Who are museums accountable to?

By Erika Hirugami, MAAB | Founder & CEO at CuratorLove

 Untitled from the series Pelota de Esponja by Leopoldo Peña

Untitled from the series Pelota de Esponja by Leopoldo Peña

According to the American Alliance of Museums, "Museums make their unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world." The implication being that they do so for their community, whatever definition of "community" that each museum subscribes to.  

I recently visited one of my favorite museums, Fowler. I've loved this place since I was an undergrad at UCLA when I would sporadically get lost in the many mesh folds on the El Anatsui on display in their permanent exhibition "Intersections." As an art historian whenever UCLA got rough, I would retreat to Fowler and be comforted by their exhibitions, I would be reminded of high curatorial standards, and forget my troubles inside their halls. But years have passed since... Today after multiple degrees, and several of my own exhibitions, so today I hold institutions to higher standards. When I go into Fowler I know ahead of time, the exhibition space will be beautifully designed, the curatorial statement will be thoroughly researched, and that no matter what the topic is, they will present it to me in a very informative way. So I go time and time again. Today, however, I couldn't help but question my beloved institution. But more so then question I wonder if I finally have the clarity and knowledge to realize that maybe this is not a space for me. 

Two individual concerns came to the forefront during my visit. The first is regarding their exhibition "Pelotas Oaxaqueñas/ Oaxacan Ball Games." A breath-taking all-photography solo show that highlights the work of Leopoldo Peña. His black and white photographs serve to capture a very unique type of ball game played by migrant cultures. I fell in love with the work, so much so that I got back home to research his practice. The artist himself calls the series of works exhibited at Fowler "Pelota Mixteca" and "Pelota de Esponja" which roughly translates to Mixtec Ball and Ball (made) of sponge. Now I am no expert, but Mixtec people don't just reside in Oaxaca, they can also be found in Puebla and Guerrero in Mexico, and all over California and Washington in the United States. 

So my concern is very simple; if the artist knows the exact peoples he photographed, why are the curators lumping entire societies of migrant peoples into a single region, that does not, in fact, capture their culture's geography?  So then a linguistic misnomer negates the existence of giant chunks of Mixtec peoples. Why not just call the exhibition "Mixtec Ball Games." Is it because Oaxaca is trending now? Is it because we need to dumb-down things for the so-called public? Is it because both the curators lack cultural ties to Mixtec peoples? Is this what happens when the Latinx narrative rests in the hands of not POC? 

 Image courtesy of Fowler Museum. 

Image courtesy of Fowler Museum. 

My second concern comes from the exhibition "Bread, Butter & Power" which features the works of Meleko Mokgosi. Beautiful works, its a must see! Ok, so a couple of things we're fighting for me on this one; first and foremost a sign at door preventing me from coming into the space in peace, ok poor placement lets move on. The sign states no pictures or video. Alright, even better actually. But no, a second sign instructs me to download a QR code reader, so wait... the first sign made me put my phone away, the next one has instruction on how to use it (confusing maybe). Whatever, I load the media I have been asked to, a kid is telling me a story in video, the story of what is happening with the art that I see in the room. The narrative in the story being told is very confusing, and the speaker of the said video says the word "so" a few dozen times too many in a set of videos that are way too long. But, ok Fowler is trying to see what technology they can get away with, let's give them a pass as this is not their strong suit anyway.  It is my own fault for trying to enjoy the designed experience instead of making my own decisions. 

I move on, only to find the most disturbing exhibition object I have ever encountered. There's a single pillar in the entire room filled with large-scale canvases, resting on said column what appears to be a rolled-up canvas inside a plastic bag. Immediate reaction, wait this is an installation piece that accompanies the work, it's intentionally designed by the artist to fit the narrative of the exhibition. Well no, Mokgoski is known for large scales canvases displaying hyper-realistic expressions of black life.  Ok, so then it's a curatorial choice, it ties in with the concept of the exhibition. Also no, as per Fowler the exhibition talks about "the consequences of dividing labor practices by gender... in South Africa." So then why am I seeing a rolled up canvas in a bag? Oh, it's an unstretched work, it's a painting meant for the exhibition, but they ran out of wall space? This can't be, I am not understanding this, I am confused.

Ok, art is allowed to confuse me, curators are allowed to make linguistic choices, the institution can do what it wants when it wants... but to what benefit? Who are they accountable to? Who calls them out?  If they are here to "interpret the things of the world" for their inherent community. Aren't I their community? Let's see, I live so close that I Tai-Chi at Fowler, I attend their lectures often, I graduated from UCLA. What else do I need to be a part of the Fowler community? If they are here to interpret things for me, then why aren't they accountable to me and people like me? I know Mixteco is a community and Oaxaca is a location, which means they do too. I also know what an unstretched canvas looks like. Is an educated WOC not Fowler's target audience? If so who is? Are they only here to cater to the thousands of non-POC that lineup at their neighbor's doors? Do I just expect too much from institutions? Can I ask an institution for accountability with their decision making? They are supposed to be here for me... right?