Richmond communist and artist T.Y. Adams offers this analysis of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and it’s role as a capitalist cultural institution
Museums and Working Class Struggle:
A Case Study of The VMFA
The uprisings of 2020 in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as well as the heightened cracks in working class America’s financial structures due to the deadly and tragic pandemic that paralyzed the country, sparked a growing movement towards social justice and working class liberation.
Many institutions that had previously been able to dodge criticisms of internal racism, sexual assault, and labor violations were suddenly thrust into the spotlight to be challenged.
Museums in many ways became a hot spot for these criticisms for a few reasons: 1) the platform that museums claim to operate on alleges diversity, inclusion, and community engagement and 2) a reoccurring contradiction on this platform with the capitalist interests within the museums’ operations.
Employees and patrons were quick to call out the hypocrisy of these institutions and unmask many of the hidden scandals that questioned the sincerity of their promises. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) was not excluded from this spotlight of criticism. In this article we will explore the museum as an institution of class warfare, bourgeois hegemony, and a consolidation of capital.
What started as an obvious virtue signal to the public, the museum released a statement condemning the killing of George Floyd, which was not unique among the multitude of other companies trying to be on the good side of public opinion. “Be assured that we will continue to work to be a place of inspiration, learning, equity, contemplation, conversation, community, peace, and beauty.”, the statement said, and then the floodgates of accusations filled the comment section up immediately.
Accusations of racism, sexual assault, and general pay inequality were a common theme among the comments. Once employees attempted to try and make a self-representing committee within the institution to address these issues, the museum instituted massive layoffs. While the museum maintains that it was a purely financial decision, it must be noted than many of the people let go were precisely the ones calling for change.
A small anonymous group calling themselves VMFA Reform attempted to spearhead the reaction of the anger towards the museum in a meaningful and lasting way, but after the museum dismissed their petition and suggested they might open a criminal investigation, they eventually lost steam and have been largely inactive.
One important factor in the criticism of the VMFA was the alarming pay discrepancy among the lower wage workers and the upper leadership. An average Museum Associate position was paid under $12 an hour and required to work under 1200 hours a year without exception (this totals to $14,400 yearly before taxes), while some of the leading directors made anywhere from $300,000 to $750,000 a year.
Add to this that the museum offered no benefits at all to wage workers, as they were forced to work part-time. As of my knowledge, the workers share no collective bargaining opportunities or participation in the museums decisions.
While it claims to be an institution that props itself up as “a place of inspiration, learning, equity, contemplation, conversation, community, peace, and beauty.”, we can see directly through this promise as liberal talking-points to placate public scrutiny. We should not be surprised, if we consider what the museum actually stands for and who’s interest they serve.
Imperialism, Accumulation, and Private Property
“The darker view of private museums is that they are nothing more than a tax-advantaged vanity project to preserve the collection and the collector’s name for posterity and to show off their wealth and possessions, all without paying the income or estate tax that otherwise would have been paid, if they sold or died with the art.”
– Matthew Erskine,”Why A Collector Would Donate Art To Their Private Museum”, Forbes, March 2, 2023
We must start looking at these institutions as active participants in bourgeois domination; they represent an almost cartoonish resemblance to capitalism in its entirety. Art accumulation is nothing more than a consolidation of capital by wealthy individuals who have invested their appropriated labor power from their corporate investments, and are using art to promote their legacy and cultural hegemony.
This ranges from using actual relics from colonized peoples to controlling the narrative of art’s purpose in our communities. For our case study, we will briefly consider the VMFA’s three most generous donor families: The Lewises, Mellons, and McGlothlins.
The Lewises were owners of Best Products Inc, an appliance and department store company that was very successful prior to it’s bankruptcy in the 90’s. During it’s heyday, the Lewises were able to use their considerable capital to reinvest into emerging artists and amass a new capital in contemporary art.
“Certainly, money lent an indispensable heft to his role as a catalyst nonpareil. Without the income Lewis and his wife received from what eventually became a 200-store, $2 billion corporation, his prominence as a buyer, owner and giver of contemporary art would have been immeasurably diminished. The couple doubled their impact, in fact, by establishing a company collection almost as remarkable as the personal holdings they used to furnish their Richmond home.”
– Mark St. John Erickson, Daily Press, Mar 28, 1999
Two large galleries that house the French and English artworks were donated by Paul Mellon. Paul Mellon was the son of the very famously rich and known banking tyrant, Andrew W. Mellon, who amassed an enormous fortune by various forms of finance capital.
“The concentration of so much money in the hands of one man almost always involves the exploitation’ of certain opportunities ‘which many of Mr. Mellon’s fellow-citizens take to be unjustifiable privileges. The Aluminum Company of America, for instance, has benefited both from the tariff and from monopolistic control of its business to an extent which presumably implies connivance’ or favoritism on the part of the government.”
– The Editors, The New Republic, “The Case of Andrew Mellon”, January 20, 1926.
Paul’s inheritance of wealth helped him secure the capital needed to invest in accumulating such a vast and substantial collection of historical works, including the likes of Picasso, Monet, van Gogh, and Renoir. How could this be seen as anything other than an investment of already existing capital?
Could any working class person be able to do this? They scoop all of these works out of the hands of the world then put them in their temples where their value skyrockets. Here, art as private property becomes no different than finance capital.
Another prominent donor of private works to the VMFA, in which an entire wing was built and dedicated to (at the cost of $150 million), was the McGlothlins. James McGlothlin is owner and CEO of United Coal Company, one of the largest coal companies in the nation.
What is interesting is that when the McGlothlins donated a large portion of their remaining collection of “American Art” to the VMFA, there was a choice to relocate the problematicly named “Pre-columbian” art of various First Nations and Native American artworks and cultural items to the wing that included the African Art collection.
They were replaced with a swath of European settler artists. This perfectly demonstrates the metaphor of imperialist hegemony that the museum continues. The mixing of two separate continents histories, both various and multifaceted in their own right, is an obvious subconscious linking of these cultures by absence of western European-ism and a reaffirmation of white supremacy, further, this ideology was then used to make space for the “true American art” of white colonizing settlers.
We must also consider the fact that these cultures have been stripped of these artifacts, by way of colonization, and are now being used as capital by the bourgeois class! To extract valuables from a colonized culture by way of violence and then reinvest them into capital is imperialism in a literal sense.
In February 2022, the Congolese Worker Plantation Art League from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was in a dispute with the VMFA over a sculpture of a 20th century colonizer. The group has done some work in showing the link between plantations and colonizing nations and how they exchange these artifacts freely among themselves as private property without any regard or intention to redistribute them back to their respective cultures.
After being denied a repossession of the sculpture, even by loan, the group created an NFT of the sculpture as displayed on the VMFA website. This was criticized by the VMFA for not respecting their “fair use” doctrine and had a copyright claim made in retaliation.
Museums are not just walls, galleries, sculptures, and paintings. They are militarized institutions. They are protected by a bureaucratic wall of lawyers, they are funded by a capitalist government as a self regulating propaganda machine, and they are armed by a specialized police force. While they give the illusion of participation, they exist entirely to accrue capital for a minority of the bourgeoisie.
Art For the People
Marcus David Peters Circle was named by the people of Richmond after a victim killed by Richmond Police during a mental crisis in 2018 and it was once the place of the Lee statue and it’s pedestal. It became an icon of the Black Lives Matter movement and was the place of numerous protests, demonstrations, acts of police violence, and became a community gathering place to heal and grow.
After weeks of being a center of community gathering, the police eventually barricaded the circle and prohibited any gathering in the space. Despite the backlash from their empty statement regarding the uprisings of 2020 and the overwhelming amount of outrage it generated, the VMFA was still given control in “Re-imagining Monument Ave” by Ralph Northam in 2020.
In 2022 however, it was announced that the VMFA had been “scrapped” from the plan to re-imagine the park, and the whole project has been suspended in confusion since then. While the museum seems to have had little say about this decision and was allegedly hiring staff for this project, it still must be acknowledged that the space was already a community space without any need of VMFA guidance and should be seen as a tactic by the city to actively stop a working class community project.
It is in this way that the museum becomes an active agent against working class interests at the hands of the state, whether intentional or not, and had there been a working class network already in the museum, they would have already been present in the heart of the organic creation of Marcus David Peters Circle, and not instrumental it’s destruction.
It must be seen that museums like the VMFA are merely an accumulation and consolidation of capital via art, which in retention, offers continued benefits to the bourgeois class and absolutely none to the working class.
Workers in museums must come together, in unison with the rest of the working class, and challenge the bourgeois hegemony in museum spaces. In his work Lenin and Philosophy, Louis Althusser refers to ‘cultural institutions’ as part of a larger network of Ideological State Apparatuses. He writes,
“…Ideological State Apparatuses may not be the stake, but also the site of class struggle, and often of bitter forms of class struggle.”
So the purpose of this case study is not only about the VMFA; all museums are sites of ideological class warfare and should be both rejected as they are and captured by the working class. Workers should make every effort to gain collective bargaining and use their power to disrupt the perpetuation of class warfare from these institutions.
They should work to expose the inner struggles of the workers, in and out of the institutions, and help redefine the context of art and the purpose of museums, stressing class consciousness and decolonization, and ultimately making museums a true voice of the people.
They should stand in solidarity with other workers nationally and internationally and unify the universal struggle against capitalism. We should not let economic over-determinism push the cultural logic of the bourgeoisie aside and should unite in the fight against the Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses.
Lenin is famously quoted with, “Art belongs to the people,” and we must contrast this with the VMFA’s motto, “It’s your art!”. After everything said above, we have to ask, is it really?
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