agrees a museum is a “meeting place for ideas,” as Weinberg put it, and he praised all the “good things have come out of the wokeness,” like increased diversity in museum leadership and the visitor population. When museums stop being stages for protest is when they’ve lost their relevancy, the group said.
So how do you reconcile the tension between these ideals and the prospect of more priceless paintings being the target of climate protests? When Trkuljaasked about it, approval waned.
“It’s people putting themselves on a stage in order to bring attention to something, but you have to ask, does this really change anything,” Weinberg said. “Does this really open up a question? And also, is it an understanding of how art functions even in its time?”
Art, he said, “isasking questions, art is revolutionary so you’re going to attack art that is actually about protest? It’s a dangerous precedent—right now people are doing it to the glass on the works but it’s only a matter of time until somebody does something to an artwork that doesn’t have glass on it.”
“What worries me is the nihilistic language around the protests, that there is no place for art in times of crisis, and I don’t agree with that,” Hunt said.
He added: “There’s a dark undercurrent to that that worries me, that we should strip the walls bare and have no beauty or no critical response to the climate crisis through art at this moment.”