I love museums. Pick any weekend and you can find me wandering some echoey gallery around Philadelphia. They’re more than a pastime for me — I’m that lady in the museum who’s almost too into it, who takes pictures of every painting, leans in super close to study the details, and scribbles down notes for some reason.
Museums are critical to how we interact with the vast majority of art. But I have to ask myself: if I love museums so much, why do I often leave feeling … well, kinda pissed off?
I grew up in a loud, boisterous, art-loving family. Even though we were regular visitors, we always stuck out at the museum. My mom’s high heels would clack, her jewelry would jangle, and people’s heads would turn as she yelled, “Girls! Come look at this one!” “Mommmm!!” I’d whisper. “We’re supposed to be quiet here!” I think she stuck her tongue out in response.
The unwritten rule of limiting noise to a minimum is just one of many barriers keeping museums from being inclusive. Big, loud families with scurrying children may not feel welcome in a place where silence rules. A recent study showed that the second most common reason for not visiting museums is “Attitude affinity perception,” or rather, “museums aren’t for people like me.”
Did you know that, on average, museums make only about 6% of their revenue from ticket sales? While many museums used to be cheap or even free, over the past few decades a number have increasingly turned to ticket sales to shore up their revenue. But if ticket sales contribute so little, do they really serve to improve our museums, or do they just exclude people who can’t cough up the change?
Listen, I get it when I can’t take photos with flash — who wants to create that nasty glare in their picture, anyway? But when museums don’t allow pictures solely so that they can sell more prints in the gift shop? That’s a red flag for me. (And I was going to buy a postcard anyway!)
I was quite literally jumping for joy and visibly buzzing around the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art when it staged New Grit: Art & Philly Now, a show that featured local artists and others with strong ties to Philadelphia. After taking in the luxurious textiles of Jessie Krimes and vibrant multimedia paintings of Jonathan Lyndon Chase, I left feeling exhilarated, but frustrated. Why did it take so long for these Philadelphia artists (many of whom are queer and artists of color) to be featured in the museum that boasts the city’s name?
Museums should be uplifting unknown artists, especially artists of color. Do we really need ANOTHER take on Picasso? Keith Haring, again? In fact, I don’t want to see another Keith Haring exhibition until Angel Ortiz, aka LA II, gets his own solo show. Similar to the relationship between Jean Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, LAII was a graffiti artist and a fundamental collaborator with Haring, and played a major role in the development of Haring’s work. Not only has his story been erased from the narrative, but he’s alive, well, and active. Where’s his retrospective?
In 2020, museums across the country were forced to reckon with their institutionalized racism after the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd. Many began featuring Black artists and hired Black curators, a much needed change — only 4% of US curators were Black as of 2018.
But in considering all the “commitments” made, many start to sound the same, and for many, their progress is frankly unsatisfying. Do all of these staff trainings and nebulous “diversity inquiries” really make any progress toward changing museums on an institutional level?
The Robb Report’s interviews with Black curators such as Valerie Cassel Oliver reveal that an institutional change would involve much more than the rapid-fire, publicized reforms that museums have presented to the public. It’s easy to ameliorate immediate concerns with a few long-awaited retrospectives and carefully crafted social media statements; it’s hard for a museum to shake itself free of the very ground it was built on and the clutches of wealthy (white) board members.
Yes, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), I’m looking at you. Activist organizations like the Johnson Study Group have demanded repeatedly that MoMA rename the Philip Johnson gallery. The museum acknowledged this demand by covering it temporarily, and MoMA representatives have stated that the’ve been conducting “a rigorous research initiative to explore in full the allegations against Johnson and gather all available information.” Yet a quick Google search reveals dozens of articles on Johnson’s history of blatant support of the Nazi Party. Perhaps this unwillingness to change points to what MoMA and other like-minded institutions are really committed to: these legacies of weaving systemic white supremacy into modern architecture.
It’s actually MoMA (the aforementioned museum constantly under fire for its institutional racism) that is often credited with popularizing the “white cube” standard. Galleries and museums alike generally adhere to the (now almost universal) assumption that blindingly white walls are the best way to show art. But do people even like this sterile approach? Visitors flock to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Barnes Foundation at least in part for a taste of something different and, perhaps, a little cozier. In the search for “neutrality,” I think we’ve lost what many search for — a little warmth.
Walking around a museum can feel a little off-putting when you know that workers aren’t being paid a fair wage — and, in the case of the Penn Museum, are even subject to union busting. Artists and museum workers have been organizing since the 1930s to gain fair compensation for making museums … well, museums. In fact, many artists are often aren’t paid at all to have their work on display. You’ve heard it before: “we can pay you in exposure,” right?
Ok, not all of it, I promise! I’m not talking about touching Vermeers — but I do think there should be ample opportunity for artists to work with museums to create tactile galleries. Being able to feel the texture of a work is an amazing entryway for both kids and adults into the world of art. We limit ourselves to the visual (and sometimes the audible), but tactile galleries would open up whole new worlds.
In 2017, Lenka Clayton collaborated with the Fabric Workshop to create a room full of works by vision-impaired artists, inspired by Brancusi’s “Sculpture for the Blind.” Perhaps more institutions (and artists, too!) could follow their lead.
But seriously, why aren’t there more tactile opportunities for vision-impaired visitors? The technology exists — if “The Birth of Venus” can be made tactile, why can’t more masterpieces? The Uffizi even offers “touch tours” (along with free admission!) to vision-impaired visitors. Tactile exhibitions can benefit even more groups, such as those on the autism spectrum. Could more museums follow suit?
A 2008 study “found empirical evidence that museums in general lag behind other social institutions in regards to accommodating people living with disabilities, such as wheelchair users, the visually challenged, and hearing-impaired people.” Have things progressed since 2008? While several museums are finally taking note, change is incredibly slow. Many exhibitions continue to be difficult to navigate by wheelchair — and often, the art itself is the problem. In 2017, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room was finally made “accessible” for wheelchair users — but only through a virtual reality app. Is that really the best we can do for wheelchair users, or other visitors with mobility issues?
Sometimes I anger-wander through American art galleries, just to see if they’re finally going to start putting up intricate quilts and whimsical Pennsylvania Dutch Fraktur paintings. Just one piece of folk art furniture, more Navajo blankets, I beg of you! Heaps of textiles are stored in museum archives, yet they are almost never on view in most cases. Why? If I see another quaint, pastoral, white-picket-fence painting next to a glossy “founding father” I might explode.
With the exception of sketchbooks, why are drawings shown in separate glass-covered tables, rather than hanging on the walls? And although I love a work in progress, I also want to see drawings that are final masterpieces themselves! I wish we could see more exhibitions like the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2018 retrospective of Charles White’s incredible drawings. How many fields of art are we missing out on because most museums have an undue focus on paintings? I yearn to see halls of colored pencil illustration, drafting, and the entire world of cartoons! But I guess that doesn’t count as “serious art,” huh?
Yes, museums are places where art can serve as a means of grappling with questions of identity, loss, and tragedy. But to be true sites of healing, shouldn’t they also be filled with laughter? What if they played music? What if they were filled with people from all walks of life, of all ages? What if they were sites of community, not just on special “family” or “community” days, but every day of the year?
Even after all of these gripes, I still love museums. I’ve spent countless happy hours in their halls. They’ve shaped who I am and how I see the world around me. But the vast majority of museums have a long way to go before we can truly say that they are welcoming for anyone and everyone to visit.
This content was originally published here.