Culture as a resource

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Culture has become a major resource, playing an important role in social and economic developments. As in many cases, such a transformation has brought negative and positive aspects that need to be carefully studied since they are problematically intertwined. From one side, cultural and creative industries generate jobs and increase local income. But from the other side, cultural institutions also attract private investments, which at the end can monopolize culture for its own ends.What is undeniable is that the relationship between the cultural and the political spheres are becoming nastily and rapidly merged. Cultural values have been transformed into exchangeable values, and cultural products have been trivialized to serve the mass consumer market.

 Consequently, and far from being an exception, museums have suffered major changes, going away from the notion of the museum as a guardian of the public patrimony and moving to a corporate entity with a highly marketable inventory and a desire for growth (Steyerl 34, 2010). The museum has moved from the 19th century model of museum as a cultural institution for the intellectual elite to a populist temple of mass entertainment ruled by neoliberal discourses. Furthermore, the extreme iconicity of new museums’ buildings cannot be dissociated to the hype around the “contemporary” in general, in which the museum seems to be less concern for the collection or its mission as a cultural institution than the sense that contemporaneity is being staged on the level of image (Bishop 12, 2013). Last Sunday, 23rd of February 2014, 40 protesters staged an intervention inside the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan during Saturday night’s “pay-what-you-wish” admission hours. The participants, who were a diverse group of artists, activists, professors and students, wanted to highlight the coercive recruitment, and deplorable living and labour conditions of the workers who are constructing the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a franchise of New York’s Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates. In two extensive reports on the UAE, Human Rights Watch has documented a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or even quit their Jobs (Armstrong, 2011).

 It is not new that contemporary museums define and justify themselves by highlighting the important role that they play as a “social” platform that works in impoverished urban areas in order to renovate them and generate capital. However, it is not new either that in many occasions these “social projects” are ruled by an aggressive cultural machine fuelled with speculation (see for example the case of MACBA in Barcelona). One question that needs to be asked, nonetheless, is whether museums have something to say about this so-called “contemporary” panorama. If museums are cultural institutions that follow a global consensus on the functionality of culture as a democratizing entity, should not be museums the first ones to position themselves in front of this kind of social and political issues? Should not be precisely the museums themselves the ones that should ask internationally who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi? Interestingly, Richard Armstrong, the director of New York’s Guggenheim museum, commented yesterday that “the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is engaged in ongoing, serious discussions with (their) most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi regarding the issues of workers’ rights”. Armstrong also declared that as global citizens, the New York Guggenheim museum’s workers “share the concerns about human rights and fair labour practices and continue to be committed to making progress on these issues”. Not much, but at least something.

 Overall, what strikes me the most is to see that a huge percentage of “public” museums have been more concentrated in to consolidate private privileges rather than represent -socially and politically- the majority. Nitasha Dhillon, one of the participants of New York’s Guggenheim occupation, argued that “art should not be part of a system that creates debt bondage.” However, can museums survive freely in a globalized and over expanded neoliberal art market? Can we still talk about museums as the heart of communities that preserve important local and national stories? Can museums, as sponsored cultural institutions, activate autonomous knowledge and potentiate critical judgement? What is the price to be paid for having transformed culture into a global resource?

Publish in Beyond the Walls.