Andrea Fraser So you managed to finish reading the introduction to the book. Did it require medication? (laughter)
Helen Molesworth Oh god, what to say? It’s interesting to read as an assessment or description of symptom and cause. It seems diagnostic; I felt like the hypochondriac patient who finally hears the doctor say, “Actually, there is something the matter.”
AFYou just don’t want it to be terminal. But did you really have doubts? Were you hoping it was just your imagination?
HMI was certainly aware of my own deep-seated but relatively unprocessed class resentment, and for years I’ve assumed that’s what happens when you enter a field rife with privilege. I had a handful of ameliorating narratives to help me exist within that milieu. I think most people who work in museums do.
Your book points to the fact that many trustees have their own ameliorating narratives as well—where they can make recourse to the social good, to ideas of education and freedom of expression. These are powerful myths in our country, and none of us are immune to them. They get deployed when we try to navigate the brutality of where the money really comes from. There’s also the sheer concentration of wealth, which clearly makes political donors one and the same as art collectors and museum patrons. I wasn’t shocked by any of the information put forward in this book, but I was amazed by how many of these people I knew—just from twenty years of art-world dinners, openings, and fairs.
The thing that did surprise me is what might have been your project’s trigger (if I may use that new word in the old way). When President Obama was in the White House, I was extraordinarily proud of the one degree of separation I had to his administration. I was amazed by our country, and by the class mobility I’d been afforded. Then, when Trump was elected, I realized I still had that single degree of separation! I didn’t feel proud anymore. I had the sobering realization that mine was a structural position.
AFFor me, the trigger was Steven Mnuchin [now Secretary of the Treasury]. I remember the MoCA gala—well, mostly I remember Diana Ross being the surprise musical guest! (laughter) I was invited as an artist in the collection and Mnuchin was pointed out to me. This was shortly after he signed on as Trump’s campaign finance chair. I was horrified to find out he was on the board, but I didn’t believe Trump could win—not in a million years. The full horror of Mnuchin’s presence on the board only became apparent after the election. With Eric Golo Stone [an artist and curator], I drafted an open letter calling for his removal. Then I decided to look up other trustees. I realized how many other Trump supporters were on the MoCA board, which lead me to investigate SFMoMA, MoMA, and other museums. I found major Republican donors but few who supported Trump. MoCA seemed unique, with Mnuchin and Jamie McCourt, who went on to become ambassador to France; and Carla Sands, who is now ambassador to Denmark. They both donated to Trump’s inauguration.
There’s Steven A. Cohen, who didn’t contribute to Trump’s campaign, but did give money for the inauguration. It’s the same with Charles Schwab, a trustee of SFMoMA, and Henry Kravis, husband of the former president of MoMA, and Kenneth Griffin, who is on the board of the Art Institute of Chicago, MCA Chicago, and the Whitney. They didn’t contribute to Trump during the election but crawled out from wherever for the inauguration. It’s more about influence than ideology, though you can say that influence is the ideology of plutocracy.
Mnuchin was the starting point of my project, but there was a second motivation: to strategize post-election about what effective political action could be for a registered Democrat in a solidly blue state with zero potential to influence Republicans in Congress, much less the executive branch. Elected officials listen to their constituents, the media and their donors. Part of my thinking was to influence the influencers, the donors. I planned to write draft letters to trustees as the last section of the book, elaborating on the hypocrisy, conflict of interest, and failure of fiduciary responsibility of serving on the board of an art institution while supporting radical right-wing white supremacist politicians who vilify “cultural and educated elites” and journalists, and undermine the freedom of expression on which that institution depends. As I developed the book, I realized employing that strategy would just be buying into the whole influence machine.
HMFrom my vantage—and this is hard to say—such a letter-writing campaign imagines that there’s a community both you and the donor class belong to. It hasn’t been my experience that the donor class feel themselves to be part of the same community you and I might loosely and tacitly agree upon.
AFThat’s probably true, but not in all cases. I do feel that the people who volunteer to serve on the governing boards of contemporary arts institutions often believe they’re supporting artists. They’re more likely to envision artists as their beneficiaries than the general public or museum members. But there are different cultures of trusteeship, to use historian Peter Dobkin Hall’s term. The book involved looking up thousands of board members. I did see some range.
HMI assume this research was done on the Internet?
AFYes, with the help of three research assistants. We looked into hiring a private investigator too. There are a number of artists who become PIs! That’s a career trajectory, it turns out. (laughter)
HMThat makes so much sense!
AFIt does, doesn’t it? But that was too expensive. Instead we mostly relied on WhitePages.com. We tried to figure out who the board members’ spouses are because patronage is, to a large extent, a couples activity. Then we could match addresses.
HMDid you ever think about privacy—that these donations shouldn’t be a matter of public record? I think it’s all fair game personally, but you’re in a tricky zone here.
AFThe political contribution records are on the FEC [Federal Election Commission] website for anyone to see, including addresses.
When I launched the book at the New Museum, Gregg Bordowitz [an artist and writer] asked a great question—as always—about call-out culture. I did worry about shaming people who stepped up for voluntary public service, but it’s a complex issue. Serving on a board involves taking on fiduciary responsibilities and committing to act in the best interest of the organization you serve. I’m sure all of these board members signed a code of ethics and conflicts of interest policy. As fiduciaries of what are legally public assets, they become public actors. So I think it’s legitimate to examine their political activities. And public disclosure requirements are basically all that’s left of campaign finance regulation. Chief Justice John Roberts makes a point about this in McCutcheon v. FEC. As he guts the other regulations, he argues that disclosure laws are enough to prevent corruption. But the really horrifying thing about that decision is Roberts’s identification of the “ingratiation and access” secured by political donors with the democratic process itself.
HMThat’s part of a staggering quote of his in your introduction. Ingratiation and access are clearly a problem in and of themselves, but they are also a gateway to full-blown corruption.
AFThere’s a really good book called Plutocrats United by Richard Hasen, a legal scholar at UC Irvine. After Citizens United, the critical focus was on the idea that money is speech and campaign finance regulations infringe on First Amendment rights. But, in fact, that wasn’t the big shift because it was already established legal doctrine. The big shift had to do with the criteria according to which money-as-speech could be regulated. Before Citizens United and McCutcheon, preventing influence and the appearance of corruption were considered legitimate grounds for regulation. Those decisions reduced those grounds to quid pro quo corruption only, which you almost never find. Roberts argues that politicians are supposed to be responsive. Here’s that quote:
Government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. Ingratiation and access … are not corruption. They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns.
And that, of course, is the exact same position the professional leadership of cultural institutions are in, with relation to their boards.
HMEducational institutions too.
AFYes, and nonprofit organizations across the board. Also artists, writers, researchers, educators—we are all part of what I now call the donee class.
HMOne thing I’d like to tease apart is this: I use the world oligarchy, but you use the word plutocracy.
AFPlutocracy is narrower than oligarchy. It’s governance by the wealthy, while oligarchy is governance by the elite, which could mean any kind—the political elites, cultural elites, and so on.
HMIt’s my understanding that oligarchy also implies a dynastic aspect, which seems important with Clinton, Bush, and now maybe Trump, who represent a clear break with America as we used to understand it!
AFYou mean as meritocratic?
HMYes, where you don’t have father and son both becoming president in the span of a single lifetime. That seemed like a profound betrayal of a democratic system.
AFI still want to believe in democracy. I think the culture of cynicism and nihilism, which is fostered by the media and popular culture, and also by the art world and critical theory, is a huge part of the problem. The cynicism of the left played a big role in elevating Trump to the White House. You know, Žižek advocated for voting Trump because it would bring down liberal capitalism!
HMHe said that? Sweet heavens, that’s ridiculous!
Although I have my own nihilism: 2016 gave us two very compromised candidates, so when people said they felt disenfranchised, I found it hard to fault them.
AFThere’s resentment of people in positions of authority at every level of our society. I’m also enacting that ambivalence in this book, targeting people who are essentially in volunteer service roles. I know that my sense of their corruption is tainted by my own resentment of their power and wealth. But enacting ambivalence to authority is very different from taking up authority oneself. That’s why we have to get beyond just acting out. I’ve now found myself on two artists’ councils and three boards.
HMBecause you feel a sense of community service?
AFBecause we can’t just complain about the donor class while we ask them for money. We have to step up and put in the time to participate in governance when we have the opportunity. Part of the problem, of course, is that these boards are often self-nominating and self-perpetuating. Nominations rarely extend beyond the existing circle, which is defined primarily through social and professional acquaintanceship. Increasingly, the primary criterion is wealth.
AFBut it’s also true that few people outside of that circle are banging down the door to serve. Diversification, certainly in terms of race and ethnicity, is a central issue. There’s a study that found museum board members are 89-percent white and that 46-percent of museum boards are 100-percent white. They need to represent a broader range of stakeholders and constituents. Ideally there would be a more open and democratic process of selection.
HMBut how would such “diversity seats,” (as they’re sometimes called) not merely recapitulate the same class divisions that exist outside of the boardroom?
AFOften the only board members who are not super wealthy are people of color; they’re also often the only artists. The Whitney’s artist member is Fred Wilson. MoMA has Anna Deavere Smith. Recently MoMA added some collectors of color, like AC Hudgins. But as Hudgins himself put it, “I’m negro rich, I’m not MoMA rich!”
HMAC is a wise and funny man. There’s also the role artists play on boards. I think there’s a tacit covenant, since they’re not asked (and presumed not to be able) to serve the same financial role, that they should serve as the moral conscience of the institution. Structurally, I find this problematic because I see it as a sleight of hand; essentially outsourcing moral conscience instead of everyone taking on that responsibility equally.
AFYes, but from the standpoint of group and organizational dynamics, better that someone is holding that than no one! You’ve got to start somewhere. Most of the boards I researched have no ex officio public officials or artists as members—at least none that are identified as such.
LACMA—which has one of the sweetest deals of any museum in the US, with a third of its budget guaranteed from the county—has no ex officio public officials on its board and doesn’t recognize that public support anywhere on its website.
It was interesting to discover that the few museums in the US that describe themselves as publicly owned are mostly in the South. They’re in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, also Utah and New Mexico.
HMWhen I worked at the Baltimore Museum of Art its employees were city employees.
AFThat’s the mid-Atlantic model, which started with the Metropolitan in New York. The city owns the land and building; the trustees own everything inside. Then there’s the New England model, like at the MFA Boston, which Dobkin Hall describes as “civil privatism,” where private trustees are held to be less vulnerable to corruption than the state because they are not beholden to public opinion.
But the Jeffersonian tradition in the South has been historically hostile to private philanthropy and charitable organizations, as competing with and undermining democracy. The state-owned museums in Virginia and North Carolina were founded post-WPA [Works Progress Administration] and in the context of Dixiecrat culture, which is deeply racist.
Then there’s the Midwest model, which Dobkin Hall describes as “federationist,” where museum boards appear to be rooted in a kind of corporate citizenship, with many members from local manufacturing, publishing, brewing, or agricultural firms. These boards also seem more diverse than East and West coast boards.
HMOne of the things I’ve experienced is a profound ambivalence on the part of both boards and the general public about curatorial expertise. I’m interested in their shared rejection of the expertise of the staff of cultural institutions. Your essay brings up the filiation toward the idea that a successful, affluent businessperson should be given power and authority in other arenas.
AFSuccess is often taken as an indicator of competence in administration and financial management, regardless of context.
HMOne byproduct of this is collectors buying artworks with less input from museum staff than ever before.
HMAbsolutely! This is related to art fairs and the rise of the art advisor who is much more a professionalized subject than an expert in the field. For instance, art advising does not possess on its own—that is, without the discipline of art history—an understanding of Art, in the Western tradition, that starts with, let’s say, portable paintings in the fourteenth century and proceeds up to the present. Rather, it’s a field built on a high degree of knowledge about the market, which translates into an adeptness at navigating art fairs, which are largely treated as equal to (if not more appealing than) museum exhibitions. An art advisor has likely never made a permanent collection acquisition for a museum, but nonetheless they have extraordinary traction with museum donors.
AFIn connection with this book, I keep getting asked: How much influence do trustees have on programs? Does their political orientation color that influence? And I can’t say. I’ve never talked to a museum professional (until now!) who would publicly admit that trustees had any influence on programming.
HMPart of this is due to the nuance of group dynamics and internal psychic mechanisms. This influence isn’t as draconian as a trustee sauntering into a board meeting and saying, “I demand you show this artist, and here’s the money for it.” (Although I’ve seen that happen!) More often it’s soft power that goes something like: “I think we could get the money from so-and-so because they like this.”
AFThis is coming from a director?
HMYes, and from the curatorial ranks as well.
AFIngratiation and access again!
HMThere’s an enormous amount of internal bargaining.
AFDo you mean internal within oneself or inside an institution?
HMBoth. The internal logic has become as transactional as the board logic. If I do this, then I’ll get this; both share a kind of phantasmatic professional quid pro quo that is never explicitly stated.
AFI’ve heard museum people say things like that publicly, though framed in a way that has more to do with popularity than patron support—that they’ll do popular shows to pay for esoteric shows.
HMBut patron support and the box office are frequently intertwined. There’s such an identification of expertise with elitism that I fear boards may feel as if curators only like work that the public hates, whereas they know what the public likes, the “real stuff”—Koons, Hirst, and Murakami.
AFPierre Bourdieu [sociologist] identifies three distinct forms of cultural legitimation: bourgeois, popular, and autonomous. But what’s happened since he wrote Distinction , at least in the US, is the collapse of bourgeois and popular legitimation to some extent—at least with regard to taste, not price points. What the Met did with its franchise shops was mass market elite tastes. This totally marginalizes autonomous legitimation, such as scholarly or artistic legitimation.
HMThis is perhaps the greatest liability of the new private foundation museum—the absence of any form of legitimation that is not market-based.
AFNot to toot my own horn, but I’ve had a few retrospectives over the past few years—in Germany, Austria, Spain, and Mexico—and they’ve been blockbusters! (laughter) I mean, it’s partly because there’s a sex tape involved, but I don’t think that’s the only reason.
HMThis identification between the moneyed class and everyday people has been one of the biggest challenges for me. I am still struggling to counter the charges of elitism that are being levied against those who stand up for and lay claim to their (or my!) expertise.
AFThat’s how the right won the election. They identified elitism and class power with expertise and education—with cultural capital rather than economic capital—and mobilized economically precarious whites against cosmopolitan liberals. Bernie Sanders focused on economic elites but, of course, couldn’t really get traction in the Democratic Party because it’s now just as plutocratic as the Republican Party. The left failed to recognize cultural capital as a real form of power that produces real forms of domination—and not just in its colonial, patriarchal, heteronormative, or white-supremacist forms. We’ve also failed to defend expertise and competence as a broadly shared social value rather than a form of power. I developed this analysis in an essay I wrote after the election called “Toward a Reflexive Resistance.”
HMWhen I first began my professional life in museums, the majority of people on the boards were doctors and lawyers. Their realm of expertise and mine existed side by side. There was talk of being a “visual person,” a shared understanding that many areas of expertise possessed clues and nonverbal information that needed to be translated. There were points of contact where we could analogize one another’s labor. That they were affluent went without question, but we were able to negotiate shared values. The world changed demonstrably over the last twenty years, and the number of people in the art world who made money by making money increased. They used financial instruments that were inexplicable, even to themselves. They could no more explain what allowed them to bundle mortgages than I could explain the inner workings of my iPhone. Something got lost in how we were able to converse as fellow human beings.
AFUntil the 1980s many museum boards were still dominated by founders and their friends, relatives, and business associates, who had an “inherited” understanding of the museum’s mission. When those people died off, museums started looking for anyone with money. First it was the leveraged-buyout guys, then the hedge-fund guys, then the private-equity guys. The boards basically became billionaire-of-the-month clubs with significant personal financial contributions and dues as the basic requirement for membership. The contribution threshold has gotten so high in many museums that anyone meeting that bar has to be an investor.
We can go on and on about the donor class, but we have to look at ourselves as the donee class. The whole corrupt system of ingratiation and access can only operate through the relationship between donors and donees. It’s not only museum directors, but curators and artists too, and professors and department chairs at universities. We can’t just enact our resentment and ambivalence of the power of donors; we have to look at our own interests and investments in that system, and our dependence on it. I’m incredibly privileged to have tenure at a public university [UCLA], but we’re ever more dependent on private donations. How do we negotiate that? How do we change that culture?
HMI remember being on the dance floor with two long-time artist friends at an opening in London and suddenly realizing how wealthy they were. (laughter)
AFAnd I’m sure they used to be poorer than you.
HMYes, and Los Angeles is an interesting case because, as we know, there are artists here with studios—
AF—built by starchitects.
HMYeah, they’re like small startups, mimicking the most affluent sectors of our society. It’s hard to be immune to the allure of what money gets you, the way it allows you to move through the world. It’s hard to harden your heart to these pleasures and perks.
AFBut this is part of the problem with the system. It makes us think in terms of individual corruption when, in fact, it’s structural.
HMIt’s deeply structural. For instance, I’ve been painfully aware of institutional salary disparities. Museums now have low-wage hourly workers without healthcare and other employees with salaries in the high-six to low-seven figures. I see such wage gaps as a fiscal dysfunction in museums. Why are nonprofit cultural institutions recapitulating the financial inequities of the for-profit world?
AFBut that money wouldn’t be raised if we—the donee class—weren’t asking for it. Most of the money isn’t raised to address needs; it’s raised to service ambition.
HMAnd all this has emerged at the same time as the decline in the care of collections. They’re now bigger than anyone can afford to house. Everyone’s storage is overflowing. One of the core values of a museum is that a group of people decide what’s worth saving. That value itself is worth saving, but I haven’t heard anybody in a boardroom mention it in over a decade.
AFYou’re talking about deaccessioning?
HMI’m talking about collection management, acquisition policies, and, yes, deaccessioning. The field has moved away from such things because its policies are now modeled on financial instruments (“we should accept this because one day it might be important” or “we should accept this because it will garner us access to the donor’s other resources”) rather than the belief that certain objects should be responsibly moved through to the next century or two.
AFNone of this can be fixed without public funding. The real turning point in this history was the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s, not only because the right-wing succeeded in cutting arts funding but because the art world just threw in the towel: “Okay, we don’t need public funding, that’s too much trouble. We can get these rich people to pay for our programs, and they don’t question the content.”
We saw private funding as less threatening to our autonomy than negotiating with the public sector for public funding and freedom of speech.
HMThere’s another implication for museum staff in here as well, which runs concomitant with the lack of board diversity. We—the curatorial field writ large—had several decades where we were ignored by, and in turn we ignored, both the funders and the public. Cultural autonomy really emerged in an extremely rarified moment. I think it’s fair to say that many of us tried to reject (or just ignore?) the desire of people who went to see the motorcycle show at the Guggenheim, and, perversely, I think that led me to the day I found myself shattered, personally and professionally, by the success of the Marina Abramovic ’show at MoMA. I remember thinking “If that’s what people want, I’m sunk.”
AFFor a long time, I made a distinction between two types of arts organizations: general audience institutions, including civic museums founded with an educational mission that basically acknowledges that their public doesn’t like the art they show and cultural constituency organizations founded to serve existing art or patron communities that already identify with the culture they present.
HMI have always loved museums, and I continue to love them, so it’s not that I feel they aren’t worth fighting for, or that I feel beaten, but the structural conditions of the enterprise feel overwhelming, and some of the current concessions feel too large. I don’t know how to re-engage, partly because I want to speak truthfully to both artists and the public. I’m tired of having to be so guarded in my speech. The degree of compromised speech—
HM—is so high.
AFAnd we rationalize it. “Yeah, we’ll censor ourselves or compromise because this is still good work.” We’ll take the money because what we’re doing with it compensates for where it comes from. I do think that kind of thinking has to change if anything is going to change.
HMAt heart, I’m not a pessimistic person, but the reality is the museum is a late eighteenth-century idea, and I don’t know if it’s going to make it in the twenty-first century, and sometimes I’m not entirely sure it should.
AFIf it does, it will be in another form. We’re seeing that transformation now.
HMThat being said, I still find enormous value in museums. For instance, one thing I think is profoundly important about museums is their slowness. Part of what’s changed them so much is the idea that they should be as fast as the rest of the culture. Now they operate on the logic of the blockbuster—which is a Hollywood model in which you produce a lot of shit to get one good movie. There’s this idea that no one will come to museums unless there’s constant rotation, constant spectacle, constant newness and entertainment. It’s insane!
AFIt’s a legacy of the 1980s and the neo-Pop era, that collapse of the values of the entertainment industry with those of the art world.
HMThe lesson I learned from my work on Black Mountain College is this: when no one wants to hang out there anymore, or when the institution becomes too rigid, or if the institution starts to only work for itself, then it’s okay to opt out. It’s okay to let things go. We might not need the donor class as much if we were willing to accept more provisional institutions.
AFThat’s the model. There are still organizations out there that function democratically, that are self-supporting and autonomous. Some members may have a bit more money to give than others, but there isn’t a divide between a donor and donee class. We’ve lost this model over years of expansion and skyrocketing prices and salaries. We know that art boom is the product of the massive upward transfer of wealth since the 1970s. But if there is an opportunity to create another kind of institution, I can only imagine two ways to fix the corruption of the nonprofit cultural sector. One is a significant increase in public funding from what we have now, which is almost nothing. The other is a significant downsizing of the institutions themselves.