How an art museum betrays its social class prejudices


From 2019 to early 2021, I worked as a security guard at Toledo art museum which led me to view the museum in a way that I had never had in my study of art and years in the museum. The daily experience of the place made me aware of the relationship between the hierarchical structure of the museum and its treatment of socio-economic class with regard to the presentation of art.

In the year and a half that I have worked in security, I have never had an interaction that was more than a welcome with a curator, or anyone else involved in the design of the presentation. of art to the public. I am not saying this to indict individuals. I happen to find all of the museum staff personally pleasant. Rather, I speak of it to show the absence of any mechanism by which front-line staff (security guards, visitor services workers, guards, etc.) can help shape the content of the museum. The position of frontline staff is worth considering as they are the only group in a museum with significantly different class positions and interests than funders and donors. The responsibilities of frontline staff in the museum workplace never interfere with the task of interpreting or contextualizing art. In addition, none of the people with this kind of power are required to interact meaningfully with frontline staff.

Curatorial functions are entrusted to a small group of people who have had the privilege of acquiring multiple degrees (typically from private universities) and who, through their management of the museum’s collection, mingle socially with the museum’s funders. At the same time, curators are often socially disconnected from the communities the museum nominally serves. At TMA, all of the curators I interacted with had backgrounds in other museums and universities and had moved to Toledo for professional reasons. This contrasts with the frontline staff, the vast majority of whom had personal ties to the region that preceded their employment at TMA. More importantly, curators, by the nature of their professional duties, must cultivate relationships with the museum’s wealthy funders and patrons, but not with frontline staff. Curators also perform their professional duties with due regard for their socio-economic situation. The effects of this are on the gallery walls.

In the collection of the TMA is a painting by Jules Breton entitled “The star of the shepherd” (1887). The painting shows a farmer with a bag of produce lifted above her head as daylight fades in the background. The adjacent caption correctly identifies the scene’s relevance to the changing social order of the late 19th century: “This agrarian way of life, however, was rapidly disappearing under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution, arousing a sense of nostalgia for which was lost to modernity. “Curiously, the text of the label also indicates that“ the painter gives the figure a classic monumentality and timelessness which shields it from any comment on its social position. ”These two notions are contradictory. How to approach the peasant woman in painting of Breton in the context of his displacement by the Industrial Revolution without commenting on his social position? The otherwise obvious conclusion of sympathy for the subject of this painting on the basis of his social position is countered by the museum’s presentation. the socio-economic class of farmers is here the result of insensitivity or blindness to these problems.

The last show that opened at TMA before I left was Wayne Thiebaud 100: paintings, prints and drawings, a retrospective of 100 works on the occasion of Thiebaud’s 100th birthday. Although this exhibit was originally curated by the Crocker Museum of Art in Sacramento, the inclination against class analysis demonstrated with it is analogous to the problems I observed at TMA internally. Thiebaud’s work is not overtly political in terms of subject. However, he began his career at a time when representation, especially one that tended towards realism (like that of Thiebaud), was out of fashion due to its political connotations. This perspective was codified in Clement Greenberg’s 1939 founding essay “Avant-Garde et Kitsch”. Greenberg argued that the dichotomy between avant-garde and kitsch was the result of class tensions: kitsch is an “ersatz culture” designed to appease the working-class subjects of industrial capitalism while the avant-garde retreats. of the existing culture to defend itself. against the impositions of capitalism. This split that Greenberg observed, in part, in terms of artistic style: For him, representation was increasingly associated with kitsch consumerism while the avant-garde tended towards abstraction.

While working as an animator in the 1930s, Thiebaud was fired for union activities and therefore considered pursuing a career as a union lawyer. His demonstration of class consciousness suggests Thiebaud’s awareness of the dynamics of industrial capitalism and their relationship to his art. This aspect of the work was ignored in the exhibition. Rather, the exhibition’s mural text focused on issues such as Thiebaud’s application of paint, his use of color, and his choice of subject. (Oddly enough, the exhibit included two pen sketches that Thiebaud made from Clément Greenberg.) The accompanying exhibition catalog features a brief passage on Thiebaud’s relationship to Greenberg and abstract art. However, it fails to mention the broader political context of the avant-garde / kitsch dichotomy or the class tensions that informed it, and how this might explain why, according to the exhibition catalog, Greenberg ‘didn’t would not have been willing to see his portrait accompanied by candied treats.

I did not get the impression that the presentation of Thiebaud’s work in this exhibition was strictly incorrect. He pointed out, however, the persistent omission and damping of the analysis of the relationship between socioeconomic class and the artist or the artist’s work in TMA as a whole. Those at the top of the TMA hierarchical structure, like many private museums, discourage such readings for reasons of class interest.

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