Murder and Museums: Why Art Institutions Must Disentangle Themselves From Foreign Interests

BY JENEAN DOCTER

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Rudi Von Briel/Getty Images).

According to the New York Times, the recent death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi may force museums to reevaluate their own roles as intermediaries between nations. As examined from our current vantage point, museums can no longer morally or fiscally afford to take on the appearance of objective entities, which are ostensibly only concerned with the contents of their own galleries. After all, art is inherently political; to claim that an art institution enjoys a truly neutral political position is to distort the entire, fundamentally subjective discipline of art itself.

Two major New York City museums–the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum–recently announced decisions to halt the utilization of Saudi money to fund educational art seminars about Middle Eastern art. Their decisions follow the revelation of Khashoggi’s’ murder at the hands of the Saudi Arabian state, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. These so-called “blood money” programs are by no means a recent or unique event. This month, London’s Natural History Museum hosted a reception for the Saudi Embassy, stating that such events are “an important source of external funding” and hence, must be permitted to occur.

Museums appear implicated in this complex, globalized network in which individually-interested actors promote artwork that advances only the narratives which they approve of; the Saudi-patronized seminars planned at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum probably were not planning to discuss the work of artists disapproving of Saudi-rule–a detail that proves significant when considering the reportedly disenfranchised status of women, migrants, and LGBTQIA+ individuals in Saudi Arabian civil and political society. Museums, of course, act as stewards of what is left over from the pile of artworks deemed “desirable” by powerful international figureheads.

As we continue to move into a future defined by increasing access to technology and the instantaneous global communications it provides, the public will begin to hold museums accountable for the financial donations they receive, the countries they exchange works with, and the artists they support. Museums, after all, have been one of the primary targets of attack by social reformers since the Guerilla Girls began demonstrating against the white-male dominated art world in the 1980s. In 2016, the opening of a high-end gallery in a Boyle Heights neighborhood drew criticism of the art world’s complicity in gentrification, voiced through protests. Union workers rallied against MOMA during fair contract negotiations in June. And, in August, a group of artists demonstrated against the London-based Design Museum’s “Hope to Nope” exhibition, in protest of the art institution’s earlier decision to rent its space to a large defense and aerospace company. Even the 2018 film Black Panther engaged the politics of museums; the scene in which Killmonger, the primary antagonist of the film, visits a plainly-disguised version of the British Museum to steal a looted Wakandan artifact defined a not-so-subtle jab at the colonialist histories of western museums, their historical theft of cultural heritage, and their tired excuses based around themes of preservation and conservatorship. Considering the long-lived, intertwined history of protests and the art world, why should global political issues yield any different of an outcome?

Granted, political mobilization and artistic accountability are not binary, all-or-nothing choices. Perhaps Khashoggi’s death will not constitute an immediate turning point in any sense. Much of the art created throughout history, and on a global scale, owes itself to the fiscal contributions of questionable social, political, and/or religious figures. Art, like the human beings that create it, is complicated. Attitude change–especially when applied to an network of institutions as complex as museums–requires time, patience, and impassioned advocacy. However, Khashoggi’s murder, and the controversy regarding Saudi Arabian global patronage of museums, stands to provide the international community with a powerful and much-needed wake-up call.

The idealized, Enlightenment-era conception of the museum as an institution that preserves and displays great artworks is no longer relevant. Art institutions, as stewards of history and culture, cannot continue to silently endorse a regime responsible for kidnapping, murdering, and dismembering Khashoggi, the government’s continued decision to bomb Yemeni civilians, and its liberal application of the death penalty to enforce anti-LGBTQIA+ laws. Nations complicit within the scheme of systemic human rights abuse–as appears to be the case in Saudi Arabia–must not be permitted to purchase the silent, unquestioning loyalty of museums and other cultural institutions at the cost to innumerable human beings. Blood money patronage cannot–and must not–be permitted to pay off human rights violations.

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