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Something Old // Something New: MoMA’s Renovation Reignites Debates over Privilege in Fine Arts

In the archives of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Rina Banerjee flipped through the many binders that contained records of the museum’s permanent collection, but couldn’t find what she was looking for.

What she did find: Frank Moore’s ink print of a stick figure holding a DNA strand, Mitch Epstein’s photograph of a folded American flag in a dry cleaning bag, Conor McGrady’s drawing of a man’s shoulders with underwear over his head.

(She paused on the image of a decaying American flag, preserved in formaldehyde, curling around an upside down u-shaped glass tube. On the left side of the tube, the flag is a bloated swirl of red stripes. The right side is stuffed with the wrinkled white stars against blue. The piece, “Water Lilies #61,” by Donald Lipski, engrossed Rina, a chemist-turned-artist herself, with its use of formaldehyde. For Rina, submerging the flag in this harsh chemical—conventionally used to preserve bodies—seemed like an attempt to preserve the colonial nationalism represented by the flag.)

What she did not find: art by women of color. “The book was almost 99 percent white and male,” she recalled.

It was 2002, and Banerjee had been tasked with choosing a piece in the museum’s permanent collection that resonated with her and creating her own work in response. The exhibit, “Five by Five: Contemporary Artists on Contemporary Art,” was an honor, but Banerjee felt stuck as she considered her options.

She chose the Lipski piece. It was subversive, but she wanted to take it a step further. 

Banerjee assembled a towering cascade of eclectic items. An open black umbrella hung from the ceiling, a turquoise lantern and home temple dangling from its handle. Underneath the mobile, feathered palm trees and small, toothpick American flags were planted densely in the topographical map of an island on the floor. There, two flies engaged in conversation. One remarks, “A Stranger is in Our Paradise,” the name of Banerjee’s piece. Banerjee renders the place of the flag—and thus America—as precarious, directly opposing Lipski’s staunch conservation efforts. 

The exhibit opened a year later. A New York Times review praised Banerjee’s art for standing out among the pack, but there was another obvious distinction. Of the five artists featured, four were white and three were men. Banerjee’s findings in the binder—works by a group overwhelmingly composed of white and male artists—were replicated in her own life. She was once again the only woman of color. 

***

The October 21st grand reopening of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City brought concerns like Banerjee’s back into popular conversation.

The 40,000 square-foot expansion and other massive renovations reshaped the museum’s entire approach towards exhibitions. MoMA opened new free galleries, studios for experimental programming, and creativity labs aimed at encouraging conversations with artists and visitors. It was a large-scale effort to reorganize existing collections so that classics like Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” would be shown next to works by previously undiscovered artists. 

Larry Kanter, Chief Curator of the Yale University Art Gallery and former Curator-in-Charge of the Met’s Robert Lehman Collection, explained in an interview with The Politic: “The public interest in content of works of art and what lies behind them is not a new thing. It’s been growing steadily over many decades, and now has reached a proportion where it’s begun to play out in the public sphere.”

Indeed, MoMA’s latest effort fits in with its long standing philosophy. As an institution of modern art, it has always been radical compared to the old guard. MoMA was originally envisioned in the early 20th century by three female supporters of the arts: Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Throughout the century, they would display radical and otherwise-snubbed works of art like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal-turned-“Fountain.” The legacy continues: More recently, in response to Donald Trump’s travel ban in 2017, curators showcased works by artists from Muslim-majority nations in protest. 

Banerjee’s experience at the Whitney underscores the lack of diverse representation in the modern art world, even in progressive museums⁠. According to Williams College, 85 percent of the works held by major American institutions are by white people and 87 percent by men. Only 3.3 percent of the female artists whose works were acquired by top museums in the past decade were African American. 

Furthermore, museums have long been criticized as a leisure activity for the wealthy. Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, Curator of Education and Academic Outreach of the Yale Center for British Art, explained: “Museums are inherently a colonial institution, evolving out of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities,’” or wunderkammern—shows of “fine art and ethnographic objects from around the world through European eyes for European audiences.” 

The association between wealth and art grew exponentially at the end of the 20th century, when the rich began to treat art trade as an extension of the stock market. Works became about commerce rather than connoisseurship. With smart purchases of the right art, the wealthy grew richer and gained in social status. The embedded connection between class, affluence, and art in this period recalls power dynamics of the original wunderkammern. 

In the past year, the International Council of Museums proposed an updated definition of museums that acknowledges the importance of inclusivity, critical dialogues, and diversity in exhibitions. However, Reynolds-Kaye explained, some in power in the museum world have not adapted their internal convictions to fit modern understandings. “The newer generation believes in people first, visitor first, the museum as a space for contestation and community building,” Reynolds-Kaye observed. Not all feel the same way.

The old guard’s efforts are bolstered by the often-conservative preferences of donors. The boards of most major New York art museums are composed of less than 25 percent people of color. In an interview with The Yale Politic, Michael Shnayerson, author of Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, emphasized museums’ dependence on wealthy board members. “Museums often now can’t afford to buy a hot young artist’s work. They turn to their board members who are collectors and might buy paintings for them that then become part of the show.” 

Andrea K. Scott, an arts reporter for The New Yorker, wrote of the 2019 Whitney Biennial that art has become “a playground for the wealthy.”  

MoMA’s recent five-month renovation represents the museum’s attempt to recalibrate to the changing social context. Instead of giving the public more of the same, Kanter explained, MoMA, as one of many museums striving to “open-mindedly look at the nature of offerings they share with the public,” wanted to “try something altogether new.” 

***

The first time Banerjee’s work was exhibited at MoMA was at the 2005 Greater New York show at their PS1 campus in Long Island City, Queens. At the exhibit, targeted at celebrating traditionally-unrecognized histories of New York art, Banerjee showed her sculpture “Tropical Fatigue and the Seven Wanderings: You Are Not Like Me.” She remarked, “I’m still considered a foreign artist even though I’ve lived here all my life.” 

The sculpture is another waterfall of nostalgic items. The underwire skeleton of an umbrella hangs upside-down from the ceiling, its central metal rod attached to three old-fashioned, fading suitcases. The suitcases themselves are also inverted, tops hanging open, spilling their contents—a horn, eggs, banana leaves, feathered wings, glass beads—onto the gallery floor. A single lightbulb hangs between the bunches of fronds.

Banerjee’s conviction of the need for inclusion in art was repeatedly reinforced through conversations with her male colleagues. She once attended the solo show of a female South Asian artist at the Guggenheim with an older male artist acquaintance. When she asked what he thought, he responded, “Well, the only reason that the show is here is because [the museum] is being charitable.” 

In 2017, Banerjee was showing at the Venice Biennale when the then-Minister of Culture of the Biennale said to her, “the only reason there are only 10 percent women in the [show] is because it is hard to find talented women.” 

At the same festival a year later, Banerjee was paired with another male artist for lodging and meals. She recalled that over dinner, “he talked about his work, invited me to his exhibition in L.A., and didn’t ask me one question about my work, or anything.” 

On MoMA’s renovation, she is not so optimistic. “There is a positive wish to expand MoMA’s reach to include more women, but [specific curators] were not very open to artists from other places contributing.” 

There is a lot of work to be done, she explained. “The patriarchy within these museums is very stable and very blind…. They don’t see your work as a contributor to the dialogue of art; they do see you as charity.” Like other instances of incrementalism, “The inflation of visibility is a spectacle that deflects scrutiny of what is actually happening.” 

***

MoMA’s expansion appears on the surface to be a valiant effort at remedying its lack of representation. Indeed, in a press release, MoMA announced their intentions to use the extra room to acquire more works from artists of diverse backgrounds. Art by women now occupies some of the most prominent positions in the museum. Sheila Hicks’ monumental fiber sculpture confronts the visitor as soon as they step off the elevator. Betye Saar’s “The Legends of ‘Black Girl’s Window’” was the featured show at the museum’s reopening. Almost 30 percent of the artists on view in the new MoMA are women⁠—five times the proportion in previous years. 

In order to increase the number⁠—and in theory, diversity⁠—of artists the museum can highlight in their given space, MoMA plans on accelerating the turnover rate for exhibitions to every six months. Despite these efforts, it remains difficult for MoMA to balance increasing diversity and staying true to their collection. Kanter explained that in approaching this new mission, there remains “the risk that some museums are going to start collecting by quota.”

The museum’s staff plays an important role. Banerjee explained that curators need to be “interested in that project of connecting with the rest of the world, to realize that there is one human culture and we need to invest in that.”

Beyond that, Gallerist Phillipa Feigen Malkin identified that quotas could be a dangerous model, because, “if you can’t really find things that are beautiful or relevant by a female artist, but another work expresses the cultural context right now,” then you sacrifice a museum’s intended purpose by choosing the former. 

Kanter calls this the pipeline problem: “The system doesn’t have in its pipeline enough candidates from diverse backgrounds or with radically new ways of thinking to create a whole new generation of open-minded professionals.”

***

In 2018, the year before the remodel, Yugoslav artist Damjanski “hijacked” MoMA. In a guerilla art installation without the museum’s initial permission, he used open-source augmented reality–which he called “MoMAR”–to overlay his own artwork over that of Jackson Pollock. “Museums are more of a one-way conversation,” he explained, and this was his way to open a dialogue. MoMA seemed to agree: they did not interfere with his staging, and invited him to exclusive events.

The way Damjanski sees it, rather than expressing an “egoistic” concern over “giving away control by allowing other people to show stuff in [their] space,” MoMA recognizes that he and his team are “always adding on top of their collection–always bringing more people into it.”

Perhaps the most revolutionary change of the reopening lies in MoMA’s reaffirmation of the democratization of consuming art.

The museum’s promotional report for the renovation, MoMA Now, explains that exhibits are reorganized by theme, which “not only allows but encourages detours, digressions, skip-stops, shortcuts, and complete immersions, allowing each visitor to construct his or her own experience of the collection.” The new paths encourage explorations into the tensions between each art piece, asking viewers to create radical new relationships between the works and themselves. 

Furthermore, MoMA has introduced multiple free galleries. These are visible from the street through gargantuan glass windows, and are meant to encourage visits by people who are deterred by ticket prices. 

“People you badly want to be [at the museum] can’t afford to come,” Kanter explained. “The thing is that we want [visitors] to be from all walks of life, not just from a select privileged background.”

There seems to be the lingering danger that, even with free admissions, people of diverse backgrounds won’t come. When asked about this concern, Kanter replied candidly, “You can’t guarantee it, you just do the best that you can do…. All you want to do is remove the barriers. When the barriers are removed, it’s up to the people whether or not they want to come in.” 

Kanter explained: “The more people who have access to museums, the more people might fall in love with art, and that to me is what matters the most…. Otherwise, why save it?” 

***

The MoMA redesign takes a first step in trying to answer the question Reynolds-Kaye at the Yale Center for British Art and other new-generation museum professionals are asking: “How do you take something historically white and elite at its core and re-evaluate it?”  

The museum’s renovation seeks to create new dialogues between the viewer and the work, and between the works themselves. 

Despite the renovations—or perhaps sparked by them—activists still express concern. At the reopening ceremony, protesters called for Larry Fink, Black Rock CEO and MoMA board member, to divest his company’s holdings from private prisons.

While MoMA still has far to go in tackling its ingrained structures of exclusion—and in counteracting the exclusionary legacy of fine arts more generally—the museum seems to recognize its obligation. For one, MoMA will also be hosting more program collaborations with the African American art-focused Studio Museum in Harlem, an initiative that Banerjee praised. “These little steps to be taken are very important in terms of the message it sends,” she said. 

Despite some caution, Kanter expounded that “what MoMA did was an incredibly serious job with the highest of expectations met.” Banerjee, though, sees the changes as a “standstill.”

The success of MoMA’s renovation in achieving its goals is in itself contingent on fostering healthy debate. After all, critics are doing exactly what the museum needs; they are engaging in conversation with its art.