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Writer and Curator Laura Raicovich on “Not Normal” Museum Practices

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So welcome, everybody. I'm Paula Marincola. I'm the executive director of The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. And I'm delighted that we are welcoming today the distinguished cultural critic, writer, activist, curator, museum director, multi-threat Laura Raicovich. 

Before we begin, I would just like to read this land acknowledgment. The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage is situated in Lenapehoking, the unceded homelands of the Lenape people. The center recognizes and honors the original stewards of this land and all past, present, and future Indigenous communities here for their ongoing resilience and the cultural lineage that continues to shape this region today. 

So for those of you who may not be familiar with the Center, and even for those of you who are, just for the record, I want to talk a little bit about what the Center is. The Center is the cultural program, the cultural arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts. And our mission is to foster a diverse and dynamic cultural community in the five-county Philadelphia area. 

We do this, as most of you know, by supporting projects in visual arts, in performance, in material culture, social history, social practice, et cetera, and through a longstanding and foundational individual artist fellowship program. We invest about $10 million a year in the cultural community in the Philadelphia area. But besides our grant-making, the Center also functions as a hub for discourse around issues that are critical to cultural practice. This is a way that we try to make a contribution to the fields that we serve that goes beyond the dollars, although we know the dollars are really important. 

So to that end, the Center commissions and publishes original scholarship. We present workshops, symposia, lectures. We support research travel. And we regularly bring distinguished practitioners to our region to talk to, to engage in discussion peer to peer, colleague to colleague, with our community. 

So without further ado, because this brings me to our purpose here today, I'm going to turn the program over to Kelly Schindler, who is our director of Exhibitions and Public Interpretation. She will introduce Laura and the day and get us started. So thanks again for coming, and enjoy the time. 

Thank you, Paula. And Thanks to all of you for being here with us today. As Paula mentioned, I'm Kelly Shindler, director of the Exhibitions and Public Interpretation program here at The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. I also would like to thank a few colleagues who generously helped us prepare for today, both organizationally and conceptually, namely Adam Clair, Zoe Greggs, and Zach Blackwood. Thank you so much. 

It's my pleasure to introduce today's speaker, critic, activist, writer, and veteran arts leader, Laura Raicovich. While the main thrust of our work here at The Pew Center involves grant-making and supporting Philadelphia's vibrant cultural community, we also design and host programming for our constituents and those of you further afield as part of our thought leadership work. Throughout the pandemic, we have been engaged in ongoing conversations with colleagues here in Philadelphia around cultural practice during the pandemic. 

All of the projects we have supported have necessarily had to pivot in one way or another, or perhaps in several ways, in order to weather the constant challenges faced around access, safety, and the kinds of hybrid experiences, both in-person and virtual, that become necessary. Some of this pivoting has led to resiliency, even innovation. But it has also led to a prolonged sense of exhaustion. 

Whether you are an artist, a student, an educator, a culture worker, or a caregiver, you know this feeling intimately. And during this time, museums and other cultural institutions have been confronted with the need to concretely address racial and social justice, equitable labor practices, and financial stewardship. This inflection point of trying to support, produce, and repair culture under these endless challenges and stresses is what we have been discussing internally here as not a new normal, but rather a not normal, as COVID-19 evolves into an endemic. 

And it is why we were eager to invite Laura Raicovich to share her insights and observations on museums and institutional practices emerging at this endemic stage in time. Laura is the author of many books, including Culture Strike-- Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, published by Verso last year. In this text, she addresses how museums and cultural institutions can become better spaces for more people by leaning into the reality that they are not and never were neutral spaces to begin with. 

Raicovich traces the origin of the American Museum model and cites various art world controversies, from artist representations of historical racial trauma to museum trustees' dubious financial affiliations, to make her argument. And off the page throughout the pandemic, Laura's commentary has been a real beacon, offering us ways to navigate various cultural flashpoints unfolding in real time. I'm thinking, for example, of the November 2020 Zoom session she hosted with curator Helen Molesworth around the decision by four museums to delay their shared Philip Guston retrospective by several years. 

That exhibition, incidentally, is now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until mid-September. Laura and Helen set up their own impromptu virtual town hall, inviting anyone who was interested to process and attempt to untangle the thorny issues together and without judgment. It was unmediated, unedited, and real. It is in instances like this we've witnessed Laura's generosity and fearlessness, speaking truth to power in an effort to understand the contours of a debate and get to a braver, more vulnerable sense of what could be possible. 

So given her remarkable ability to critique and analyze culture from this 10,000-foot vantage point, we asked Laura to share with us some thoughts on how things continue to play out today, in which a whole new roster of challenges and traumas, but also inspirational exemplars, have emerged since Culture Strikes initial release. In the interest of time, I will share the briefest of bios. And we will paste a more complete one in the chat. 

Laura Raicovich was president and executive director of the Queens Museum and most recently served as interim director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. Prior to that, she held leadership roles at both Creative Time and the Dia Art Foundation. She is a recipient of both the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship and the inaugural Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators at Hyperallergic. 

She is the co-editor, along with Carin Kuoni, of Studies Into Darkness-- The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech, which literally launched last night at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Laura also co-edited with Carin Kuoni Assuming Boycott-- Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production. And she is the author of both At the Lightning Field and The Diary of Mysterious Difficulties. 

She is a graduate of Swarthmore College right outside Philadelphia and earned her masters from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Laura is also a friend of us here at The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, having served as an LOI reviewer for our 2021 Re:imagining Recovery Grants. 

And finally, a few brief housekeeping notes-- the chat and Q&A functions are available for participant use. So please feel free to leave comments in the chat as Laura is speaking and pose questions during the Q&A portion of the event. And as a reminder, this event is being recorded live. With all of that preamble, I am excited to extend a warm welcome today to our guest, Laura Raicovich. Laura, now where would you like to begin? 

Well, I think I'll begin by thanking you all at The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and particularly Kelly and Paula and Zoe for making all this happen. And I am deeply grateful to be here with you all today because I think there's quite a lot to discuss. 

Before I jump in, I just want to also acknowledge that I, too, sit on Lenapehoking land here in New York City. I'm talking to you from Manhattan. And I want to acknowledge the privilege it is to live on this landscape that has been cared for for many generations into the past and will be cared for many generations into the future by the Lenape peoples. And I am grateful for my ability to share this landscape with them. 

I also want to provide a brief description for low vision and blind people. I am a slightly tanned white woman wearing big, geometrically shaped glasses. I'm wearing lipstick, and my hair is up. I have a blonde streak in my hair. 

I am wearing a patterned sleeveless V-neck dress. And I'm sitting in a largely white room with a bunch of books on bookshelves behind me to my-- well, to my right, but I don't know the way you see it because I'm confused by the cameras. 


But just to dive in, this is my book, Culture Strike-- Art and Museums in an Age of Protests. It came out last June. I handed the book in for editing in March of 2020. I subsequently went into full panic mode because I thought, gosh, I'm going have to rewrite the book. 

But as it turned out, there was so much that became extra relevant in the book throughout the coming year or so that it was kind of being in production mode. It was only slightly delayed due to the pandemic, so it came out in June as opposed to April. But it was a very interesting time to have just spent three years really reflecting on the conditions of cultural production. 

And I was kind of looking forward to jumping back into getting together with folks I had not seen in ages because I had my head down in the bookwriting when the pandemic hit. And in the end, there was some fine-tuning I did, but mostly, I wrote the last chapter during the pandemic, to just give you a little orientation towards how I wrote the book. 

And I wrote the book in large part because of my experiences in working for museums and cultural institutions over the last 20 years and really recognizing this deep reality that museums and cultural spaces are often perceived as or thought about as neutral space, a space where the container has no positionality. And in a way, when I started talking to people about this who were not in the art world, they were like, what? In 2020 and 2019, there's a place that thinks it functions outside of its own positionality in history? 

And I was like, well, yeah, actually. The cultural sphere is still very addicted to this for a whole number-- a whole host of reasons that I really get into the book. And I wanted to dive into the historical underpinnings of where museums and cultural spaces, nonprofits in particular, came from in the evolution of the United States. Obviously, every geography has their own particular story. 

But the United States is very specific in that-- and I go into this in great deal in the first chapter in the book-- that really, the museum evolves out of the personal collections of a very particular group of people, of largely white, largely very wealthy, largely men, who are colonizers of-- in the United States coming from largely the United Kingdom. And these collections begin in an interesting way because they're not just fine art. They tend to be scientific in nature. They tend to have books. 

They tend to be stuff that is an attempt to prove that whatever is happening here in the colonies slash in the United States as a young nation is just as important and just as worthy as what exists in Europe. And so while in Europe, museums and cultural spaces often came to be out of the collections of royalty or the church, in the United States, it's still coming out of a place of great wealth but not as institutional. It's far more individualistic. And so what ends up happening is that, of course, it's the taste, on the one hand, of whoever has the power to collect the stuff, and also what they're exposed to, what they-- who they encounter, what kinds of objects, what kinds of things, and the stuff that they particularly like. 

And of course, as their lives-- as they pass on and transition, their families then get left, often, with large amounts of stuff to deal with. And some of that gets donated to institutions, like their alma maters. And so many early museums in the United States come out of educational institutions, universities, that then develop museums. 

And those are the collections that are gifted that end up being what people study. And so it's very easy to see then, in that case, how museums end up having a certain type of taste and an object that is reified. Because subsequent generations of scholars address the works that are in the museum at the university, and it just gets re-inscribed over and over again. 

So I trace that in some depth to give a basis for why we have this very stubborn idea that things-- that a museum could be neutral in the first place and why it's important that we recognize that it isn't. Because of course, once you recognize that that collection is not simply excellent or it's not universal, you'll begin to be able to say, well, of course this person wasn't interested in X or Y, and therefore it is not included. And so you can begin to admit in a positive sense why-- and admit the fact of the exclusion of that particular institution. 

And part of my research comes from a great love of cultural space and the desire to have a more honest relationship between culture and its audiences and its participants. And I also think that, of course, modernism, in a sense, has put high culture, so-called high culture, at a remove from daily life. And it's always my ambition to reintegrate culture into daily life in the ways that humanity has always understood it. 

It's not as though cooking and drawing and sewing and all of the-- I don't know why my computer is doing this. I apologize if I'm making you nauseated. Let me see if I can make it stop. Hold on. I have some setting here. OK, how's that's, better? Now you see my bed, but that's OK. 

So in any case, so I wrote the book really wanting to dive into that and to dive into the various controversies that have emerged over the last several years as case studies, as case studies for understanding how this operates in a contemporary context, to understand why museums keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again. Why do we need to keep doing the kinds of education that we need to do? And how can we possibly find our way out of that? 

And there are many examples in the book. And I don't want to talk too long about that because I really want to make some space for us to be in conversation. All of you on the Zoom, please put questions, thoughts about what I'm saying in the chat, and we can discuss them. 

And I know Kelly has some questions. And I welcome any of you to bring questions to the table. I'm not going to speak for very long because I want to really focus on that part of the conversation. I want to know what you are-- what you're curious about, what you're confronting. And I want to really delve into that. 

And so just to say that, what I learned writing this book was really-- were really some very key things that actually, perhaps, were more heightened in terms of my understanding of why-- of my understanding during especially the early days of the pandemic. And one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle, I think, contributing to, A, the ongoing mistake-making rescues perennial and never learned from, and also the kind of exhaustion piece of the puzzle, to address what Kelly was speaking to before, is just the radical need to slow down. The overproduction in cultural space is extreme. 

And in some ways, obviously, it's tied to this late capitalist drive to raise more of a-- to grow or die, these kinds of ideas about how cultural space has to mirror capital. And I think that's really highly problematic. Because part of moving so quickly means that you don't have the time, you don't make the time to have the proper people in the room to make the decisions. 

You don't have the time to consider the decision making process as a process. You don't have the time to be sure that when you have an open position, you're doing the best, the very best that you can to recruit people who may not be in your normal circles of existence. And I think all of these things contribute to the problematics not only of representation within the museum, but also just not great decision-making. 

This is why diversity matters. Diversity matters because you want various opinions in the room. And if you don't have the-- if you don't take the time to actually make sure those people are in the room, make sure that you've-- not only that those people are part of your institution, but also empowered to kind of be in that space together in a way that makes sense for everybody in the room and not just the people at the top, I think that is-- those are some crucial questions that we're facing right now, especially with these-- so many organizations' commitments to diversity, equity, and access work, that the intentionality of those programs has to be set in the right space. 

And that space, to me, means slowing down because you simply can't add this DEAI work, or whatever acronym you use, on top of everything else that everyone's doing. There has to be space made to actually spend intellectual time, emotional time, practical time, meeting time, face time, in those spaces to have those conversations. And I think the kind of announcement of so many DEAI initiatives have evoked feelings of tokenistic behavior because it doesn't exist from a place of deep intentionality around making the space really for other kinds of conversation. 

So the other piece of the puzzle, the other thing that I really began to think very strongly about-- and I also thought about this a lot when I was at the Queens Museum-- was the propensity for cultural spaces to broadcast knowledges rather than invite exchange. And I think that this propensity is linked in many ways to the educational mission of many cultural institutions, where the mission has always been, especially in US museums, to educate publics. 

And so that broadcast mode of constantly saying, ooh, we have this, we are experts, we can teach you, we're going to do it, we're going to teach you this thing, has come at the expense of understanding, A, that culture is part of every single person's daily life, and B, that the languages in which the broadcast is happening may be profoundly alienating to a lot of people who don't feel at all addressed or feel negatively addressed by the cultural offerings. And so this is a big space. How do we move collectively as a field towards modes of exchange rather than broadcast from an institutional perspective? 

The other piece of the puzzle is around protest and how cultural institutions receive protests. Because I think, in many ways, there's sort of an old-fashioned response to the perception of an ill, of a protest, a critique, which is largely tied to the precarity, the financial precarity, and other precarity that institutions feel, that individuals within institutions feel. Because after all institutions are nothing but walls and rooms. Without the people what do you have? 

So how do the people within institutions, from the board and the senior management, to the PR firms and whatever, begin to understand-- the rest of the staff-- begin to understand protest as a form of radical care for the institution itself? Nobody would bother to protest if they didn't care about what the heck was happening in those spaces. And so in a way, even though it may sound harsh to our ears-- and look, I've been there. 

I know how shitty it feels to be on the receiving end. But at the same time, if we were able to imagine a way to receive that protest as a way to deeply reconsider where we are, even if we don't think the protest exactly hits the nail on the head, but it may be telling us something that the protest isn't explicitly saying. There may be other interpretations and nuances. 

And for those of us in the cultural field, I think that is the kind of analysis we're good at. We live in a space of nuance. We live in a space of complexity. Let's use those analytic skills to address what the critiques might be of our own ways of working. 

And although it isn't-- and on that same kind of trajectory of change, as imagining sites of protest or protest as spaces of radical care, I've also been thinking a lot about the fact that the best practice, so-called best practices of human resources departments, obviously, writ large in the world, but particularly within museum spaces and cultural spaces, could be the most radical place to make the work happen. And I'll give some examples of what I'm thinking of. Because for example, there's a small arts organization in New York called Recess. 

And they have relatively recently initiated two changes to their setup that I think are really incredibly forward-thinking and deeply transformative ways of re-imagining the nonprofit space. The first is that, instead of having only one director, they have a co-directorship model, which I know isn't super unusual. However, they decided to do this because they recognized that they wanted to create a greater sense of accountability in that top job. 

And the reasons why they did it I think are really important. And not only that, but I mean, I've been a museum director. It's a pretty intense job right. It's a hard job. 

And I think that, as a collective enterprise, as something you do with somebody else, not where you divide it up and say like, hey, Kelly, let's be co-directors. If you take care of the program and the education, I'll take care of finances and fundraising. No, that we're both responsible for all of it. And this way we can support one another. 

And it creates a much more intimate space of both support and accountability. And I think that that's really good. Right? That's a really big transformation. Because what happens then-- salary structures, what happens? So that's what I mean when I'm talking about human resources. 

I also think that the second thing is on pay. And the second thing that resisted was that they basically created a universal entry level point of pay that everyone received across the institution. And that was at a point of $60,000. So everybody received at least a $60,000 salary. And so that was completely transformative because so many cultural spaces, out of necessity or otherwise, have starting salaries that are really quite low, to the point where when I started working at the Queens Museum and I looked at the staffing salaries, I was like, I don't even understand how-- because I know that person has a child. Like what are they doing? Do they have two other jobs? Are they eating lentils every night? I just-- I was like, this is not viable. This is not sustainable. This is not OK, even, for what we're asking people to do. It's just unethical. And so anyway, that's what I mean when I'm talking about why human resources in place. 

And then the last thing I'll say before we kind of get into a broader conversation is that, obviously, the last several years have been ones of great tumult for basically everyone in the planet. And if we haven't gotten the message by now that whatever is happening hyper-locally is inextricably tied to and influenced by global conditions, I think not only have we been not paying attention, but you probably haven't lived during the course of the last two or three years. So this is a moment where I think, to your point, Kelly, of the not normal normal or however-- I don't know quite how to put it-- going beyond what the typical concerns have been over time for cultural space is that there is this moment of need for profound reconsideration. 

And I'm grateful that my new book was mentioned in the introduction, Studies Into Darkness-- The Perils and Promises of Freedom of Speech, because this was really an opportunity to go and look at free speech, freedom of speech, from ground zero, below the surface, like going down into Hades of freedom of speech, and really taking a deep reconsideration of what it might mean. Because I think that there are a lot of mythologies that we have operated under as people who live in this particular geography that need to be dismantled. 

And to me, that undoing and redoing, and that undoing and redoing collectively, that undoing and redoing within the context of cultural space, the power that culture has to open the imagination again to spaces that we might have not considered before, or that have been over time closed off to us by these mythologies that are so firmly implanted in society, I think the narrowing of the imagination over what about what art and culture is and does on a daily basis and the role it plays and in our lives deserves also profound reconsideration. And I really believe that culture, art and culture can lead the way in terms of helping us imagine the kinds of features that we might desire in an attempt to try to enact some of them now. 

So I think I'll pause there. And oh, somebody just put in the chat what the name of the book it. It's called Studies Into Darkness-- The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech. It's from the Vera List Center of Art and Politics and Amherst College Press. 

I'm not-- literally, we just had a launch event last night. So I'm not exactly sure. I think it may have been a preview because literally they FedExed them some books from the printer. So I'm not sure if it's available on their website yet. But it should be soon. If you go to Amherst University Press, it should be very soon, if not already. 

Thanks for that, Laura. So that book is forthcoming for most of us. But perhaps pre-orders are possible for those of you who are interested. There's so much to unpack here, Laura. 

And one thing I want to point out is I find that the takeaways, the really salient points that you're talking about here, in terms of thinking about time and slowing down, and thinking about exchanges of knowledges, or education as a dialogical exercise, as opposed to something more unilateral, thinking about protest as a form of care, which that is such a helpful way to think about dissent. Because I feel like it gives all of us permission to embrace that in a different way. It kind of like just turns it around on its head. I find that so radical and gracious of you to lay that out for your reader in this book. And I think also, thinking about HR practices, people-centered practices, all of this is really centering around that. 

And I think all of this, all of these points that you're bringing up really point to notions of wellness, which carries such connotations now in so many ways. Like how do we take care of ourselves? We're still in a pandemic? Medical care, essential care, all of it is so important now. And how do we take care of ourselves in order to be sustainable and to keep going and to be resilient, which is something that we think a lot about in our work here, is how can cultural practice and production maintain a resiliency and move forward? 

So at the same time, I want to acknowledge that we're talking during a time of prolonged heartbreak here in the United States and internationally, sadness and terror due to gun violence, including here in Philadelphia last weekend. I think it's important to acknowledge that. The pandemic, the war against Ukraine, all of it is here in the soup together. And also, just thinking about-- there's so many analogies to tie into your argument about the hyper-local being connected to the global and how we are all impacted by that. 

Can you talk more about the roles that cultural institutions can serve in their communities? Can you share some examples with us of where you've seen that in a generative practice? What is their responsibility, and what are some of the opportunities here? 

Well, I think, first of all, there are so many things that during the pandemic, I think, institutions really-- there's so many institutions that, in the midst of their really deep struggles, also provided spaces of solace and very real spaces of comfort. And I can speak to that directly from my personal experiences at the Leslie-Lohman Museum. This is an institution in New York. 

It's a museum devoted to queer art and artists and culture. And I think the museum really thought of itself as a very local institution, thought about its audiences as being primarily New Yorkers, et cetera. And when we launched a program, a digital program in the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 called Remote Intimacies, and we commissioned queer artists to make performance works, specifically intended to be experienced via Zoom, we uncovered something that was just super moving that I didn't really expect, which was that, even though the time differences were radically strange for-- people were tuning in from like Uganda and Poland and Hungary, where LGBTQ rights were being really trampled upon. 

And during the pandemic, of course, many queer folks were under much greater duress, for young people especially having to be at home more than they might have otherwise, if they had conflicts with their families or the people they live with. There was really a really dire need to connect with folks. And so we were able to create this space online that, for us, it was just kind of this instinctual thing that we made. 

But it turns out, we understood, really, how deeply impactful it was to actually create a space that people could tune into. And it was really a remote intimacy, where the title just ended up being so much a part of literally what happened. Because oftentimes, the events didn't have huge attendance. Maybe there were 30 people. Sometimes they were as few as 20. 

But the performer was always there. And there was always a sense of like a bunch of people who really knew the performer well, the artist well, and a bunch of people who didn't. But they were always held in like meeting styles on Zoom so that everyone could see one another, and everyone could ask questions. 

And it was just a kind of, put your video on if you feel like or raise your hand if you feel like it. And we spent a lot of time during the sessions after the performance happened or was viewed to really devote to that moment of feedback and exchange. And I think-- I don't know, I think I cried during every one of them. I don't know if that's a testament to my own mental state during these things. But it was just-- it was deeply moving. 

I will also say that there were things that cultural spaces have done, like the Queens Museum set up a food bank during-- collaborated with a local organization to distribute food at the Queens Museum during the pandemic. I think that was deeply important given who the Queens-- who the audience is the Queens Museum serves. I think also the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw-- I have some friends who work there. 

And basically, the museum was turned into a refugee processing center. And so these are the ways, I think, that it is important for a cultural space to respond to whatever the local conditions are. And it was what I was really encouraging the Queens Museum to do in a more public way before I left the institution, including when our staff decided that we were going to close for Inauguration Day when Trump was inaugurated on January 20. 

That was a very particular decision that we took as a staff. Because I knew, 20% of my staff having been DACA, documented by a DACA, that there was an enormous precarity in those moments. It wasn't an abstraction. These things are real. These conditions that we all struggle under, they are real and felt and have actual consequences. 

This weekend, I was at a retreat with a colleague and friend who's from Philadelphia. And one of the other people in the group who wasn't able to come to this retreat was sitting a block away from the shooting in Philly. And so when we heard about it, we were just kind of like, oh, my God, is Lee OK? 

And they and their partner were sitting at a restaurant nearby. And so it was like just this-- the kind of acknowledging the chaos of all of this, that it impacts us, and that it's not just like, oh, that's my social or private life or emotional life, and this is my work life, I think it makes an-- it's an urgent reminder of how those things are actually integrated, and that it isn't possible, and certainly not under these conditions. 

And I also want to say something else about this because I think there are these levels of exhaustion that everybody's been experiencing in the United States. And I think in some ways-- I've talked to friends and colleagues who are from and work in far more precarious places. And they are very concerned about us in the United States because they're like, you all are not used to dealing with this. 

You had this-- you were working always under this fake assumption that everything was A-OK. We cope with this all the time, the level of precarity that we experience in our day-to-day lives. So whether it's in Khartoum or in Bethlehem, we're talking about zones that are extremely differently organized in the day-to-day and where things move at a much more precarious pace. And I think we're moving towards that rather than the other way around, is all I'm going to say about that. 

Speaking of precarity, let's follow that along for a second. I'm curious about financial precarity. We're a grant-maker, so we think and talk about this all the time. And we try-- or we have resources that we marshal to help support great work happening in the city. 

I'm curious about how you've seen how philanthropies have helped or hindered your efforts to shift the role that a museum can play for the public. How have you seen that play out? You talk about that in the book. But I think for our audience attendees here today, it'd be great if you could map that out a little bit. 

Yeah, sure. I think the way that cultural space is funded is an extremely important subject. In fact, I did an 18-month long project with the Brooklyn Public Library to canvas how people feel culture could be better for them. And one of the main subjects of that conversation was around the financial backbones of cultural space. And I know that there's a lot of thought going in right now to the problematics of the nonprofit sector, period, never mind whether we're talking about culture or not. 

But the reality is that we have a system here in the United States where private philanthropy, both from individuals and institutions like Pew, is the only way that culture gets funded, basically. The level of public support is so insignificant. It may be a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. I know that the NEA often functions as that or has functioned as that in the past, at least with institutional philanthropy. 

But the fact of the matter is that we live in a nation state with no national cultural policy. There is no Federal Ministry of Culture. That's really weird, just to put it-- and I do think we kind of need a national convers-- I mean, at some point. I don't know. I think we need a national conversation on gun control first. 

But at some point, it is necessary to talk about cultural infrastructures. And it is necessary to talk about that at a federal level. It is necessary to talk about that as a question of equity, of cultural infrastructure as equity, coming from a national perspective. 

And I feel very strongly about the fact that there needs to be federal funding of cultural infrastructure, not just for big institutions, for big ones and small ones, and maybe more for small ones, that that should go towards the light, the heat, the power, all of that stuff. That is a place that is super hard to fundraise for. I know this. 

General operating support is the hardest thing on the planet. I know many of us who work in cultural administration were jumping for joy when the Ford Foundation announced its plans to really focus on general operating support. And that didn't really come to pass entirely. 

But I am so committed to the general operating support because that is the only way that you're going to get people to slow down to even think about doing the other work that's necessary. Because otherwise, they're just going to have to fundraise for individual projects because that is all that they can get money for. So they're going to produce more exhibitions, more programs, because that is the only thing that gets-- that there's money for. 

And so yes, there are very specific capacity building grants for this or that. But those are far more rare. Most philanthropy is centered around project funding. I don't know, actually, if there's a study on that, or if you all have done a study on what the percentage of philanthropy goes to specific project support or acquisitions. 

That would be, to me, a super interesting question. Because I feel like there's something to be really said. It's not just heat, light, and power. It's the 19% health insurance cost increase, year over year. Every year that amount goes up. Like if that's not a statement for single payer health care, I don't even know what is. But just to say, these are real impacts on a budget, and so that's the space that I think really needs attending to. 

Obviously, if you have-- in any kind of a financial situation, if you have one funder, that funder is going to have outsized influence on what you do. It's not even like it's subconscious. It's just, it is what it is. It's like-- maybe they're really closely aligned to what you already do. But it almost doesn't matter. 

That relationship, even if you're talking about the private sector hedge funds never have only one source of funds. They have as many as they can to preserve their independence. And so for me it's not about public sector replacing private sector. I'm not for that because I know what happens in Europe, and I see all the problems that they have there as well. 

So it's not one or the other. It's like, I want to really diversify the sources of funds. And the reason that the public sector is super important not only is because of its power in terms of providing support for necessary cultural infrastructure that is, at its heart, an equity issue, but also that public sector funding means everybody is supporting it. It means that there's a certain investment from a very broad cultural-- I mean, from a broad cross-section of society of what culture is. So it cannot just be pigeonholed into the space of like, oh, it's for the elite, so only rich people, all only, only. Because then it's just fundamentally not true. 

So there's that piece of the puzzle. The other thing that I wanted to say about money is that-- what was the other thing I want to say about money? I think that's what I wanted to say about money. Maybe I'll think of my other-- there was a third thing, but I forgot. 

Yeah, I'll throw something related to that for you, Laura. So regarding large encyclopedic museums, specifically because this is an area that you really dive into in your book, too, do you think these large institutions have the capacity to change in a meaningful way, given how they are tethered to large outsized powerful donors in so many instances, and also to private monies in general? What do you think? 

I think it's tricky. I think that all these different kinds of institutions have very-- when we talk about the cultural sector, the intensity of diversity of what is in that universe is so wild that I really resist-- thank you for breaking out the larger, more universal [INAUDIBLE]. Because I think the critiques that have been kind of more flatly-- or have been leveled at the cultural field are often talking about very specific aspects of it. And there's this kind of flattening that takes place when you have-- like the New York art world includes both the Met and Recess, who I was telling you about. So it's like-- so it loses meaning a little bit. 

But I think this point about the larger institutions is really important because I think they are the ones who are most likely to be engaging in big DEAI plans that may or may not be tethered so intimately to the realities on the ground within the personal lives and intuitions of each employee and where they're coming from. I think there, we're more likely to change in particular departments, some that take on this work in a really meaningful way, in part because there's so much siloing that happens in big institutions. 

So no, I don't think it's impossible for them to change. I don't think this is a condition. It's just that it has to be-- it's going to be far more incremental. It's going to be far more siloed within-- it's not going to be institution-wide. I just don't see it. It's too complicated. I don't know how you would even-- like if I were hired to run a big museum like that, I would be fired immediately. 



I mean, I wouldn't be hired for that. Just it's not really thinkable. So then it becomes, how do you do the work that you want to do within those spaces if you want to make those shifts? And I think that's really incremental. And it's really like what Sandra Jackson-Dumont did at the Met in the education department. 

She was really doing incredible, incredible work with the kinds of public programs, the commissioning of fellowships, these kinds of programs that brought artists into the streets of New York City rather than situating them only at the Met physically. I think that is possible in a big institution, where that may not be as possible with smaller spaces. So there definitely are opportunities there. It's just that I don't think-- we're not going to see that change happening institution-wide anytime soon. 

I think this idea of porousness of the institution and thinking about engagement, again, as exchange is-- that seems like a really realistic and pragmatic way to start. Right? 


I'm going to ask you one more question. Then I want to encourage our listeners here today, our attendees, to drop questions, please, in the chat or in the Q&A for Laura. And we can discuss what's on your mind. 

And I also want to acknowledge that so many of you tuning in today are practitioners yourself. You're artists. You're culture workers. So we're very curious about what questions you have about issues that you're facing at this endemic stage in time, what strategies have been helpful for you or questions that we might be able to surface here. So Laura, on that note, how has your thinking evolved on the roles and responsibilities of institutions since the book came out? What kinds of-- are you-- yeah, why don't we just start there. 

Well, I guess-- I think we have to-- there's a lot that cultural space needs to attend to. And a lot of that-- and frankly make amends around. There's a lot of, well, things that we've messed up. And I have made mistakes. It's not like-- and this shouldn't be an embarrassment or whatever. 

Sometimes it's embarrassing, obviously, to make a mistake. It's often embarrassing that it's such a stupid thing that one has made a mistake about. But I think the ability to be vulnerable in that moment and accept responsibility for those errors, and to also-- because I think that there's this problem that we have with apologizing, well, everywhere, but particularly in the United States, where there's this sense that if I do something wrong, Kelly, and you're hurt by what I do, and I apologize, that, A, we feel that if you say-- if you forgive me or whatever or if you accept my apology, that somehow everything's OK, and that there's nothing else that needs to be done, and B, that there's a lot of pressure on you to accept my apology because I have apologized. 

So in some senses, I feel like we need to find spaces where that kind of conflict can exist in a more robust way. And that if I have harmed you, I need to not only apologize without, perhaps, expecting you to forgive me or to accept my apology. Because I think those two are also different things. But beyond that, that my apology has to be linked to making amends in some way.

And so I think that that's a personal commitment that I've made to myself because I know that I definitely have made mistakes. And in the process of learning, we have to acknowledge those errors and actually deal with them. And so how do we find a way to be vulnerable enough in a society that tells us that we have to always be strong, we have to be a badass, we have to be uncompromising, we have to be sure of our convictions and all of this? When, in reality, we know that-- I know I'm learning all the time. 

And the more I learn, the more I know what I don't know. And so I think in a way to really embody that, you have to be willing to be in this place of vulnerability, where you can say, I really messed up. I appreciate if you point it out or if you call me to task on it. And I think that that can also be done with some level of care if I'm deserving of that. 

And it's not about intentionality. It doesn't matter whether you meant it or not. If you meant it, you're a jerk, so whatever. But if you didn't mean it, you still hurt the person, So institutions also function like that. 

And so in addition to us making commitments to do our own work to perhaps-- I don't want to tell people what their own internal work has to be. But like I've worked on that for myself. It's like making sure that I am able to not only say I'm sorry but also understand that the person who I'm apologizing to does not need to accept that apology and doesn't have any responsibility to me whatsoever. I mean unless we're like dear friends and whatever, one would hope that we could have a conversation about that. 

But as institutions go, if there is no relationship and there is a public kind of conflict that happens between, say, a community organization or a community group and an institution, that community group does not owe the apologizing institution anything. And so as-- it's related to this radical forms of care idea. Protest is a radical form of care. 

The institution has to not only say I'm sorry, but also has to say, and this is what we're going to do so that we minimize the possibility of this happening in the future. Because what I do know is that institutions tend to have very short memories about their mistakes. And these end up being part and parcel of the structural racism, white supremacy, and misogyny that keeps re-inscribing itself over and over and over again. So heteronormativity, like you name it, it's in there. 

But it just-- it's like that's why it keeps happening over and over again because there isn't an intentional re-inscription of making amends for whatever that public faux pas was. It's like, oh, well, we apologized. And this is where I think that-- for example, what happened at the Walker Art Center around the Sam Durant work was really an important example, first of all because the institution did apologize, and so did the artist. 

There was-- we can talk about what led-- what led to the problem was another whole ball of wax, but just to focus on this piece. Olga Viso's apology is really thoughtful. It's not some PR-ified thing, right? 


And Sam Durant's apology was also really thoughtful. And then not only-- and then they go beyond that. Because then they actually make-- try-- offer making amends through a number of different things, including offering to burn Sam Durant's-- or offering to-- well, Sam and the institution-- sorry, let me explain what happened. So Sam Durant made a sculpture for dOCUMENTA. And then the Walker purchased it for its collection. 

One of the main-- it looked kind of like a big plywood jungle gym kind of thing. But what it was was a representation of various gallows from US history where the state sanctioned executions. And the biggest of those was the 19th century execution that was ordered by Abraham Lincoln of 38 Dakota people, men, to be hung. 

So when the Walker bought this piece and then subsequently installed it in their brand new sculpture garden, the local Dakota people-- and the Walker-- and the sculpture garden is on unceded Dakota land-- had some very big feelings about this piece being there. And so what ended up happening was that these apologies then ensued after massive public outcry. And Sam Durant and the Walker offered the work itself, that was now at this point owned by the Walker, to the Dakota to determine what they wanted to do with it. And they decided to burn it. 

And this was very controversial because it was like censoring an artwork, on one hand, supposedly, or whatever. But to me-- whatever, I don't want to get distracted by all of that. Because I think the important thing was that there was-- to this point, the important thing to this point was the desire to make amends for this. Because on many levels, I think the whole-- the harm that came from installing this work could have been avoided had it been done in a different way. Or at least the discussion would have been more robust and the hurt would not have been as great had there been discussion before the piece was installed. 

But in any case, what then happens is that, subsequently, Olga Viso was forced to leave the institution. And what I thought was really poignant was that Louise Erdrich, who is herself Dakota, wrote an op ed for the local big paper in Minneapolis. I can't remember the name of it right now. But-- 

Star Tribune. 

Yeah, the Star Trib, right. And she wrote that, among many other things, that of course-- and she wrote it in a very, of course, we'll have to begin the conversations anew with a new director. But I think I took that as a little bit of a, well, and now, of course, the labor falls to us once again, the Dakota, to educate the next person who comes into this position. Because we did all this work with Olga, and now she's not there anymore. 

So to me, this was like-- it adds insult to injury, yet again to have these circumstances where you've worked with somebody who has clearly-- and I don't know the-- I don't know why Olga left and why she-- whatever, what the conflict really was about there besides what everybody knows from being in the papers. But I do think that that is a real thing, having to renegotiate all those relationships with a new person, after there has been this period of apology, learning, attempting to make amends. 

The conversations have started. So like yet again, that labor falls to the people who were harmed. So how do we avoid doing that over and over and over again? 

Well, and it ties into what you were talking about earlier in terms of precarity. And then with the revolving door of the institution, then it takes a few steps back in order to be able to move forward eventually. And the harm that can be done or what is lost during that time, too, has its consequences as well. 

So keeping-- and I should say for our audience, Laura maps out a really clear chronology of what happened at the Walker, as well as a really beautiful speculation of how it could have happened differently had it had the benefit of time. So back to your earlier point about time Laura and how important that is to kind of slow things down and think critically and carefully and thoughtfully about how we do our work. 

So another question-- and this is kind of related to the Walker Sam Durant controversy. What do you think about the obligation of cultural organizations to artists and artistic experimentation? What does that relationship look like? How does it work for those who are making the work? Or how can it-- what can it look like? 

Sorry, can you just clarify? What do you mean exactly by the-- 

So what-- we can use the case of the Walker or any other organization or institution. What is the responsibility to artists in this instance? When caught in the throes of this trauma, of this controversy, where does one's accountability to artists fall? 

Yeah, I think that-- well, and which artists, right, so the artists who are in the exhibition or the artists who are protesting the exhibition or whatever? Because there's always artists everywhere. 

I do think that there is a important-- I think there's a really important aspect of the accountability and the relationship between-- the curatorial relationship between curators and artists, obviously, but then also of the museum administration. I think there are important questions that institutions need to talk through with artists about the work that they present, especially if it's a situation for-- if there's-- if they're commissioning work, if they're making new work for an exhibition, et cetera, et cetera, I think there's a real conversational responsibility that institutions bear. And subsequently, in terms of presenting the work, I think they also need to be willing to be deep about that. And especially with Sam's project, that was a really tough one because it's not like that work was commissioned for the Walker. 

Right, it was an extant work. 

Yeah, it was an extant work that was shown in Kassel, Germany. So the kind of-- the representation of the Dakota, somebody needed to recognize that the representation of the Dakota was going to read substantially differently on unceded Dakota land than it did in Kassel, Germany. So there's a responsibility, I believe, that the institution has to thinking about that and doing something about it. 

And what's strange and interesting about that situation is that Sam actually was an artist in residence at the Walker many years earlier. And so he had actually done community work there with Indigenous people. So I find it sort of like doubly and triply confusing as to why-- but I also know the way that acquisitions committees work. It's just like a curator proposes or the director proposes to acquire a work, and that work is acquired. 

And that often happens outside of the conversation of the staff in a broader sense. And so if you don't have Indigenous people or a member of the Dakota in that circuit, it may not come up because it's largely a financial transaction with the gallery. The artist is probably not-- I don't think Sam was even that involved. I think the gallery just sort of told him it was happening. 

So it's just sort of a strange-- and this, again, is the siloization, the kind of finance and creative shall never meet. And one of the things that I really resist in the museum circuit is this idea that people don't really understand the way the money is spent inside of a museum. I have made it a priority in every institution I've worked to make sure that anyone who works with me understands the way their work fits into the bigger picture of the budget. 

And I think that's an equity issue too. Because not only do you then understand the parameters of the universe you're working within and how your work specifically ties into this and ties into that, but also it was important for me to have everyone I work with understand, oh, that I, as the director, was making a commitment to a certain budget, and that I was going to raise the money to do that. And so they needed to equally commit to making it happen in order-- so there's a kind of a braiding that happens when you have that kind of knowledge sharing and integration. 

I think oftentimes it's like, oh, well, they don't really need to know. It's like the lack of that kind of communication and knowledge sharing can create so many misunderstandings about the way that-- how much money actually needs to be spent on every single person who works in the museum? Obviously, you wouldn't be sharing individual people's salaries. But the fact that salaries are this and benefits are that, as a rule of thumb, 30% of anyone's salary is going to be what needs to be paid in payroll taxes and health insurance and attendance, other things that the institution has to pay. So even just a vague understanding of that makes the situation within the museum a lot-- makes it a lot easier to talk about money, for example. 

So anyway, I just off-- sorry, I got a little off topic there. But I think that was actually one of my points, that point from earlier that my brain finally came back to. But with the responsibility to artists, I think there is a responsibility to artists to make sure that, within the communities that the institution engages with, or maybe doesn't engage with, that if there is a work that addresses that in some way, they have a responsibility to contend with that in a very material sense. 

They're taking it on. 


OK, so Tom Finkelpearl's asking you, if you were a museum director today, how would you approach funding? Would you set any ethical standards on what sort of donation you'd accept? And if so, what would they be? In the museum of your making or the next museum you run. 

I think I would put a real focus on being highly communicative with-- well, first of all, in my-- OK, so if this is fantasy-- 


--Tom, will you let me be a little bit dreamy? So what I would like to do is create a board of my peers, essentially, and transition a fundraising board to a different kind of-- that the fiduciary responsibility of the institution fell in the hands of a board of peers, with some lawyers and other people who might help with those kinds of institutional questions around governance and fiduciary matters. I think-- I would love to experiment with having a different body that was more focused on fundraising. 

I'm not saying that those don't overlap, but that the board not be the default place where all people with financial resources are, in part because I feel like there are many boards that end up with only people who have financial resources, who may have other skills that they contribute. But their primary reason for being there is their financial wherewithal, and that then, it can sometimes result in odd assumptions about how museums actually function. Right? 


So that would be my first thing. I also really would want to push for a much bigger conversation about public funding. As I said, I think there is a role for national public funding. I also-- I had a big dream when I was at the Queens museum that for our 50th anniversary, we would raise $1 for every person who lived in Queens, as a kind of crowdfunding thing that would yield $3 million, thereabouts-- maybe a little bit more these days. I'm not sure what the population of Queens is now. 

But it was like I just felt like there's something to be said for the-- I think crowdfunding has kind of gotten a bad name, but just for people to be invested in what their cultural space is. And I think cultural space has to do things that invite that investment and that encourage it and foster it. But I also-- I've always-- ever since I worked at Public Art Fund when we had our Tuesday night talks that were totally free, and we never had any idea how many people were coming, and sometimes it was 800 and sometimes it was 10, I always thought the free thing was kind of weird. 

I think you can charge a nominal fee. But even if you're paying like $5 or $2, or $1 even, there's a certain level of commitment that comes with that. I don't know. It's just my thought. But I also think that we need to find ways of making clear what those pay protocols are. Because for example, that doesn't exactly always work with admissions policies, where people who are accustomed to the protocols of what you do at a front desk at a museum understand pay what you wish or suggested admission. 

We have these debates all the time at the Queens Museum about how to relate to people that they could give $1 or $0.50 or a penny even. They don't really have to give anything at all. But if you're an insider and know how to be at a museum, you know what pay what you wish or suggested admission means. If you don't, then you're going to pay-- you might think you have to pay the full freight. And that might be $40 if you're there with your family. 

Right, decoding that for people. 

Yeah, just not making it like a thing that you have to know. I think that is a huge barrier and something I didn't get a chance to really dive into. But how do we undo that front desk phenomenon of the checkpoint? Because it's like a checkpoint. It's like going to customs. It's like crossing the border. So how do we make that a totally different experience for people who want to come to a museum? 

That could be joyful too. 

Yeah, that could be awesome. 

Right, right. 

That wouldn't require like a crossing of a threshold. 

Right, right, right, and some discomfort. OK, one last question from an attendee, and then we can wrap this up. How has pandemic trauma and fatigue changed the idea of audience in regard to cultural spaces? So what about our relationship to these spaces? 

Oh, gosh, that's a great question. I don't really know. I don't know. I think-- well, one thing that I thought was really interesting was that, early on, there was a lot of discussion about how, because of the air circulation systems in museums, they were actually relatively safe spaces to be during COVID. And I think that continues to be true because of the-- for bigger institutions that have air filtration systems and all of these-- this apparatus for climate and humidity controls for art conservation, that this actually ends up being a useful byproduct for actual humans. 

So I thought that was interesting. I think that there are many demands that are being made on cultural institutions that, perhaps, were not as loudly or specifically voiced before the killing of George Floyd, for example, and its relationship to white supremacy and cultural space. So I definitely think there is that aspect of-- that the people are really thinking very critically about how to hold cultural institutions to account. Generally speaking, I don't think that's a bad thing. But it has also produced a great deal of anxiety and fear on the part of cultural workers because they are afraid they're going to end up under the microscope, and then are afraid they might lose their jobs as a result. 

And so it has created this kind of cycle of increased precarity and fear-- anxiety, maybe not fear. Maybe anxiety is a better word. So yeah, I think that has changed. I think the public is feeling its power, which I think, generally speaking, is not a bad thing. And that's why I suggest that institutions maybe embrace that a bit differently. And again, going back to these ideas about exchange rather than broadcast, that that plays into it as well. 

We are all in a relationship together in that way. 

Yeah. And most of all, I think that cultural space is a space that we can-- that is hopefully useful, that we can learn how to live together under these conditions, that we imagine ourselves together in these spaces, especially when the world hands us situations that are deeply troubling, that are terrifying, that are joyful, that we might be able to use our cultural space to delve into that. 

Well, I think that's a lovely and hopeful place to land, Laura. So I want to thank you for your insights and your time, and for everyone with us today for tuning into this conversation. It's been a pleasure. And I want to turn this over to Paula for a few last words. 

Well, thanks, Kelly, and thank you both. Thank you Laura for a really salient and stimulating discussion. I have a page full of questions and notes to follow up on. So we're going to have to have you back for this. And Kelly, thanks for doing such a great job of moderating the conversation. 

And thanks to all of you out there in virtual land that I can't see but I wish I could. We really appreciate your time with us. And we hope to see you again in 3D space or in virtual space, whichever our world allows. So thanks again, everyone. And be well. Stay well. And we'll look forward to another time. Thank you, Laura. 

Thank you so much. Have a great day, everyone. 

As COVID-19 becomes endemic and as calls for racial, social, and environmental justice continue, the cultural sector is not returning to a “New Normal” but rather finding itself situated in a shifting, sometimes bewildering “Not Normal.” 

Writer, activist, and curator Laura Raicovich shared her insights and observations about how museums and cultural practitioners are beginning to come to terms with this new stage of practice in a recent conversation with the Center’s director of exhibitions and public interpretation, Kelly Shindler. 

Raicovich takes an intensive look at this phenomenon in her book Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, which examines several key museum flashpoints, provides historical context for contemporary controversies, and suggests ways museums can be reinvented to serve better, more public ends.