When Laura Raicovich resigned as director of the Queens Museum in 2018, she did so after several of her proposed directives and projects, including an idea to make the museum a sanctuary space for immigrants seeking social services, didn’t garner enthusiastic responses from more conservative board members. In the years since, Raicovich has thought deeply about how cultural institutions can better reflect and answer to their communities. She’s also done exhaustive research into the history of American museums to uncover how limited their perspectives have been since the beginning.
The result is Raicovich’s book Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest, which is officially available on Tuesday via Verso Books. In addition to Culture Strike, Raicovich has also been working on an art and society census with the Brooklyn Public Library in order to get a read on what people across the country want out of their cultural experiences. “It was very clear that people want cultural spaces to address the realities of their daily lives and the things that people need to confront, but it was equally clear that people also want cultural experiences that are sanctuaries,” Raicovich explained. “So, it’s both. It is both a desire to feel connected, to feel represented somehow and also to be challenged within that; simultaneously, there’s a desire to be taken completely elsewhere.”
When did you start working on this book?
I started working on the research for this book not long after I left the Queens Museum, so it’s been underway for about three years if I count all of that time. I think initially, I just started interviewing people because I had the sense that there was this problem with neutrality and cultural space. I kept hearing this phrase, ‘Oh well, we have to stay neutral,’ that I think people genuinely thought was related to your not-for-profit status, but I think that that’s very misunderstood.
Misunderstood in what way?
If you look at the IRS code about what requirements you have as a not-for-profit institution, in order to maintain your tax-exempt status, you cannot lobby for a particular piece of legislation and you cannot lobby for a particular candidate. But those are the limitations. So, expressing some kind of position on an issue, especially one that impacts art and artists and life, is not a restriction of your 501(c)(3) status. But when it’s a statement coming from an institution, that gets more scrutiny from the fiduciaries or the board or other people who are involved in governance.
And I just think that there’s this general perception that in order to maintain your 501(c)(3) status, you have to stay away from so-called political positions. The assumption in that sort of statement is that what is in the museum currently, or in the cultural space, is neutral somehow. It is not.
And it never has been.
And so in order to really talk about that and to make that clear for folks, I decided that I not only had to talk to other colleagues who were interested in the subject and had really thought a great deal about it, but I really had to think about and do some research on the foundations of the evolution of the museum in the United States. The museum in the U.S. takes its cues from Europe, but it has a different trajectory slightly, because museum collections in Europe came out of royalty or the church, in large part. It wasn’t until the arrival of the merchant class and bourgeois society that art collection became a thing that regular people did.
In the United States, the way that collections began was largely in these kind of societies. In the book, I talk about the Charleston Library Society, which was one of the first cultural spaces to emerge in the United States. It was just a bunch of white dudes with a certain amount of money, and they had interests and they collected stuff and they put it together and then they were like, ‘Hey, we can make this publicly accessible.’
So that particular group of works that were desired and collected by a very particular group of people became what was excellent. A lot of that was highly influenced by Europe and European tastes, but it was also very particular to the class and the race and the ethnicity of the people who were doing the collecting, which was not very diverse.
The world and life is made up of much more than what was included in those histories and discussions, and this is why, at the end of the day, I hope that undoing some of this myopia in the cultural space might be useful for the larger society.
In the introduction, you talk about your own experience at the Queens Museum with trying to create a set of protocols that would allow your museum to do more active work in supporting vulnerable populations. You describe getting a lot of pushback from the trustees of the Queens Museum. How did that experience shape you?
I think there’s a great deal of work that we have to do within the kind of governance structures in cultural spaces to make them more equitable. I really believe in diversity of life experience as being the key piece of the puzzle. How do you build a board that has enough diversity of life experience to actually reflect and be able to govern the institution to the extent that a board needs to perform governance duties?
I also think that I’m only interested in hierarchy insofar as it supports the people who are actually doing the work on the frontlines, and so I’m not somebody who believes necessarily in totally flat hierarchical structures within museums. Another thing I bring up in the book is that when I was a museum director, oftentimes, when something really funky happened that I didn’t really know how to deal with, I wasn’t necessarily calling my board chair, but I called one of my colleagues.
What would it be like if colleagues were compensated to be on boards of other institutions? It might create other kinds of conflicts, but certainly, there’s a way of figuring out how you could have those resources.
In terms of artistry itself, many artists I spoke to over the course of the pandemic admitted rather sheepishly that the experience had been great for them; that they’d finally been able to slow down.
Part of the problem with cultural space and, well, the world, is that it moves too fast. Radically slowing down would be enormously helpful. To kind of recalibrate how decisions are made, who makes them, who’s in the room, who gets engaged in the conversation, how it all goes down. Part of late capitalist individualism has gotten so distorted that we think that museums are the work of a director or a curator, when the fact is that museums and all cultural spaces are profoundly collective endeavors. If we radically slow down, there’s so many more things that actually we can accommodate. Like, the amount of access that we create just by slowing down radically changes things.