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The Mode of Production as Empire

11.3 / On Being Included

The Mode of Production as Empire

By Chaédria LaBouvier May 14, 2020

It would do well to ask ourselves, as art practitioners and thinkers, the genuine and frauds alike, what are the modes of production in the art world?1 I don’t mean this exclusively in the Marxist/Wealth of Nations sense, though I find it to be a necessary conversation that I do not have the space or time to further elaborate on here. Rather, at the time of this writing, it is the early days of COVID-19 (currently strict quarantine is in place for New York City, the site of this writing), and thus, many arts workers are in deep consideration of what comes next. Firstly, the art world is collapsing—most acutely the museums. This is a necessary thing; so much is deeply broken within institutionalized systems for arts support. Almost no one knows what will emerge next from the ruins, though most honest assessments include a hard reset on many fronts. This moment offers practitioners and thinkers an opportunity to confront and rebuild all that has been unsustainable for a very long time, and unequal and oppressive for even longer.

The collapse of public arts institutions, which began in March 2020, has laid bare what has long been known: the finances of the art world and the respect for the arts workers which constitute the engine and heart of the whole operation, have been a house of cards. A third of museums are not expected to reopen after the worst of the COVID-19 virus has passed, and the death toll of furloughs and layoffs are so sweeping that Michelle Moon and Art + Museum Transparency have created a spreadsheet to keep track. In retrospect, it became clear that this would be a bloodbath when MoMA laid off 86 educators. This, of course, demands the question which has aggressively dogged museums since the 1960s: who are museums for?2 What is the history of that service, and what value-add do museums provide in the quotidian lives of the public? The history of museums, especially those in New York, is incomplete without admitting the public’s sense of disconnect from them, and museums' struggle to connect. This is the crux of inquiry here; how does the intended audience inform or affect the mode of production? And can the modes of production function as a proxy or extension of empire, both in site and aspiration?

Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story, 2019; installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Filmmaking and film theory are my foundation in understanding making art and consumptive goods for a market and public. As such, in the conception and execution of the exhibition Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story, a central question that I asked myself, the exhibition designers, executives, and art handlers (who have a far more intimate understanding of how works “speak” than the field is willing to acknowledge or remunerate) was, “Where is the audience in this?” This is a classic question—and demand—that directors and screenwriters ask themselves as an industry standard, distributed throughout all members of the film world hierarchy. It is meant to reaffirm the logic of the work, and to justify the reason for making it.3 What is the audience’s experience, and should they trust you to take them on this journey? Does it make sense? Is it interesting? Will this make money? Who does this speak to? These simple questions acknowledge an economic empire and the machinations of it—production companies, below and above the line, studios, networks, the unions, etc. that depend upon an audience. It is a fundamental acknowledgement of the fragility of this balance and the force of the market that we must all, at some point, pay obeisance to.

Contemporary art has long been inextricably in bed with the market, and thus per capitalism, a proletariat class body. This includes in its scholarship, though no one wants to actively discuss what it means for how and whom scholarship is produced. For those practitioners who are excluded from the profits of sales, the market run-off is social capital: who is allowed in the room, who follows who on social media, and who is invited to speak and contribute to "the right" panels and catalogues. For spaces as white and as white-centering as museums, especially New York's, this almost certainly never means a job or a meaningful position of power within those spaces for practitioners of color. If audience is a variable in the mode of production and the capital is a by-product of collaborations and partnerships that feel urgent and essential, it seems that we are doing the intellectual truth and the provenance of labor a disservice by not discussing the market’s impact on truth-telling and to whom.

What would an audience-centered exhibition within a museum look like? This is a question that I am still experimenting with and do not have all of the answers. I do not think that the answers can or will be found in the four walls of the white cube, though some can be distilled and reinterpreted there. In making Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story, I sought to repurpose modes of production within cinema, both in technique and centering an audience to explore an overlooked chapter of New York history nearly forty years after the event. It became challenging to reconcile the impulses to reveal a purposefully hidden chapter of history and what felt like for many behind-the-scenes: a repurposing that was simultaneously meant to tell a larger, aspirational narrative about the Guggenheim's progressive trajectory, despite serious problems and no evidence of the arc bending in that direction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983. Photo: Allison Chipak/Collection of Nina Clemente, New York.

The central point of the exhibition was a painting examining the private and traumatic response that Jean-Michel Basquiat had to the murder of Michael Stewart, and which he intended to keep from public view. I felt that this concerted response and that of his peers was a missing chapter of art history in the 1980s, and helped society at-large better understand political protest in art in the late twentieth century. The Guggenheim and Artistic Director and Chief Curator Nancy Spector thought that the examination was solely to be on New York's airbrushing of history from social memory, and could be made without acknowledging that in the museum’s eighty-year history, I was the first Black person, Black woman, or person of Cuban descent hired to helm an exhibition there. I was also, at 33, the youngest independent curator of an exhibition. It was, of course, intellectually irresponsible to not acknowledge all of the hidden chapters at play here, or that these precedents had to be independently verified by current and former Guggenheim employees and outside art historians because of the current leadership's unwillingness to. This also includes the other historical precedents which were left out of the exhibition's public narrative: Basquiat is only the third Black artist to have a have a marquee exhibition in its eighty-year history, the sixth Black artist if group exhibitions are included (the honorific drops back to third if travelling exhibitions and specially funded prize exhibitions are excluded from the count), and the exhibition was first exhibition at a Manhattan museum in nearly thirty years, in large part due to the art-world's enduring racism and dismissal of the scholastic capacities of his work.4 The exhibition was also the first time that Michael Stewart's work had been exhibited, a posthumous fulfillment of the show he and a friend were planning before his death in September 1983. These are the tremendous layers of history that the Guggenheim willfully denied or purposefully omitted from the public and art historians.

Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story, 2019; installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

In the neo-liberal conservatism of some large museums, therein arises a specific occupational hazard for their museum executives: to live and lead in a world of abject disconnect from their public, and yet expect to be taken as seriously as they have taken rhetoric and myths about exceptionalism; theirs, their institutional histories and the wholly fantastical construct of "The Other." As such, there is no exceptionalism per se at play with being "the first"; it is merely the very public acknowledgement that there was indeed a genteelly illegal hiring ban in the first place. It is also unrealistic to expect one person to signal a change in behavior and practice that has been in place for nearly a century. It is my opinion that in lieu of seismic institutional change, "firsts" are personal wins that are extrapolated to virtue signal "change," and become iconographies of representation for marginalized people, the vast majority for whom a hiring freeze is still in place. As such, the question of if the institution has changed enough for a Black curator to thrive there—or exist in such numbers that we forget how many—remains a totally unanswered and unasked question. I do not think that most people would want to know the answer to that, provided that there is one.

An indication of the past and possible tea leaves of the futures is the chapter of the Guggenheim's history with the late Okwui Enwezor. Twenty-three years before me, Enwezor was one of four co-curators listed in alphabetical order for the exhibition In/Sight: African Photography from 1940 to the Present (1996). It is interesting to note that the Guggenheim did not acknowledge him as being a part of their curatorial history prior to 2019, and they still have yet to properly historicize and contextualize his work as the first Black co-curator in their institutional history. The Guggenheim did not entrust him to helm and curate the exhibition, though in hindsight of the tower in the field that he became, it is clear that they should have. It is unclear why Enwezor was not asked to join the curatorial ranks then or afterward, but they waited until he had passed to retroactively celebrate the relationship. Enwezor could not speak for his experience there. Additionally, in doing so, Spector, who spearheaded efforts of ad-hoc commemoration, and the museum weaponized the art world's star system in hopes that no one would question the legitimacy of the Guggenheim's re-telling, lest it seem as though someone was demeaning Enwezor's achievements in the field. This shoddy retelling of the story obfuscates the story and paralyzes inquiry. Why they never institutionally embraced him is as much a part of the story, and we are watching history repeat itself: the Guggenheim invented an honorific for me—the first Black solo curator of an exhibition—which literally does not exist and has no institutional nor industry precedent, for one either curates or co-curates an exhibition, or not at all. In my research, I have found no prior example of the Guggenheim using the designation of "solo curator" in the archive and records.

Emboldened by this and a press which indulges them, the Guggenheim has sought to create an historical narrative which explicitly promotes their first Black staff curator as the first Black curator at the Guggenheim. There is justified suspicion on the timing of the announcement—it was done so within an hour of the end of my last day at the museum—both by the public on social media and in the press. This harm, too, is a part of the story of Blackness at the Guggenheim and the modes of production there. For what the Guggenheim does not know about Blackness in its lived, intellectual, and curatorial depth, they have shown to have a mastery level of instrumentalizing it, as empirical machinations of white supremacy goes. This is of course to say nothing of the extremely sordid story of Nancy Spector using the two respective histories of Black women—achievements in their own distinctive right—to escape the public reckoning and calls for accountability which had come knocking on her door. It is my belief that the extraordinary failure of leadership on every level in the handling of the Basquiat exhibition, the recent re-framing of their institutional history in the face of witheringly bad press, the ramifications of attempting to silence their first Black curator via historical rewrites, the instrumentalization of their first Black staff curator in those efforts, and the posthumous reclamation of their first Black co-curator will prove to be a rich site of analysis and discovery for years to come.5

If extraction, obfuscation, and instrumentalization are modes of production at work (at times), what is the currency? I would argue that it is (art) history. It is the value and the story to and of which a museum sells itself to the public. Museums operate as literal mausoleums of societal memory and have proclaimed, whether through encyclopedic or hyper-focused collections, that they are a neutral and specialized body which can narrate the story of our ideals of the past and with lessons learned, our progressive future. Museums, notoriously bad at communicating their value-add to the public, have yet to bridge how their particular retelling of the past predicts the future, much less a progressive one. It becomes even more difficult to communicate this when the museum in and of itself functions as a site of exploitation, harm and intentional erasure of the very histories to which the public is meant to depend on them to tell, explain, and protect. Questions linger regarding what such professionalized violence means for Black curators and other vulnerable peoples in the field, which in turn, highlights the difficulties of excavating art history within institutional proxies that function as empire(s). In this way, what histories can museums be entrusted with, when the past has shown them to be insufficient stewards of it? Do they serve a public purpose, and if so, what happens when the public and thinkers outside of the museums must step in as stewards and narrators of chapters that would otherwise be told incorrectly?

Film still of author's response to panel held in conjunction with Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story at the Guggenheim that was organized without the author/curator's participation. Full video: https://twitter.com/badnewswomen/status/1191892273694461952

Naturally, I am thinking of the extraordinary public failure of the Guggenheim and its leadership as aforementioned, but they are not alone in this barren place. And in a post-COVID-19 world which will be so radically different from what we know, there's no way of even beginning to predict its form. How will this impact fundraising? To work in a development office now is the equivalent of being an essential worker, as the art world goes. It is not just merely that museums must now compete with hospitals for money, but what does fundraising look like for museums which have also publicly dismissed and let-go of some of their most economically vulnerable workers amidst the most devastating economic climate that the country has possibly ever seen, while their top executives were still taking home six- and seven-figure salaries, on top of housing allowances when many people cannot pay rent? We honestly do not know how those truths will collide when the market, the public, speaks for itself. The production of intellectual work as intertwined with institutional hierarchy is deeply invested in the idea of empire. I see this most clearly in the dilemma of ownership. Though families and estates own applicable copyrights to works, museums essentially hoard the intellectual property of their working proletariat: the artists and other contract workers. Many curators, educators, and museum staff do not have copyrights to the works that they create. Without shares or ownership of work that creators create, they have, in the eyes of the museum, no basis for negotiating or partaking in the profit-sharing of the whole host of products that are created with their labor: tickets from admissions, tickets from public events, royalties from book sales, and so on.

This industry standard of disenfranchisement helps to ensure, alongside other means, that there is an economic underclass within museums. This is a precarious dynamic for all curators and especially damning for curators of color. I did not hand over the rights to my IP; it did not economically make sense to do so after privately funding my scholarship for sixteen years. I had grave concerns for what precedent of power that would create to be sign over my rights, given their lack of experience with Black artists, curators, text, and Black histories; to hand over an ironclad stewardship over Black and queer artists felt dangerous and irresponsible. As many who witnessed or later learned of Spector's organization of a panel about my work without me present and other stories of retaliation and intentional harm such as attempting to deny me the right to use staff restrooms, my reservations were not unfounded.

There is still much that we do not know about how COVID-19 will change our world. Many US institutions will go the way of ruin or reduction because of blunder, plunder, and a lack of vision; at the most modest scale, for those that can survive, we will see more permanent collection shows, many of which are notoriously bereft of women and people of color, only compounding the problems of the museum and reaching its public. Other museums, though perhaps more ethically engaged, will still not be able to recover financially. It is a mild yet eager hope that what is left will offer opportunities for transformation and evolution.

On the other side of fear and grief is a chance for museums and their leadership to center the public and workers, and not arms-race style fundraising, sacrificing livelihoods for endowments, and attempting true decolonization and acknowledgements of forgotten art histories. Doing this is its own form of currency, and a true radicalization of modes of production, which have proven to be no longer sustainable. Centering these things is the only way to ensure that museums exist; otherwise, I believe we are looking at less than one hundred years of museums as is, especially given the lack of government funding for them. It is more than the record and the archive; it is the literal material of production, a spiritual and economic means to and of it which must be totally radicalized. “The question of the archive,” Derrida wrote in Archive Fever, “…is not a question of the past. It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.”6 May we all be up to the task of tomorrow.


  1. In a 1990 interview, David Hammons remarked, "As an artist I am not aligned with...the museums; I see them all as frauds." Calvin Tomkins, "David Hammons Follows His Own Rules," The New Yorker, December 9, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/09/david-hammons-follows-his-own-rules
  2. The Met Museum’s 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind was a landmark exhibition for the museum for a number of reasons. The decision to omit Black artists from the show prompted outcry and protest from artists such as The Spiral Group, but as well as the larger New York community, raising questions about curatorial agency and accountability in art history. The Studio Museum of Harlem arose from many of the dialogues that were had as a result of the exhibition which has is considered one of the gravest missteps in the museum's curatorial history.
  3. The question of “where’s the audience” is not only central to the filmmaking progress, but is essentially the foundation of cognitive film theory. Emerging in the mid-1980s, the theory broadly describes the reactions and responses of the audience's film experience, which is believed to be informed by reality of their own lives due to the shared resemblance vis-à-vis pictorial representation and the power of cinematic narrative to construct meaning as and through language.
  4. Before the exhibition, I spent a great deal of time speaking to Guggenheim librarians, former Guggenheim curators, and Joan Young, Director of Curatorial Affairs, who in lieu of much of their curatorial and exhibition history being written down, has served for the institution as their de-facto historian on such matters. The following exhibition history of Black artists was not challenged, when I asked if there were other exhibitions that I was missing. The first known exhibition of Black artists was In/Sight: African Photographers from 1940 to the Present (1996). In 2009-10, a Julie Mehretu exhibition travelled from Berlin to the museum, and in 2014, Carrie Mae Weems became the first Black artist and the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim. In 2019, Simone Leigh exhibited as the winner of the Hugo Prize award, and Black artists were included in the May 2019 show, Artistic License, an exhibition organized by Nancy Spector and Joan Young but included the selections of six guest-artist curators. And in June 2019, Basquiat's Defacement: The Untold Story opened.
  5. Maiysha Kai, "Amid Criticism and Controversy the Guggenheim Has Hired It's First Full-time Black Curator," The Root, November 15, 2019, https://www.theroot.com/amid-criticism-and-controversy-the-guggenheim-museum-h-1839920904
  6. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 36.

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