On the Future of the Museum

11 June 2021

Jennifer Packer, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), 2020. COURTESY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO., NEW YORK, AND CORVI-MORA, LONDON

Written and published originally by Art in America, June 3, 2021

An Affirmation:

The future does not belong to the whims of navel gazers.

Never more than now, the future belongs to rigor. It belongs to integrity. The future is for expansiveness. The future is specificity. The future is polyphonic. The future is most fertile on the edges of the canon. The future is collectivity. The future is rest. The future is tender. The future is you.


Jessica Bell Brown
Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, The Baltimore Museum of Art

Three artists come to mind whose practices I believe are in service of the future. I have been influenced by their work and have found valuable lessons, propositions, and provocations in their examples.

Considering the ethos of the 1960s Fluxus collective as a curatorial framework brings me to a premonition by one of its main protagonists, Robert Filliou (1926–1987): “This is what I suspect the art of the future will be: always on the move, never arriving, ‘l’art d’être perdu sans se perdre,’ the art of losing oneself without getting lost.” Filliou’s self-proclaimed “poetic economy” of language and objects was fueled by a continuous dérive. He upheld promise in precarity and advocated for productive failure. His spirited adage and unique sensibility inform my belief in dialogue without agenda—with artists, with audiences, and with colleagues. Not everything needs to be prescriptive or mission driven. Dialogue should not solely be the by-product of an itinerary. Some of the most productive ideas and decisions are generated in an exchange without expectation. Indeed, Filliou has inspired in me a methodology of getting lost with purpose. The ability to embark on something without direction can lead to a profound destination.

Fluxus cofounder Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016) was a “radical presence,” as curator Valerie Cassel Oliver so aptly put it. He was the only black American figure in the profoundly interdisciplinary and international collective that blurred the boundaries between the visual and performing arts as well as art and everyday life. I first met him in 2013 in Wiesbaden—the site of the first official Fluxus festival in 1962—and connected with him as an experimental artist whose work rarely explicitly engaged identity politics. He was an artist who was black and not a “black artist”—existing in excess of his race. However, Patterson’s refusal, erudition, and serious play—crumpling pieces of paper, releasing wind-up toy frogs, or playing an upside-down double bass with everything but a bow—addressed his unique lived experience and place in the world in nuanced ways. This is further demonstrated in the multichannel immersive outdoor sound installation When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti (2016–17), which I had the honor of stewarding into the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection in 2018, marking the museum’s first major Fluxus acquisition. Staging an artificial frog pond, the work’s twenty-four speakers are camouflaged in bushes and foliage, amplifying real and human-imitated frog calls with hidden political messages that operate as a material metaphor for the sonic dimension of resistance, while also providing a speculative interface for interspecies care and listening. Patterson’s Fluxus mischief was often a red herring for a critical examination of what it means to make noise, what it means to participate, and fundamentally what it means to be an iconoclast. One of the operative questions he left me with is “how do you misbehave productively?”

If there is one thing co-curating (with Ann Goldstein) the work of conceptual artist stanley brouwn has instilled in me, it’s carrying out an artist’s intentions with discipline, and embracing the right of refusal without compromise. This forthcoming exhibition, which is the first United States museum presentation of brouwn’s work, will be on view at the Art Institute in spring 2023, and stands as a testament to what it means to fully realize artists’ intentions through intimate collaboration—in this case, with the artist’s estate. Organizing a major exhibition of an artist like brouwn, who disavowed biography, written interpretation, and photographic reproduction, requires radical hospitality. Realizing the artist’s wishes entails creatively negotiating within institutional frameworks to encourage internal and external stakeholders and funding bodies to embrace new ways of working that defy and expand convention, habit, and protocol. In this way, brouwn’s practice powerfully shifts the institution’s terms of engagement. Honoring brouwn’s intentions and objectives without compromise ensures an unmitigated experience in a specific time and place between the visitor and the work, which allows brouwn’s practice to continue into the future.

Jordan Carter
Associate Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago

Keep on Moving

The people that I come from have waded through the cold river waters of South Central Alabama and migrated upstream. They have stood hand in hand protesting the fraught ideologies of this country. But still, many have yet to walk up the stairs and through the doors of the “cultural” institutions that continue to uphold outdated systems that inherently keep Black Americans on the outside.

We belong here—our stories, histories, and bodies—and not as the result of a diversity hire or a long-term loan. Our contributions to this world should not live within those limitations—so why should we? Maybe one day we will live in a world where “task forces” don’t need to be implemented among corporations, schools, and law enforcement to combat systemic racism. Hundreds of years of struggle for equality cannot simply be undone and mended in a few group meetings. It will take time, but the work desperately needs to be done in earnest. It will begin when people realize that they don’t have to assign a specific value to someone’s life to treat them with respect. Black people and our histories deserve to live in the world without being contingent on meeting some particular criteria. Moving forward, I offer these words from Jamaican American poet, essayist, teacher, and activist June Jordan:

“Take me into the museum and show me myself, show me my people, show me soul America. If you cannot show me myself, if you cannot teach my people what they need to know – and they need to know the truth, and they need to know that nothing is more important than human life – if you cannot show and teach these things, then why shouldn’t I attack the temples of America and blow them up?”

As Jordan reminds us, we must always consider the history and learn from it. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. Collectively, we must know our people’s history. But we must also know ourselves as individuals—know what you need and even don’t need, know the people and places that will guide you through this world when nothing else can. Most importantly, know the stories that you intend to tell and position yourself to see them through.

I’ve known since high school that curating stories was what I wanted to deeply invest in. I’ve made sure to show up and be present where I could lend my voice and knowledge. Both my curatorial and personal interests in the everyday lives of Black Americans have led me to curate the exhibition “This Is the Day: Reckoning and Rejoice,” which is on view at the Crystal Bridges Museum through August 16.

The show focuses on Black churches in the United States. Since emancipation and even in the present day, these places of worship have been bombed, burned, and terrorized. Wedged in between joy and sorrow, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with photographer Azikiwe Mohammed, who has work in the show and echoed the idea that our people have stayed in the same areas for generations. We have built families, communities, and even historical Black colleges and universities out of concern for our own safety. Throughout the show, these very concerns are considered. It reminds me how, and why, we’ve been able to “weather the storm.” Though I know our bodies have felt it all, I know just as well that this Black body gives us joy. And still, you and I know that we just can’t be easily moved—shaken maybe, but not moved.

Given the history of this country, a safe future for Black folks feels so distant but still tangible. Despite a global pandemic and ongoing racial injustices, rural towns and major cities alike continue to persist onward. To those to whom it applies: stay Black, stay vigilant, stay hopeful, and be sure to pass it on to others.

Jayson Overby Jr.
Curatorial Assistant, Contemporary Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Toward an Expansive Space

Museums have always been spaces that activate possibility. Wandering the halls of the Met or the Museum of Natural History as a child, my imagination expanded and I was inspired to write short stories, and to prod my family with a barrage of questions about how sculptures were made and what a triceratops might have sounded like. Museums are places that I felt a strong connection to. While I am grateful to be able to have a career in this field, in this moment, deeply caring about museums gives me the responsibility to recognize that they can operate as better, more inclusive spaces.

Over the past year, through the combination of collective grief for lives lost in the pandemic and the suspension of our understanding of normalcy, looking to the future has taken on greater importance. In order for there to be a future that involves true, active, and sustainable change in the museum and the art industry at large, we need to act with radical honesty. We have to interrogate what it means to fundamentally shift how we curate exhibitions, who we invite to sit on boards, and how we welcome visitors into our spaces. Moving into the future necessitates an evaluation of the past to determine what has helped and what has hindered our ability to be the best in our fields. It is not enough to hire staff who traditionally were not given opportunities within the museum sector, without also providing resources and institutional support for these hires to actually create lasting change. We need to face the truth of what museums have come to be, spaces that often operate outside the realm of inclusivity, and to discern how we will take steps to make them worthy of the works on these walls, by including all those who seek to be enriched by them.

I want curators not to feel constrained by institutional revenue needs. I want artists to be supported with resources, both financial and intellectual. I want museums to be spaces that actively engage the communities they are situated in and that reach out to communities currently alienated by these cultural institutions. I want a future where the rehanging of collections is not revelatory but commonplace as we grow and evolve. I want a future where museums aren’t neutral, where they go beyond acknowledgments in recognizing the land they occupy. All these things and more are possible but require decisions to actively stop working in ways that are mired in the past. It is not easy work, and in the face of budget cuts and building closures that have gone on for months, change can seem like a daunting proposition. Yet, I am inspired by colleagues who have taken on the challenges of this moment, and I am hopeful that this version of museums is not one that will remain imagined, but that will instead be realized in a near future rather than a distant one.

Adeze Wilford
Assistant Curator, The Shed

“And the museums of which M. Caillois is so proud, not for one minute does it cross his mind that, all things considered, it would have been better not to have needed them; that Europe would have done better to tolerate the non-European civilizations at its side, leaving them alive, dynamic and prosperous, whole and not mutilated; that it would have been better to let them develop and fulfill themselves than to present for our admiration, duly labelled, their dead and scattered parts; that anyway, the museum by itself is nothing; that it means nothing, that it can say nothing, when smug self-satisfaction rots the eyes, when a secret contempt for others withers the heart, when racism, admitted or not, dries up sympathy; that it means nothing if its only purpose is to feed the delights of vanity; that after all, the honest contemporary of Saint Louis, who fought Islam but respected it, had a better chance of knowing it than do our contemporaries (even if they have a smattering of ethnographic literature), who despise it.

—Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 1955¹

Dear Moses,

I didn’t set out to write this—or anything, for that matter. On being asked to write about the future of the museum, I first thought the museum already knows its future—to die. To buttress this line of thinking, I figured it best to simply send an excerpt from poet and activist Aimé Césaire’s 1955 essay “Discourse on Colonialism.” That passage now serves as a prologue to this much larger exposition. Césaire spoke pointedly about the future: “all things considered, it would have been better not to have needed them. . . . the museum by itself is nothing.” I couldn’t have said it better. Even this effort at contextualization feels highfalutin—a hackneyed addition to the intellectual industrial complex aimed at finding a way out of this valley of dry bones. We don’t need more words. We need an inward reflection on what scholar and A.i.A. contributor Christina Sharpe noted: “the past that is not past.” We need a return navigated not exclusively with words, but with our bodies seeing as “trauma is also a wordless story our body tells itself.”² But, as stress weathers my body, the task of extolling a future for the museum becomes a reminder of “the impossible possibilities faced by . . . Black people.”³ We are tasked with futuring—only to be left out of that future. Such is the uncertainty of the future for Black life that we are still declaring, in the present, that our lives simply matter. I often sit with and fight against Césaire’s words, all the while agitating day in and day out within a museum, committed to eking out a future that does not realize his indictment. It pains me that Césaire might be right—that time, toil, and tolerance may not undo this mutating violence. My words cannot eclipse his charge against the museum, let alone offer a counter-narrative to course-correct the inevitable. To do so would be foolhardy. Even my body—stressed beyond recognition—is fast becoming a telltale sign of the “dead and scattered parts” that roil Césaire. In many ways, even a half century after his words were originally penned, I cannot unfeel the dead, the truth.

In the last year, I have sensed that segments of society want the museum to do more than just display art objects, stage performances, and host talks about social justice. If it’s not a call for the restitution of stolen objects or for morally derelict board members to step down, it’s the call to hand the museum space over to house those without homes or turn its restaurant into a food kitchen for a short time.4 These behests call into question how the museum goes about realizing its mission, especially when that mission is tied to the uplift of less fortunate people. Increasingly, it seems, upholding this activist-adjacent mission diminishes the importance of the artist and the art object. If so, this strategy of aesthetic obsolescence is complicated by the fact that artists, for the most part, exist in a state of precarity—feverishly hustling until the art market and/or institutional endorsements can stabilize their livelihood. I wonder, then, if the calls for the museum to step up on the political and economic fronts are simply a by-product of the government squandering tax revenues that might otherwise aid social services. In Los Angeles, for example, as the number of unhoused people soared to 66,000 in 2020 and as the mayor, city council, public agencies, and nonprofit organizations appeared at sixes and sevens in remedying this rise, the museum became a sitting duck of sorts.5 In some ways the rebuke feels apt, given the stasis the museum finds itself in time and again. This loop the loop sees the museum rise, stand upright, and then merely speak about tragedy.6 But mobility has never been an issue for anti-Black tragedy—it moves with reckless abandon. What’s really at stake is the speech act: the emancipatory rhetoric that swirls through mission statements, exhibition descriptions, and catalogue essays suggests that, by now, we should at least be in a better place.7 Only time will tell whether the museum, through its varied platforms, finally speaks genuinely and effectively—rather than playacts—in response to these calls.

Whatever is fueling these calls, though, I want to note that the public demands above also would affect an overlooked polity—a committed cadre of workers who sustain the museum, while living paycheck to paycheck, existing on the cusp of being unhoused if they lose their employment. If these added initiatives—e.g., soup kitchen, shelter—fall on existing museum staff, what becomes of our bodies, already under duress?8 What becomes of our salaries, already deficient as the cost of living skyrockets across metropolitan areas? Or if new staff are brought in to shepherd these humanitarian efforts, are they similarly compensated with insufferable wages that strain their bodies? Leaping from frying pan to fire mustn’t be the answer.

I ponder all this not in the abstract, but as my MacBook Pro has given out on me while I try to write. I’ve had this laptop through two graduate programs. It has now died due to the strenuous, work-from-home demands that it never signed up for. I write this knowing of colleagues whose laptops have also called it quits. I write this worried that I, too, will have to go into debt or ask my family to buy a new laptop. Either option is a form of debt, really, because it is an ask I know my parents would oblige, despite the fact that they need to save for their nearing retirement. I write this knowing the museum I work for can only offer me a one-time $100 technology rebate. I write as request after request for an Internet stipend go unanswered, which I imagine is buried under far more pressing institutional matters. I write as I reckon with the fact that my salary in Los Angeles County falls below the low-income limit determined by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. I write knowing that I am privileged to have a job, as many Americans find themselves filing for unemployment compensation during this pandemic. I write this appreciative that my director has kept the museum afloat and all our staff employed. As I aimlessly chase deadlines, I’ll admit this text has been one of the easier things to write thus far. Perhaps it’s the weight of the reckoning—how it too has reached a deadline, which is to say a reminder of the finitude of life, a demarcation of living, a breach where death is the only answer. In these moments of reckoning, I’m left wondering what is it that I have to say, in this present that leans toward the future, other than expressing my own role in it. My position is not to right this debt, collect on it, or even acknowledge its prejudice. Rather than repeat platitudes about what the museum will be in some indeterminate future, I turn again to a particular Black past in the words of Césaire, as a way to completely overturn an all too familiar Black present where the museum, gaffe after gaffe, “can say nothing” intelligible other than we are listening, we are learning.9 The latter refrain intimates guilt.

I’m often told that things have improved, that change takes time, and that it’s best to keep doing the work to get a livable wage. Truth be told, the guilt-inducing statement “work hard” fast-tracks my death, weathers my body. This is the searing reality of allostasis. It is a reminder too, for these lineages of wear and tear aren’t always perceptible, at times forgotten in the folds of life and death, love and loss. Drawing on scholar Katherine McKittrick, I see allostasis as “the physiological work of black liberation,” the labor that is often “impossible to track and capture with precision” unless death is the metric.10 I’m reminded of critic and A.i.A. contributor Jessica Lynne’s grave words on allostasis.11 She invoked three forebears who all succumbed to cancer. My brother succumbed to cancer. This is a past that is not the past—one that another forebear, Audre Lorde, also succumbed to. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde noted that the “guilt trip . . . does nothing to encourage the mobilization of our psychic defenses against the very real forms of death that surround us.”12 The guilt Lorde speaks of while battling cancer stems from questioning whether working hard against a violent system has compromised her capacity to cultivate happiness.13 Laughter is never far from heartache for Black folks, which is to say that we have a way of “integrat[ing] death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it.”14

I’m not dead yet. But I’m decaying, as an autoimmune condition slowly lays waste to my body. Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani offers an incisive theory on decay, which I see informing conceptions of the museum as a biopolitical factory of expropriation and exploitation. Negarestani sees decay as “positioning itself on the substratum of survival, in order to indefinitely postpone death and absolute disappearance. In decay, the being survives by blurring into other beings, without losing all its ontological registers. In no way does decay wipe out or terminate; on the contrary it keeps alive.”15 Elsewhere, Negarestani builds on this, adding that “the process of decay builds new states of extensity, affect, magnitude, and even integrity from and out of a system or formation without nullifying or reforming it.”16 I’ve latched on to decay as a way to think through the weathering bodies that toil within the museum. At a push, what if we saw the museum as a catchment area of putrefying bodies that keeps the enterprise alive? These fungible bodies—willing workers wasting away—don’t ever disappear, for there’s always a new, eager, unpaid intern saddled with debt from a master’s degree, waiting in the wings, ready to embrace “a dead end for a vision.”17 It is our zeal for a just world that keeps the future of the museum on everyone’s minds. At the same time, affect alone cannot reform the present state of the museum.

This is perhaps why I wrote this screed—and it is a screed, since I’m not saying anything new, my words bordering on tedium. But, like Césaire’s passage, it’s a repetition aimed at responsibility. In a 1986 episode of Folks on Louisiana Public Broadcasting, another forebear, James Baldwin, said this of the future:

When I talk about change, I’m not talking about change within the context of the American vocabulary. I’m talking about something which happens in any case, whether someone wants it or not. Change is simply another challenge to deal with the present and to create the future. After all, from my point of view, my ancestors are responsible, in a sense, for me. That means we’re responsible for our children.18

As society shifts, museums remain fixed. The rank irresponsibility of the museum is there for all to see.

A colleague shared that in 1999 at the Seattle Art Museum her salary as a curatorial associate was $33,000—the equivalent of $52,000 today when one factors in inflation. Sadly, there are curatorial fellows and assistants—e.g., Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, and Denver Art Museum, to name a few—that still offer starting salaries in this ballpark of $33,000 or less in 2021.19 I see these stagnant wages as an act of irresponsibility toward the budding Black and brown graduate students and/or young professionals enticed through the museums’ diversity and inclusion initiatives. Instead of peddling a fantasy of purported equity, I offer these deeply personal words as a type of “frank speaking,” which, according to Michel Foucault, “demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger.”20 And while this retelling of my “personal relationship to truth” comes with great personal and professional risk, I speak as an act of responsibility and out of a “duty to improve or help other people (as well as [my]self).” Foucault went on to say that “in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the ‘game’ of life or death.”21 However, this isn’t a game. And it never has been for the tireless workers who make unlivable wages. So, if the museum continues as is, it is safe to say that we do not care for people, for posterity. We are irresponsible. And what comes to those devil-may-care institutions? Death.

Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi
Curatorial Assistant, Hammer Museum

1 Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), p. 71.
2 While I’m thinking directly with Christina Sharpe’s method of encountering a past that is not past, the turn to the body as way of reckoning with “the past” also engages the work of therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Durham, Duke University Press, 2016, p. 105; Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Las Vegas, Central Recovery Press, 2017.
3 Sharpe, ibid.
4 Ariella Azoulay offered several eye-opening calls, such as “imagin[ing] museum workers going on strike until they are allowed to invite an entire community of ‘undocumented people’ not to attend the opening of exhibitions of objects extracted from their communities, but to stay for a period of several years to help the museum make sense of its collections of objects from their cultures.” Ariella Azoulay, “Imagine Going on Strike: Museum Workers and Historians,” e-flux journal 104, November 2019, e-flux.com.
5 Steve Lopez, “For both the housed and unhoused in this Hollywood neighborhood, help is urgently needed,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 20, 2021, latimes.com.
6 This is a nod to Giorgio Agamben referencing ancient Greek theater in his explication of stasis as a type of civil war. Giorgio Agamben, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, trans. Nicholas Heron, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2015, pp. 13–14.
7 Better—and not just for the odd individual here and there but for the entire Black community—borders on impossible. I think here of Calvin Warren’s utterance that “it is impossible to emancipate blacks without literally destroying the world.” Calvin Warren, “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope,” CR: The New Centennial Review 15, no. 1, 2015, p. 239.
8 Highlighting this bodily strain is key to Calvin Warren’s notion that any “end of the world” account must acknowledge “that pulverized black bodies sustain the world—its institutions, economic systems, environment, theologies, philosophies, and so forth.” Pummeling the body to death will not end the world, for Georges Bataille reminds us that “life is always a product of the decomposition of life.” See Warren, “Black Nihilism,” p. 239; Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood, San Francisco, City Light Books, 1986, p. 55.
9 This idea of overturning the present draws from Fred Moten: “the project of black radicalism . . . is not about debt collection or reparation. It’s about a complete overturning – again, as Fanon would say, and others have said.” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Brooklyn, Minor Compositions, 2013, p. 151.
10 Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories, Durham: Duke University Press, 2021, p. 3.
11 Jessica Lynne, “Allostasis,” Open Space, Feb. 27, 2017, openspace.sfmoma.org.
12 Audre Lorde, The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches and Journals, London, Pandora, 1996, p. 59.
13 Ibid., p. 60.
14 Ibid., p. 7.
15 Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia, Melbourne, re.press, 2008, p. 182.
16 Reza Negarestani, “Undercover Softness: An Introduction to the Architecture and Politics of Decay,” iCOLLAPSE VI: Geo/Philosophy, ed. Robin Mackay, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 2010, p. 386.
17 Brian Kuan Wood, “Is it Heavy or Is it Light?,” e-flux journal 61, January 2015, e-flux.com.
18 Louisiana Public Broadcasting, “Author James Baldwin | Folks (1986),” Feb. 3, 2021, video, 28:21, youtube.com.
19 A spreadsheet anonymously compiled by institutional workers archives the starting salaries of curatorial assistants and others: docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/14_cn3afoas7NhKvHWaFKqQGkaZS5rvL6DFxzGqXQa6o/ edit#gid=725011404
20 Michel Foucault, “The Meaning and Evolution of the Word Parrhesia,” Discourse and Truth: Tthe Problematization of Parrhesia – Six Lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct.–Nov. 1983; accessed Jan. 27, 2021, parrhesia.en.
21 Ibid.