Museums and Wealth: The Politics of Contemporary Art Collections by Nizan Shaked

L Autumn Gnadinger

To say that I am pessimistic about the current usefulness of “The American Museum” in advancing a progressive social agenda is a gross understatement. I tend to take it for granted that most people—after only a glancing encounter with these spaces—likely understand (or at least intuit at some level) that they are built from the ground up as complex social projects by, and for, the ultra-wealthy. Not usually for very thoughtful reasons, it’s just whenever I walk into a museum—with its $20+ admission fees, names of rich board members etched into the walls, and unimaginably vast annual budgets all but certain—the last thing I’m likely to think is “Wow! Now, this is a place I can really trust with the wellbeing of the working class!” Much to the aggravation of my peers and colleagues who feel less cynical, I have continuously tried and failed to rationalize some net good of these institutions and usually feel that we would be better off using the bricks for something else altogether.

With that in mind, I didn’t really expect the book Museums and Wealth: The Politics of Contemporary Art Collections by Nizan Shaked to do more than further sour my already-acidic feelings about public collection spaces in this country—and, initially, I was right. From the very first page, Shaked lays out an intensely researched and convincing series of arguments that amount to something along the lines of “it’s so, so very much worse than you thought,” and then goes to great lengths to prove it. The book painstakingly draws out the ways in which a steadily growing donor-collector class uses “public” art museums as a (tragically, legal, if not profoundly unethical) way to increase the value of their own assets—all at the direct, measurable, and literal cost to the public. 

Museums and Wealth demonstrates how interconnected our “nonprofit” collections are to the very for-profit primary and secondary art markets—so much so, that they are often impossible to consider separate entities. The way this functionally works out is that the sale price of a work of art is generally tied to the social value and notoriety it gains from time spent in public collections or on display in museums. That means that rich donor-collectors have a fairly straightforward motivation to encourage the museums they “serve” to purchase or display either their own literal collections or works from the same artists that, in turn, raise the speculative value of such private collections. 

The cascading effects of this are as numerous as they are depressing, but significantly among them are the ways in which this incentivizes classist and racist administrative practices, preserving white supremacy as the only logical outcome of the state of the field. If boards have a financial interest to promote artworks that will, in turn, make them more money, and if that kind of work is historically by only white artists, or preserves dominant political narratives of who-has-power-and-why (which it is and does), then the kinds of art, people, stories, and workers overwhelmingly missing from museums will remain missing. If curatorial and programmatic decision-making is being actively influenced by their potential financial benefit to donor-board members, then this will systematically “stifle art that is radical or can otherwise lead to actual change.” 

Still, despite the dire outlook, something transformative happens over the course of the book, which tackles these upsetting truths through no shortage of deep history, uncut (bordering on painful to read) Marxism, various social movements, and a wide array of contemporary peer authorship on the subject—all leading to a series of potent near and long term solutions and proposals that the field could fight for right away. Some of the ideas are blatantly obvious, such as the introduction of recurring community power to major curatorial decisions. Even more valuable, the book also highlights options that are harder to spot: the legislating of a heavy tax on the income from the secondary art market (that is, the resale of previously purchased and privately collected works as a form of speculative investment). This would then remove the incentive for a donor-collector class to make museum governance decisions for the sake of inflating the value of their privately owned artworks, rather than policy and programming decisions that actually reflect the people they are meant to serve. All of this taken together, the impact of the book is the ongoing reconsolidation of a revolutionary movement within the arts that feels as connected to the past as it does to a collective, potential future. 

While most of the book looks closely at larger coastal institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) or the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York due to their influence and relative high financial stakes, Museums and Wealth also recognizes the wide applicability of these concerns at museums and sites of all sizes around the country: “We need new models for collecting. We need to collect more and more laterally. While large institutions in key cities remain important, a network of well-funded small-scale institutions in cities of all sizes, towns, and rural centers can offer infrastructure for a local arts scene and exchange programs on a national scale. It should be publicly funded.”

For Shaked, “this book is written out of love for museums,” and that love is both evident and infectious. She says elsewhere: “Under capitalism art has been cast as a luxury object, deceiving us into believing that it is the prerogative of the wealthy to ‘generously’ share it with us. Yet, art is not a luxury. Art is a necessity.” The urgency and confidence of these statements are felt throughout the book and strike me as incredibly valuable at this moment when it otherwise feels very tempting—for me, anyway—to simply walk away from museums altogether and start from scratch. The book’s alternative to this, however, is very persuasive: that the trickle-down approach to curation, collecting, and circulation of art must go, and that the pieces are already in place for a powerful, regionally minded alternative. If art museums in America are to have a truly deprivatized and collectivized future, I have no doubt this book will be among the tools of those responsible.



L Autumn Gnadinger (they/them) is an artist, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia, PA and is an editor for Ruckus.

Above: Cover of the book, Museums and Wealth: The Politics of Contemporary Art Collections by Nizan Shaked

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