Today in so-called “Australia,” the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement centred on Indigenous deaths in custody has made explicit the deep-seated problems still operating at the heart of this colony.1 The treatment of Aboriginal people is just one foundational history by which to understand the experience of many here, with colonisation being central to the injustices done to our environment, the humiliations endured by non-white people, the disabled, and those living outside of accepted understandings of gender and sexuality, the inexplicably high rates of violence against women and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. As the artist Wu Tsang writes, “the systems by which we function are not broken, they are highly effective, now more than ever.” When I look at the MCA I see the same structural inequalities that I do in broader Australian society, and in colonies further afield. If contemporary art ought to bring us closer to knowing what radical transformation actually feels like, then so too should the internal operations of our institutions corroborate this possibility, demonstrating the liveability of such transformation in our time. A contemporary art institution should commit wholeheartedly to the struggle taken up by many artists and activists who hope to change the situation we find ourselves in. To do anything else with the platform and resources afforded to an institution like the MCA would be so out of touch with the reality of things so as to fail the museum’s remit to “be contemporary.”
I have written this piece because I believe in words and their careful organisation as carriers of sincerity. I believe that contemporary art institutions like the MCA have the potential to show us what a vastly different future may look like and, in doing so, render the action of social transformation irresistible. While our cultural institutions continue to tread water, many others in “The Arts” today are moving towards a more democratic future in which the basic needs of everyone are met—defined by life and ways of living that understand freedom, joy and pleasure as collective pursuits. As one friend said to me when discussing the merits of this undertaking: “We should critique institutions we care about—how else will they grow with us?”
It is clear to me that an organisation’s identity goes beyond bricks and mortar—indeed, the people working at all levels of an organisation are the organisation. It is they who embody its values, decide upon the nature of the institution’s presence in the community, and what an experience of that organisation will be like for groups and individuals who engage with it.
When considering who holds power and how this is maintained, in my view, there has historically been a culture of white hegemony at work within the management of the MCA. I wish to be clear that this is the reality everywhere in the country, and that it is the museum’s failure to buck this trend that I am disappointed by. Between 2015 and 2018, I spent two years at the museum as a “Gallery Host” and observed a fundamental separation between those working in positions of authority—on what was known as “Level Four”—and everyone else.
To echo the sentiments of Lilly Lai, published in their essay last year, there exists a clear racial hierarchy at the MCA that manifests along the fault lines of this division.3 In the wake of Lilly’s essay being published, an outraged arts community expressed their anger on an MCA Instagram post. The MCA, responding to the community in the comments section of their post, provided statistics pertaining to diversity at the museum: that 22% of all employees were culturally and linguistically diverse, and that 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff were employed at the time of writing. This was rightly derided, because it ignored the status of those people of colour within the hierarchy of the organisation.4
While the current chair of the MCA board is of Lebanese background, and a First Nations woman works as part of the senior curatorial team, a broader look at the board and leadership departments reveals that decisions regarding how the museum operates are still made by a largely white group of people.5 Whether or not they have the best interests of the museum at heart, these numbers indicate the damaging ways in which—as Andy Butler writes—whiteness is considered normal at work.6 Speaking of the beginning of her tenure as director of the MCA, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor (largely known in the industry as Liz-Ann) is quoted as saying “let’s be honest, the misogyny…it was relentless.”7 The strong presence of women in leadership and curatorial positions today is evidence of the concrete steps taken to address the inequalities she saw in the first days of her job. However, if Liz-Ann can accept that the misogynistic culture at the MCA was so normalised and undetectable to those it did not oppress in the late 90s, then surely the question has to be asked whether whiteness and its hegemony in the same institution might have a similar presence and systemic impact on staff of colour today. As someone who has worked there, the answer given by the museum—in response to a question asking how it could address “systemic issues” at work—that “we can find no evidence of systemic issues at the MCA” seems to ignore the reality we are living in and the histories that have shaped cultural institutions today.8 Whilst Macgregor said in the same interview that the MCA “can and should do more”, and that it would solicit staff feedback as part of its forward strategic planning, to outright reject the idea that any systemic societal issues have found their way into the museum is a troubling starting point.
As a measure that acknowledges and seeks to amend the situation, the MCA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy is a step in the right direction.9 When it was established in 2015, the policy was the first of its kind in the world. How does the museum remain accountable to the ethos of this policy today, as a holistic practice that informs the way everything is done at work, and how is its value regularly communicated to the broader public? In other words, beyond numbers, what are the experiences of First Nations peoples and people of colour working at the MCA? How do white, institutional standards make it difficult, if not impossible, for other cultural protocols to be practiced there? What we need is the mandate for a kind of work that wholly embraces the notion of a collective, decolonial project.10 “Diversity” as it is wielded by institutions today is useless if people from other backgrounds and their art are made to conform to (or are only understood by) pre-existing norms when they enter a space.
While at the MCA, I worked alongside a close group of hosts of colour. In the absence of a direct manager with any obvious lived experience of the subtle ways that racism works, we supported each other through near-daily instances of racially motivated microaggressions from a largely uninformed public. Our long, mostly rehashed conversations (mostly had outside of working hours) reflected the powerlessness we felt to change things. Though decisions made at board, directorial and curatorial levels will inevitably affect gallery hosts the most, we were not involved in decisions regarding the material reality of our time at work.
For example, the decision to accept and display a donated painting titled The Supremes by Matthys Gerber in 2015, negatively affected many women hosts of colour. The artist—a man who has neither directly experienced discrimination because of the colour of his skin nor the gender he presents to the world—depicted three, life-sized figures of African American women, their image transplanted from photographs found in dominatrix magazines. The artist covered these strong, assertive figures in a wash of white paint, making them nearly invisible to the viewer so as to “render visible the unnerving bind between racial and sexual dominance and the history of western painting in all its guises.”11 Regardless of his intentions, a number of the women hosts of colour that I spoke to at the time (many also artists) were frustrated by the ways in which these historically objectified bodies had been deployed by Gerber as an easy sign. The painting reproduced a gendered and racialised power imbalance—one that Gerber benefits from in his day-to-day—as a means which arguably furthered his career. Many gallery hosts felt uncomfortable being made to share a space with this object, within which they were obliged to discuss its artistic value with members of the public, many of whom were culturally insensitive—which is not to say these members of the public embody an inherent moral failing, but rather, that museums present works in ways which ultimately foreclose the expanding of a non-specialist audience’s visual and cultural literacy. A complaint made by one host did not seem to be successful in changing anything, and in the absence of an engaged museum audience (something that larger-scale arts institutions around Australia have failed to cultivate) some resorted to forging “incident reports” with the same complaint, made to seem as if it had come from concerned members of the public.
With this example, I hope to demonstrate that there are no real-time opportunities for gallery hosts at the MCA to involve themselves in decision-making at work, and that the consequences of even the smallest curatorial choices can have a big impact on their experience. Many “all-staff” meetings were held at times when hosts, security and maintenance workers onsite were “on the clock” and could not attend. Just as in wider society, it feels like those without power at the MCA aren’t able to know how decisions get made and by who, yet are entirely familiar with the consequences these decisions have on their working lives. At the time of my working, it felt as if there was a culture at the MCA rooted in the idea that there was only so much power to go around, and that any suggestion of doing things differently was a threat to the distribution of this power. Sincere criticism felt unwelcome, and discontent often seemed to be suppressed in ways that felt hard to articulate when it was happening. I remember a particular incident in which hosts organised to meet up with a union representative. The meeting was conducted covertly at a nearby pub after hours, with many too anxious to sign an attendance roll for fear of being discovered by management. In stark contrast, while working as a gallery host at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, our manager would openly inform us of union meetings happening inside the building and encourage us to attend, such was our right.
Rather than being entrusted with the kinds of responsibilities that would ground their role within a trajectory of growth and professional development, the little agency and opportunities afforded to gallery hosts inherently renders them disposable to the MCA.12 In my opinion, hosts—and in particular hosts of colour—are doing essential, on-the-ground cultural work for the entire institution, practising protocols around cultural safety, talking and listening to visitors in resourceful and innovative ways that should be learnt from and remunerated accordingly. They must be given a formal role in deciding how the institution is run—not only because they are disproportionately affected by small decisions, but, because, as casual and part-time employees they are the only ones at the MCA who actually invest and share space with the museum’s visitors on a day-to-day level. The involvement of gallery hosts in decision-making would enrich the organisational identity and artistic program at the MCA, which is so often rendered homogenous by the limited experiences of racism of the few people there with authority.13
Regarding leadership at the MCA and in the arts more broadly: In light of news that Liz-Ann will resign as director later in the year, I do not know why the twenty-two-year duration of her leadership has been communicated in benign and reverent terms by mainstream media.14
A similar phenomenon occurred in 2011, when after thirty-three years, Edmund Capon retired from the role of director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. To me, such an extended tenure is not cause for celebration, as one person cannot represent the interests of everyone in a diverse, evolving community. Over time and without redistributing directorial responsibilities, a director’s understanding and style of leadership is likely to become increasingly myopic. There are governments and political systems around the world with mechanisms built into them to avoid this kind of situation occurring. I see a synchronicity between the high number of white directors and curators at major arts institutions in this country, and the protracted periods of time in which they serve their role.
What if we were to imagine an eight-year time limit for leadership positions at contemporary art museums, as a means of ensuring that these spaces remain responsive to the changing needs of the community around them? I encourage the MCA’s incoming director to publish a resignation letter on their first day in the job, dating it eight years into the future or a similar length of time. This is a way of remaining accountable to the vision that secured them the position in the first place, as well as ensuring the cultural and social heterogeneity of the MCA.
Some might ask whether eight years is long enough for a new leader to establish a right way of organisational being. This question stems from a desire for determinacy, and assumes that given enough time, a “good” director could build something perfect in opposition to what we have now. It assumes that there is a natural “end point” to organisational evolution, a great golden horizon which when arrived at means we have managed to decolonise our museums. It assumes that there are categorically good and bad museums, good and bad directors, and as such, that a director’s legacy may only be viewed from an enclosed position of either scorn or admiration. A desire for determinacy exists at the heart of organisational logic today, manifesting in this pursuit of perfection that conflates doing right or wrong with being right or wrong. Far from constituting a complete project, new forms of institutional structure and protocol need only confuse this desire; sharing, as Ashon T. Crawley writes, “a negation of desired stasis and stillness, a rejection of objects as impenetrable, of knowledge as exhaustible, the potentiality for further discovery expired.”15 There is no end to institutional transformation, and moving towards one would be antithetical to the experience of living itself. The path to a more equitable museum defines itself within the development of an ethics of perpetual transformation, one emphasising the collective use of institutional space rather than its conquest.
While I do not think it is difficult to make more space for people of diverse backgrounds at the top of our museums, I appreciate that it is hard for any organisation to implement a program centred on radical institutional reform when it is beholden to the conservative wishes of those who afford it the money it requires to operate.16
A central priority of organisations is subsistence, and in lieu of reliable, self-generating revenue streams lost to COVID-19, this has become even harder for the MCA in recent times. According to the museum’s website, each year it raises 70% of its income from non-government sources.17 Though released before the outbreak of COVID-19, the most recent annual report from 2019 states that 78% of the museum’s revenue for that year came from places other than the state and federal governments.18 If this is true, then the MCA is largely free from contorting the nature of its labour to fit those soft (and often performative) state-funded categories of “diversity instead of antiracism, inclusion instead of decolonisation, identity instead of ideology.”19 It begs the question: why have the museum’s organisational operations and programming largely been so uninspiring? In theory, the MCA should be working with the agility, dynamism, intellectual and creative freedoms that an “entrepreneurial” approach to funding provides for.20
To avoid any suggestion that operations and programming at the MCA are beholden to the expectations of its corporate and private sponsors, the museum must be honest about which public it actually functions to serve. This ‘public’ is financially elite, drawn to philanthropy not simply as a means of virtuously “giving back” to society, as is so often claimed, but also as a means of garnering the complementary forms of capital required to maintain the power these benefactors enjoy in other spheres of political and economic life.21 If this were to be the case, for things to be any different, artists, arts workers and members of the everyday public would need to severely re-examine the ways in which they engage with our institutions. However much it is agitated for from the outside, an attitude of radical transformation must ultimately be exemplified by those in charge of our museums. Calls for drastic change are often countered by those who hold power with the argument that an overhaul of institutional traditions would see many places cease to exist at all. I would agree that a structural overhaul would have the potential of rendering the MCA unrecognisable by accepted standards, but there seems to be a common assumption made by those with authority which conflates the reduction of their individual privileges, enjoyed over others in the organisation, with the degradation of the organisation itself. I would argue that it is the responsibility of those working at the MCA to make the unrecognisable recognisable, and the seemingly impossible possible, with the relative freedoms and resources afforded to it as a leading venue for contemporary art in Australia.
Exhibition practice as a compelling culture in action
To “make contemporary art and ideas widely accessible to a range of audiences” is too simplistic a vision within the narrow scope of possibilities the MCA provides its staff, a reflection of the standards that museums more broadly are expected to operate by today.22 These have been inherited from the Western-normative tradition of Modernity, and play into a romanticised understanding of art that reifies the authority of a few individuals working in museums to prescribe meaning to everyone else.
Describing the ways in which institutional strategies of audience engagement treat community as a canvas and the institution as the artist, Jiva Parthipan and Paschal Daantos Berry locate a top-down hierarchy, within which organisations make the work (exhibitions, public programs and other discursive platforms) before engaging their audience to understand it.23 This standard practice ignores the desires and requirements of the community, and understands audiences as an anonymous, homogenous mass, upon which the more “valid” subjectivities of a curator or artist may be tested.
How one or two individuals can be tasked with organising a program representative of an entire institutional community is beyond me. I would like to advocate for a method of exhibition-practice in which collaboration constitutes much of the work itself, involving all constituents of the museum; from artists, hosts, maintenance workers, educators, community members, accountants and curators, to board members and benefactors. The involvement of everyone in the production of knowledge would recognise that the MCA’s audience also includes those historically at the bottom of the hierarchy, who undoubtedly have unique knowledges to share, and that there is still so much to learn for those at the notional top. In drawing people from disparate parts of the building together in an exhibition practice that positions the work done at the MCA as research, the historical boundaries ossified within the museum’s structure would realign, demonstrating the ways in which, perhaps, such hierarchies could be done away with altogether. This would be an important step to make within a process of decentralising the museum’s authority, a process which might begin to centre the formation of stronger relationships (and accordingly the redistribution of funds) with smaller arts organisations, artist-run initiatives, activists and grassroots movements.
It is also important to remain accountable to past exhibitions and their message. I worked as a curatorial assistant on NIRIN—the First Nations-led, 22nd edition of the Biennale of Sydney. Since its closure, I have observed the ways in which this landmark exhibition has been wielded by numerous marketing teams of partner venues as a signifier of their own inherent worth, with the fact of its occurrence an implicit reason by which to continue business as usual, which is to say without a truly decolonial ethos. Rather than being co-opted by institutions to validate the way things are, I think that an exhibition like NIRIN should have long-lasting effects on the ways an institution functions. Put simply, has the MCA as an organisation made space to formally ask itself what the significance of such an undertaking was, what it has learnt about itself as an organisation operating within the interconnected worlds presented by NIRIN, and how it will continue to practice its message in the future? Space needs to be made for these important discussions.
To the MCA directly: I would suggest that towards the end of each exhibition, formally ask yourselves whether you managed to achieve your goals. These should be collectively decided upon when a show is conceived, and situated within a program of institutional learning and self-discovery—because we need to change the notion that our institutions always know what they’re doing. How do the themes of the exhibition you are discussing relate to the MCA and its location on stolen land, for example? Conduct sessions where you ask yourselves how you are staying true to the legacy of each of your undertakings within a program. Make this an open and transparent process, accessible to everyone. Centre voices from the margins of your organisation and be prepared to change the way you work depending on their requirements. Importantly, bring your broader audience along with you on this learning journey.
I understand that these kinds of protocols will slow things down considerably, lessening the amount of exhibitions that the MCA can present each year. My point is that the MCA’s programming shouldn’t be measurable in years at all. Producing a smaller number of exhibitions would allow the museum to be more intentional with them, finding new ways of fostering a live dialogue between artists, audiences and the structures of the institution itself, that transcend the ways exhibition standards have historically organised time and space. Provide proper support for experimental, ephemeral and non-commodified practices at the MCA. Ask, “How else can art be involved in changing the way we work?” How can a contract become a space for artists to intervene in the reproduction of institutional norms for example, or a board meeting? Rather than a rapacious focus on reaching new audiences, how can an institution also serve those it is already responsible for in new ways? Time and space must be made for the provocations and concerns of artists and workers everywhere within the structure of the MCA, because this is the only way the institution can be seen as putting a compelling culture in action, one which can be practiced outside of the museum by those in pursuit of a more democratic society.
Though this essay will, inevitably, be judged according to institutional standards, I hope I have conveyed that these standards aren’t fit to measure the inexorable beauty of our lives at all. I would like to acknowledge the work of the First Nations peoples and settlers of colour who have come before me, having made a place in which these words may settle and a lineage along which they may be understood. Both older and younger than myself, their refusal to have their personhood understood in institutional terms has almost always been misconstrued as an attack, rather than being written about in the generous language used to canonise the similar work of their white peers within the art historical tradition of institutional critique. I would like to acknowledge the work of First Nations peoples and settlers of colour currently working in institutional spaces, creating pockets of resistance and refusal every day, informed by practices of love and care. Their continued existence in these spaces exemplifies the meaningful inspiration I have advocated for in this piece of writing, and provides a standard which I implore the MCA to invest in learning from.
Editor’s Note (updated 16 July 2021): For readers of this piece on the Decolonial Hacker extension, to return to the MCA website and engage with Richard Bell’s current digital intervention as part of “Richard Bell: You Can Go Now” (4 June—29 August 2021), go to the ‘DH’ icon at the top right-hand corner of your browser and select ‘HIDE’.