frequently asked questions
Why are you working with dominant, historically white art museums?
We recognize that while we are redistributing institutional money, LAAGP still centers a historically white art museum, thereby reinvesting in it as a site of cultural production.
Dominant art institutions do not have a monopoly on culture, but they do monopolize cultural funding. According to Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy (Helicon Collaborative, 2017), just 2% of all cultural institutions receive nearly 60% of all contributed arts revenue. This same study concluded that, while dialogue about inequity has increased within institutions, distribution of funding is actually getting worse. As you might expect, this inequality maps onto race: Only 4% of Foundation funding in the US goes to groups that focus on serving people of color.
Dominant art institutions have extensive funding and resources, and we want to hold them accountable. We insist that since these elite institutions are funded as if they serve the whole public, they should answer to the greater public. We challenge reductionist narratives that situate art in opposition to and/or outside of the institution, examining how we can use our privilege and access to engage (as opposed to disengage from) the institution.
Why don't more POC visit art museums?
Most museums were built and curated under white leadership and center white narratives of history, value, and beauty (Dewhurst & Hendrick, 2016).
"We are economically segregated. The wealth gap is wide and black and brown communities earn less on average compared to the white demographic resulting in a prioritization of how we spend our free time. This doesn't mean black and brown communities aren't interested in the ballet or visiting museums and discussing art; our communities don't even get the opportunity to think about much less engage in those cultural pursuits. On top of financial barriers, the mental and emotional stress, the likely isolation and racial bias/discrimination/microaggressions all aid in keeping black and brown academics from reaching their highest potentials as true innovators, leaders, and creatives in museums.” — @latinainmuseums
Do you think people should visit art museums?
No, we are not here to proselytize or convert people into museum goers. Our handbook reads:
As someone who does not typically go to art museums, you bring a fresh eye. What might the frequent museum visitors be overlooking? We don’t aim to make you a frequent visitor of the Museum. We don’t believe that regular museum attendance is necessary to lead a creative life. We don’t seek to educate you in this handbook; we hope to give you permission and tools to look at the Museum critically. We want to learn from you.
The responsibility is not on the individuals, but the institution. That said, if these institutions take the time to listen and respond to the greater public, it's likely that attendance will increase.
There are already free days at museums. Isn't that enough?
Conversations about social exclusion from museums have often focused on barriers like cost of admission, geographic distance, or a lack of interest in the subject matter (Dawson, 2014). One common response to this has been to create museum free days. But studies have shown that these days often end up serving the people already most likely to be aware of museum programs (Pekarik, 2007; Dilenschneider, 2017).
Museum professionals and critical race scholars have aptly noted that the focus on barriers has assimilationist undertones, implying that individuals’ behaviors, rather than institutional structures, should change (Dawson, 2014). Non-attendance at dominant institutions is conflated with a lack of culture, which overlooks the ways that marginalized groups are already culturally engaged (Yosso, 2005). For staff of historically underrepresented identities, these issues are all too familiar. People of color comprise only 20% overall of art museum staff. And a precious few are in the position to shape policy: fewer than 5% of art museums have people of color in senior management positions (Betsch Cole, 2015).
Why pay people in cash?
We first proposed the idea of paying people to visit the RISD Museum as a socially engaged artwork in 2015. The Museum was excited to invite people into the Museum who normally wouldn’t come, but steered us away from payment: What about compensating guest critics with donated student artworks, or offering free memberships?
But we persisted. We needed to make space for the fact that a trip to an art museum is not a universally valuable experience. We wanted to honor and name the work that goes into investing in a space that hasn’t shown an investment in you. To do so we resolved to compensate people in a currency that holds value across all intersections of race and class in our capitalist system — cash.
How do you address the power dynamics of paying people?
Paying people to visit a museum is a charged gesture that could read as problematic and paternalistic, depending on your assumptions about museums. But it turns out, people like being paid for their ideas! It's paternalistic if one assumes that the museum is inherently valuable. But if we destabilize the value of the museum and recognize that it isn't a universally valuable experience for all (but instead catered to white affluent folks), then paying our guest critics is respectful and necessary. We are compensating them for taking the time and risk to enter a space that is unfamiliar and white-centered, and to speak honestly and critically. In essence, many guest critics cross an invisible threshold of segregation. This involves multiple forms of labor—political, social, physical, emotional, psychological, and intellectual.
One participant noted the effect of payment: “It made me feel important — like me and the group, we’re here to see what can be changed about this museum. Our words count. We’re going to be heard. I felt like that especially since I was being paid, that helped, a lot.”
Why do you call the participants 'guest critics'?
Guest Critic is a term used in an art and design context to refer to visitors invited to review works and offer their opinions, comments, and questions. The term implies respect for the individual’s expertise and insight. In Look at Art. Get Paid., the participants of the program received payment under the category of an “honorarium.” This is the same payment category that RISD uses to compensate guest critics invited to classroom critiques.
Your political agenda is clear. Doesn't that prevent objectivity?
We don’t have an interest in building a “neutral” program. We don’t think neutrality is possible when navigating a history of systemic exclusion. While this project straddles art and research, we consider ourselves artists, first and foremost. We borrow from our training in traditional social science research methods, but we also depart from those methods by using humor and experimentation. We want to question the claim to truth that Western science holds and we aim to hold space for other ways of knowing aside from evidence-based research. We believe in the expertise that one derives from their own lived experience.
Your project is about money and labor. Are you getting paid?
No. We realized this project through several years of sustained unpaid labor. We must also acknowledge that, despite our unpaid labor, we have gained social and cultural capital by working on this project at a high-profile institution. While our unpaid labor demands sacrifices — we work late hours on weeknights and weekends — these are choices we make freely. That we have such a choice indicates a position of relative privilege.
The team members were educated at RISD and Brown University. How did you address your institutional affiliation?
In our handbook we explained our status as students and alumni of Brown and RISD. We clarified that we were not working for the museum but were instead an independent project based at the museum. Our handbook read:
None of us work at the RISD Museum or any museum, though some of us have in the past and may in the future. We are part of the 20% of Americans who regularly attend art museums...We want to know about your experience. We know it’s hard to be honest, especially if your honest experience doesn’t match those around you. That is part of why this is a paid program. Please tell us what you really think; not what you think we want to hear.
How did you make sure your participants were safe?
We received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval through Brown University. IRB is an administrative body established to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects recruited to participate in research activities conducted under the auspices of the institution with which it is affiliated. We submitted our protocol, our methodology, interview questions, and surveys, which were reviewed to ensure ethical practice.
How can you measure the impact of LAAGP?
Our Changes section outlines changes at the RISD Museum relating to equity and access since the realization of our pilot program in 2016. Of course, the tricky part here is that LAAGP is just one of many forces working on these issues at the Museum and so, no single change can be neatly attributed to LAAGP. As such, we’ve created an inclusive record of the Museum's recent developments, which may have been directly or indirectly influenced by LAAGP. This ongoing list serves to show the changes the Museum has prioritized and the pace at which such changes have been implemented, as well as LAAGP's proximity to such efforts.
What is the future of the project?
We are talking with art institutions that are interested in collaborating and we have some really exciting leads! We are open to adapting the program to particular contexts that don't resemble the traditional museum format.
We are also considering the possibility of LAAGP as an external third party program that visits and reviews many museums in order to build a comparative body of knowledge. By working as a traveling program, we wouldn’t be embedded at a particular museum the way that we were at the RISD museum, and would have more independence and facility in implementing the program sooner than later. Stay tuned!