William Wiebe

11 Jun 2021

Source: Adapted from KPIX 5 (CBS San Francisco), “Famed Presidio Wooden ‘Spire’ Sculpture Damaged By Early Tuesday Morning Fire,” June 23, 2020. Image credited to San Fran Bay Man.

In 2014, I spent a few months intern­ing at a high-end archi­tec­ture firm five floors above the Dean & DeLu­ca flag­ship in SoHo. We were rush­ing an overnight to an archi­tec­tur­al review board in the Hamp­tons the night the grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pan­ta­leo for the mur­der of Eric Gar­ner. Chants thud­ded down Broad­way while I dropped tex­tures into a ren­der­ing. By the time I stepped out with the ship­ment, a pro­test­er was review­ing the archi­tec­ture of a near­by Citibank with a brick.

Six years lat­er, I found myself out­side the old Dean & DeLu­ca again, watch­ing a teenag­er fash­ion a ban­dolier from the charred bumper of a patrol vehi­cle. The Dean & DeLu­ca chain — acquired by a Thai prop­er­ty devel­op­er a week pri­or to the Eric Gar­ner protests — had since been stripped down to its fran­chis­ing fees, the flag­ship board­ed up since the pre­vi­ous fall. On that warm June night, the shut­tered lega­cy lux­u­ry brand appeared as an acci­den­tal har­bin­ger of the COVID-19 retail apoc­a­lypse and the protests now tak­ing hold.

I con­tin­ued up Broad­way with my friends towards the Strand, drawn to the glow of burn­ing scaf­fold­ing pro­ject­ed across its face. A few of us pulled our­selves up by the grill­work of Grace Church to sur­vey the throng­ing crowd. Some oth­er artists came over to say hi. Peo­ple talked about Occu­py. The riot cor­don advanced and every­one took off running.

At work the next morn­ing, I dropped jpegs of my boss’ paint­ings into a vir­tu­al gallery.

With­in a week of George Floyd’s mur­der, art insti­tu­tions began to send out feel­ers to test the dura­tion and extent of the com­mit­ment they would have to make to the protests against racial­ized police vio­lence and the broad­er Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. Due to the lock­downs, much of this mor­al­iz­ing occurred on social media, where feeds clogged with posts pair­ing insti­tu­tion­al bona fides with non­com­mit­tal copy endors­ing racial equi­ty. In one excep­tion­al exam­ple, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art and the San Fran­cis­co Muse­um of Mod­ern Art inde­pen­dent­ly cir­cu­lat­ed works by Glenn Ligon from their col­lec­tions in con­tra­ven­tion of the artist’s own image rights. Until the out­cry broke, it seemed to be the rare occa­sion on which crit­i­cal art had proven polit­i­cal­ly effec­tive for someone. 

As one real­i­ty unfold­ed on the inter­net, quite a dif­fer­ent one mate­ri­al­ized offline. Amidst the acrid fog of lighter-flu­id-fueled trash fires that dot­ted the Bow­ery in ear­ly June, the New Muse­um stood sheathed in ply­wood and a thick­et of police bar­ri­cades. The long-run­ning antag­o­nism between art’s dis­cur­sive com­mit­ments and its real social and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions seemed to have bro­ken out into street-to-street fighting.

For months, art insti­tu­tions had watched wor­ry­ing­ly as their audi­ences mutat­ed into bio­log­i­cal threats, starv­ing them of income. When the threats became polit­i­cal, the insti­tu­tions — fol­low­ing the minor his­to­ry of artists who close exhi­bi­tion spaces — broke the fourth wall in order to put up a fifth.1 But the bar­ri­cades they erect­ed did not mere­ly close their pub­lic” spaces — they enclosed them. Against the crit­i­cal claims of art’s legit­imiz­ing dis­cours­es, art’s legit­imiz­ing insti­tu­tions con­ced­ed their mate­r­i­al con­di­tions (and nec­es­sar­i­ly so: their con­sti­tu­tion­al com­mit­ment to pri­vate prop­er­ty hob­bles their pro­fessed inten­tion to secure a more just and equi­table world). Rather than mark and for­ti­fy the insti­tu­tion­al exte­ri­or, the bar­ri­cades extend­ed and made vis­i­ble the process­es of val­ue pro­duc­tion that com­prise these insti­tu­tions’ inner, hid­den cores.

Some insti­tu­tions assert­ed their autho­r­i­al ten­den­cies fur­ther, as if to empha­size the extent to which sub­stan­tive reforms had already been fore­closed. SFMO­MA com­mis­sioned four large posters of dis­sent­ing text to be wheat­past­ed onto the wall it erect­ed, per­form­ing a con­vinc­ing fic­tion of an insti­tu­tion being held to account by gueril­la tac­tics; Artists Space bat­tened down, with­draw­ing Jana Euler’s slug from its façade (its depar­ture marked by two ratch­et straps in place of the cus­tom­ary trail of slime); the New Muse­um cam­ou­flaged as a con­struc­tion site behind hunter green fenc­ing. Not even the deface­ment of the tem­po­rary struc­ture was left to chance.

Photo: © 2020 Richard Wiebe

While the obser­va­tions in this essay have devel­oped out of my own expe­ri­ences in New York and San Fran­cis­co, the antag­o­nisms they describe are a micro­cosm of much greater trans­for­ma­tions cur­rent­ly under­way. In the Unit­ed States in par­tic­u­lar, the fail­ure of the lega­cy art world to main­tain some pur­chase on the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion is an epiphe­nom­e­non of the fail­ure of its insti­tu­tions to pro­mote objec­tives beyond imme­di­ate self-inter­est. As insti­tu­tions have absorbed ever greater amounts of pri­vate wealth, this self-inter­est has increas­ing­ly iden­ti­fied with the larg­er plu­toc­ra­cy in which it is embedded. 

Under neolib­er­al­ism, the infra­struc­ture that devel­oped to sup­port the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry art world — muse­ums, gal­leries, schools, pub­li­ca­tions, dis­cours­es — came to form the hori­zon of artis­tic pro­duc­tion. From the pro­fes­sion­al man­date of grad­u­ate degree work to the instru­men­tal­iza­tion of art as pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment, lega­cy art insti­tu­tions strate­gi­cal­ly realigned them­selves in order to but­tress and improve their posi­tion as gate­keep­ers. When con­tra­dic­tions sur­faced (e.g., the con­flict between the pro­gres­sive val­ues art insti­tu­tions project and the prof­i­teer­ing of their monied patrons), their res­o­lu­tions tend­ed to bal­ance the institution’s imme­di­ate mate­r­i­al inter­ests against its long-term inter­est in pre­serv­ing its pre­rog­a­tive to define and inter­pret artis­tic activ­i­ty (which secured its future mate­r­i­al inter­ests).2

Though art insti­tu­tions have expend­ed sub­stan­tial resources to cul­ti­vate an aura of legit­i­ma­cy and per­ma­nence, the exter­nal crises they faced this past year remind us that the insti­tu­tions them­selves are not quite so deter­mi­na­tive as the cult of mon­ey in which they are enmeshed. If the sto­ry of the past 20 years is the dis­ar­tic­u­la­tion of price from cul­tur­al val­ue, the sto­ry of the past 10 months is that price is the only com­mon mea­sure of cul­tur­al val­ue that remains. The art world” as it has been myth­i­cal­ly con­sti­tut­ed over the past few decades has been tran­scend­ed by a new pop­ulist” bub­ble, which final­ly aban­dons the premise that the art mar­ket has some orig­i­nary foun­da­tion in the cul­tur­al val­ue that the art world’s gate­keep­ers assign. These spec­u­la­tive val­u­a­tions are pro­duced exter­nal­ly, in oth­er non-art parts of the cul­ture ecosys­tem, where — as with the pop­ulism of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics — the lines between authen­tic engage­ment and plu­to­crat­ic astro­turf­ing are pur­pose­ly blurred. With the tri­umph of mon­ey as the final arbiter, the Faus­t­ian bar­gain of the art world comes due: insti­tu­tions must either yield and reori­ent them­selves or lose their pow­er as gatekeepers.


Crises often augur wide­spread deval­u­a­tions of assets. Low demand fuels cycles of sell­offs: prop­er­ty and asset prices crash, invest­ment income dimin­ish­es. With the pri­ma­ry eco­nom­ic engines of the art world in retreat this past year, the lever­aged posi­tions tak­en on by lega­cy art insti­tu­tions have appeared all the more unsus­tain­able: major insti­tu­tions chase loss­es on large over­head until asset prices recov­er and rev­enue reap­pears or they fold.3 (Small­er art insti­tu­tions, which depend more heav­i­ly on munic­i­pal sup­port, will con­tin­ue to be squeezed for years as declin­ing prop­er­ty val­ues depress tax revenues.)

In the decade fol­low­ing the glob­al finan­cial crash, a spate of build­ing projects swept New York’s major art insti­tu­tions: the Whit­ney in 2015 ($422 mil­lion for the Gan­sevoort build­ing), the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art in 2019 (a $450 mil­lion expan­sion of its main cam­pus), and the Met through­out the lat­er 2010s (includ­ing a $13 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of the Met Breuer, an $18 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of its British dec­o­ra­tive arts gal­leries, and a $150 mil­lion sky­light replace­ment, with a $70 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of its Rock­e­feller Wing and a $600 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion of its Mod­ern Wing still to come). But cap­i­tal cam­paigns orga­nized around ren­o­va­tions and new con­struc­tion fail to pro­vide for the costs of oper­at­ing those same infra­struc­tures dur­ing down­turns. Under oth­er cir­cum­stances, the New Museum’s hunter green cladding would have her­ald­ed the ground­break­ing of its own $63 mil­lion expan­sion, announced to much fan­fare in the sum­mer of 2019 at the height of protests by its union employ­ees in sup­port of stalled con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. Instead, man­age­ment gut­ted the union, keep­ing only a quar­ter of its 84 mem­bers on payroll.

Finan­cial pres­sures also com­pel insti­tu­tions to con­trive nov­el ways to prof­it off of exist­ing infra­struc­tures. Dur­ing the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis, the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go par­ti­tioned its debt-bur­dened school away from the museum’s assets, forc­ing the school to sell its port­fo­lio of prop­er­ties in order to stay afloat. The school in turn col­lat­er­al­ized its debts by increas­ing its enroll­ment of for­eign stu­dents inel­i­gi­ble for finan­cial aid. In the course of the pan­dem­ic, the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go has dou­bled down on this reces­sion-era gam­ble, intro­duc­ing rotat­ing shift sched­ules to staff a vir­tu­al shad­ow school for stu­dents in East Asia.

Mean­while, those in a posi­tion to buy up deval­ued assets dur­ing the pan­dem­ic have already achieved tremen­dous returns on invest­ment.4 For those who have cap­i­tal­ized on the cri­sis, it becomes exi­gent to off­set tax­es on new gains. Fam­i­ly art foun­da­tions, for instance, func­tion as tax-advan­taged invest­ment vehi­cles which allow fam­i­lies to bor­row” works for dis­play in their own homes. Take it from the cura­tor at one such foun­da­tion, who reports, The last time we bought work like this was 2008.” In the same moment that the cri­sis high­lights the unsus­tain­abil­i­ty of the art world for pro­duc­ers — debt-fueled edu­ca­tion, pre­car­i­ous labor con­di­tions, extreme income inequal­i­ty — it also demon­strates how essen­tial” the art world’s lux­u­ry econ­o­my is for con­sumers, who con­tin­ue to seek high-return invest­ments and tax shel­ters as a new era of Fed-sub­si­dized mon­ey and near-zero inter­est rates dawns.


In August 2020, the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion esti­mat­ed that 1.4 mil­lion jobs had been lost in the fine and per­form­ing arts. That omi­nous tone echoed a July 2020 sur­vey of the Amer­i­can Alliance of Muse­ums, which report­ed that one-third of U.S. muse­ums may per­ma­nent­ly close as a result of the pan­dem­ic. Some insti­tu­tions have since shut­tered. Oth­ers, fac­ing haz­ardous finan­cial straits after months of lost rev­enue and the exhaus­tion of bailout funds, have uneven­ly dis­trib­uted their hard­ships, cut­ting non-essen­tial” staff and pro­gram­ming. A third cat­e­go­ry have rene­go­ti­at­ed their pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ties and com­mit­ments, revis­it­ing con­tentious prac­tices such as deac­ces­sion­ing. In each instance, the arc bends towards pri­va­ti­za­tion. If the endur­ing impact of the pan­dem­ic is the end of mid­dles — mid-size busi­ness­es, mid-size incomes, mid-size insti­tu­tions and gal­leries (Gavin Brown, Metro Pic­tures) — the K‑shaped flight to extremes por­tends less diver­si­ty and less vol­ume in the art world to come. 

While major art insti­tu­tions will main­tain sol­ven­cy, their pri­or­i­ties will change. At the out­set of the pan­dem­ic, MoMA quick­ly halved its exhi­bi­tions and pub­li­ca­tions bud­gets. If the trend holds, new exhi­bi­tions will increas­ing­ly fol­low the exam­ple of the 2008 reces­sion, when three-quar­ters of muse­um exhi­bi­tions derived from per­ma­nent col­lec­tions. In some instances, cul­ture war dynam­ics have been oper­a­tional­ized as cov­er for these changes. The announce­ment post­pon­ing Philip Gus­ton Now first sug­gest­ed that addi­tion­al time was need­ed to recon­tex­tu­al­ize the artist’s depic­tions of robed Klans­men; only lat­er did an insti­tu­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive con­cede that logis­ti­cal chal­lenges and the cost of ship­ping works dur­ing the pan­dem­ic also fig­ured in the plan to delay the show.”5

Muse­ums have sim­i­lar­ly dis­sem­bled on the mat­ter of deac­ces­sion­ing, after the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Art Muse­um Direc­tors sus­pend­ed many of its restric­tions in April 2020. The argu­ments against deac­ces­sion­ing are by no means set­tled, espe­cial­ly since many col­lec­tions con­sti­tu­tive­ly exclude women artists and artists of col­or. But there should be no mis­take: deac­ces­sion­ing is the final fron­tier in the total hege­mo­ny of mon­ey. The out­flow of objects from the (nom­i­nal­ly) pub­lic trust into the dis­trib­uted ware­hous­es of the ultra-rich repeats the enclo­sure of the bar­ri­cades, mate­ri­al­ly under­min­ing the rhetoric of diver­si­ty and equi­ty initiatives.

With few­er funds to allo­cate towards research, loans, and new acqui­si­tions, major art insti­tu­tions will become both more con­ser­v­a­tive and more local. As the scope of main­stream con­cerns nar­rows, the down­stream ecosys­tem will expe­ri­ence feed­back effects. Few­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for the uptake of new artists and ideas reduces the num­ber of cul­tur­al participants/​aspirants and inten­si­fies com­pe­ti­tion among those who remain. As insti­tu­tions cycle through a fixed quan­tum of con­tent, niche move­ments will mul­ti­ply. The throt­tling of the main­stream will deep­en the diver­gence of dark for­est” com­mu­ni­ties hitched to micro-economies, with pay­walled con­tent pro­duc­tion strain­ing to sup­plant the lost mid­dle.” These alter­na­tive out­lets will fur­ther desta­bi­lize the sur­viv­ing insti­tu­tions: the ascen­dant Patre­on-Sub­stack-Only­Fans régime gen­er­al­izes the out­sider entre­pre­neuri­al­ism of a Beeple or KAWS (which itself appeals to the rugged indi­vid­u­al­ism of the founder” men­tal­i­ty), estab­lish­ing an extra-insti­tu­tion­al mar­ket to deter­mine the price of every indi­vid­ual cre­ator.” As the insti­tu­tion­al safe­ty net con­tin­ues to shred, com­pen­sa­tion is col­lec­tivized but only in the most pre­car­i­ous, neolib­er­al ways.


Pace, Hauser & Wirth, and Sotheby’s all decamped to satel­lite loca­tions in the Hamp­tons dur­ing the sum­mer of 2020, with a slew of sec­ondary-mar­ket deal­ers fol­low­ing suit. On the open­ing of Pace East Hamp­ton, Pace’s founder com­ment­ed, The col­lec­tors are here, and the work has to be seen.” For all the appar­ent hap­pen­stance, how­ev­er, the relo­ca­tions pro­vid­ed use­ful pro­to­types for future ven­tures. Heavy­weights, such as Pace and Sotheby’s, and mid-size gal­leries, such as Mitchell-Innes & Nash and Paula Coop­er, all inked short-term leas­es in Flori­da for win­ter 2021, cit­ing the suc­cess of the East Hamp­ton ven­tures: They would come in in golf out­fits and bathing suits and flip-flops, so it was much less for­mal, and there was more dia­logue about art objects.”6

The much-spec­u­lat­ed demise of the art fair gives way to an even more exclu­sive view­ing expe­ri­ence, a trav­el­ing cir­cus of mega-gal­leries chas­ing ultra-rich patrons from gild­ed enclave to gild­ed enclave. The surf and turf leisure econ­o­my is in; staid pub­lic-fac­ing insti­tu­tions are out. Far from the pry­ing eyes of art crit­ics, gal­leries import their most dec­o­ra­tive stock — the press text for the inau­gur­al show at Paula Coop­er South adver­tised how the works cel­e­brat­ed the vibrant life of Palm Beach and the sur­round­ing area” (43 billionaires/7.8 square miles). With sales vol­ume boom­ing, the gallery has com­mit­ted to a per­ma­nent Flori­da expan­sion; else­where, a new crop of pop-ups promis­es to fête Aspen lat­er this year (75 billionaires/3.5 square miles). The prox­im­i­ty of these gal­leries’ flag­ship loca­tions to a broad­er pub­lic seems pure­ly acci­den­tal in ret­ro­spect (Man­hat­tan: 105 billionaires/22.8 square miles).

As mega-gal­leries move their inven­to­ry clos­er and clos­er to col­lec­tors’ homes, they begin to resem­ble Ama­zon in more than just their monop­o­lis­tic ten­den­cies. Seen with the bar­ri­cades, these last-mile ware­hous­es under­score an old truth in a new way: the real­i­ty of the exhi­bi­tion venue as logis­tics hub, a dry port for goods to rest as they tran­sit between net­works, increas­ing­ly strik­ing the more the oth­er aspects of the insti­tu­tion dis­ap­pear. This real­i­ty shows when art insti­tu­tions rep­re­sent them­selves not as the priv­i­leged spaces they stake out in their mis­sion state­ments but as sites that must be defend­ed against riots and oth­er forms of cir­cu­la­tion strug­gle. It shows when mega-gal­leries depart their roosts, when muse­ums deac­ces­sion works — when the motive to sim­ply move prod­uct gives the lie to cura­tion and crit­i­cism. The for­ti­fi­ca­tion of the insti­tu­tion proves to be the archi­tec­tur­al corol­lary to the loss of its phys­i­cal inter­face, the becom­ing-dis­tri­b­u­tion-cen­ter of everything.

Photo: © 2020 William Wiebe


The depar­ture of gal­leries flags the chang­ing con­di­tions of urban life. In its uneven dis­tri­b­u­tion of effects, the pan­dem­ic brings into focus a world riv­en into enclaves, renew­ing the pres­sure of geo­graph­ic arbi­trage on the lega­cy art world’s urban strong­holds. The dis­so­lu­tion of the urban core” is real­ly the dis­so­lu­tion of a cer­tain vision of urban­iza­tion, built around a tranche of cap­i­tal-inten­sive sec­tors and the mas­sive ser­vice indus­tries they sup­port. We are told that the path for­ward wends through declin­ing tax rev­enues and retrench­ments, ema­ci­at­ed city gov­ern­ments and death spirals.

For the lega­cy art world, these crises are not mere­ly eco­nom­ic but onto­log­i­cal. The bar­ri­cades that insti­tu­tions erect­ed in the sum­mer of 2020 defend­ed them against an ene­my they had con­jured from his­to­ry; in real­i­ty, there were no Com­mu­nards clam­or­ing to set fire to their store­hous­es. The declin­ing rel­e­vance of the lega­cy insti­tu­tion is pic­tured less by an image of the Lou­vre burn­ing than by an image of Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire aflame in San Francisco’s Pre­sidio that June. At a board meet­ing of the Pre­sidio Trust a month lat­er, its CEO report­ed, We have no evi­dence that this [fire] was delib­er­ate­ly set … Clear­ly it was caused by human caus­es …, but our best guess is that it was caused due to an ille­gal encamp­ment near the Spire.” Art, here, appears as the casu­al­ty of a larg­er social cri­sis in which it is pow­er­less to intervene.

The artist’s essay typ­i­cal­ly ren­o­vates a polit­i­cal project dredged from art his­to­ry. But it is art history’s own shib­bo­leths that the new val­ue con­fig­u­ra­tions call into ques­tion. If a defin­ing fea­ture of a bub­ble is the propen­si­ty for finan­cial spec­u­la­tion to dom­i­nate every social inter­ac­tion, that dis­tor­tionary effect may be felt most acute­ly in social worlds already gov­erned by lux­u­ry economies.7 Beyond the bar­ri­cades, the bud­get con­stric­tions, and the Flori­da gallery out­posts, which fever­ish­ly seek to extract new prof­its from old forms of artis­tic val­ue, a spec­u­la­tive fren­zy awaits. It takes the art world’s obses­sion with mon­ey at face val­ue, final­ly moot­ing art’s claim to be some­thing oth­er than what it is (social­ly and economically).

The more pre­car­i­ous the con­di­tions of artis­tic pro­duc­tion, the stronger the rec­i­p­ro­cal desire to strike it rich becomes. The task then is to mobi­lize against the eco­nom­ic struc­ture that deter­mines our social exis­tence. So long as soci­ety retains its plu­to­crat­ic com­po­si­tion, it will be left to those artists least reliant on the infra­struc­tures that reify and enforce plu­to­crat­ic val­ues to describe and agi­tate against the crises to come. If there is no com­pan­ion project of insti­tu­tion-build­ing, how­ev­er, these prac­tices will fail to cohere into cul­tur­al projects that can be tak­en up by oth­ers. With­out the nec­es­sary nar­ra­tive infra­struc­ture, their propo­si­tions will go unanswered.

When I passed SFMO­MA again that August, the bar­ri­cades had regressed from their Con­struc­tivist polit­i­cal agi­ta­tions into so many Supre­ma­tist ele­ments. After a sum­mer of black squares on feeds, it was a strange com­fort to see them extrud­ed back out into real space. Kaz­imir Male­vich had for­mu­lat­ed Supre­ma­tism as an attempt to free art from the dead weight of the real world.”8 And yet, like every oth­er aes­thet­ic prac­tice that has promised a reprieve from real mate­r­i­al con­di­tions, it was struc­tured in dom­i­nance, only the most effi­cient form for hid­ing a racist scrawl.

The ren­o­vat­ed bar­ri­cades, how­ev­er, looked as if they owed less to the institution’s reac­tionary pol­i­tics than its blank nihilism. I imag­ined a lone prepara­tor care­ful­ly pin-mount­ing Dante’s chthon­ic inscrip­tion on the donor wall in the atri­um beyond.

Photo: © 2020 William Wiebe

Thanks to Alexan­der Alber­ro, Dun­can Bass, Aron Chilewich, Seli­na Grüter, Jesse Mered­ith, and Ben­jamin Tiv­en for their com­ments and support.



For a com­pre­hen­sive account­ing of this his­to­ry, see the 2016 exhi­bi­tion at Fri Art, A Ret­ro­spec­tive of Closed Exhi­bi­tions.


Recent efforts to reform art insti­tu­tions have tar­get­ed their com­po­si­tion­al ele­ments: gov­er­nance (the mis­deeds of errant board mem­bers and the allo­ca­tion of board seats); man­age­ment (exhi­bi­tion and acqui­si­tions prac­tices); and labor (labor orga­niz­ing). The pro­posed reforms, how­ev­er, are overde­ter­mined by the plu­toc­ra­cy they pur­port to com­bat: share­hold­er mod­els of gov­er­nance shroud the cabals of the ultra-rich in the vest­ments of cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty; peti­tions for pro­ce­dur­al jus­tice reify art as a win­ner-take-all sys­tem and incen­tivize neolib­er­al per­for­mance met­rics with­in insti­tu­tions; labor mobi­liza­tion often bleeds over into cor­po­ratist overi­den­ti­fi­ca­tion. The mar­ket­place of ideas is also an oligopoly.


Vis­i­tors typ­i­cal­ly pro­vide between 25 and 50 per­cent of a major art institution’s annu­al oper­at­ing bud­get and com­prise between 20 and 30 per­cent of its total rev­enue (includ­ing admis­sions, mem­ber­ships, muse­um stores, and restau­rants). In its 2018 tax fil­ing, the New Muse­um report­ed that 20.5 per­cent of its rev­enue came from vis­i­tors; for MoMA, it was 23.9 per­cent; for the Whit­ney, 24.9 per­cent; and for SFMO­MA, 30.6 percent.


Like the col­lapse of the hous­ing bub­ble in 2007 – 2008, the Feb­ru­ary-March 2020 stock mar­ket crash pre­cip­i­tat­ed mas­sive new con­cen­tra­tions of wealth. In the 10 months between March 18, 2020 and Jan­u­ary 18, 2021, the com­bined wealth of the Unit­ed States’ 660 bil­lion­aires increased by 38.6 per­cent, to $4.1 tril­lion. While the 34 per­cent decline of the stock mar­ket to its March 23, 2020 low was quick­ly re-couped, the recov­ery was uneven­ly dis­trib­uted amongst firms: Face­book, Ama­zon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google gained 52 per­cent year-over-year while the remain­ing 495 com­pa­nies in the S&P 500 post­ed a com­par­a­tive­ly mea­ger 9 per­cent return. When large firms are the only ones that can weath­er a down­turn, the pejo­ra­tive lev­eled at large banks — too big to fail” — plays again in a dif­fer­ent key.


Alex Green­berg­er, Philip Gus­ton Block­buster Pushed Back to 2024 Amid Con­cerns Over KKK Imagery,” ART­news, Sept. 242020.


David Schrad­er, glob­al head of pri­vate sales at Sotheby’s, quot­ed in Sophie Haigney, Gal­leries and an Auc­tion House Fol­low Col­lec­tors to Flori­da,” The New York Times, Oct. 12020.


William J. Bern­stein, The Delu­sions of Crowds: Why Peo­ple Go Mad in Groups (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2021), 5.


Kaz­imir Male­vich, The Non-Objec­tive World (Dessau, Ger­many: Bauhaus Books, 1927).


William Wiebe is an artist, film­mak­er, and writer. He stud­ies the pro­duc­tion of objec­tiv­i­ty by social insti­tu­tions. His recent work has been pre­sent­ed at 062 Gallery, Chica­go; the Eliz­a­beth Foun­da­tion for the Arts, New York; and NeMe Arts Cen­tre, Cyprus. He has also offered non-aca­d­e­m­ic lec­tures based on his research at venues includ­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill; the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go; and the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He holds a BA from Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty and an MFA from the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go and was a par­tic­i­pant in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Arts, Sci­ence & Cul­ture Ini­tia­tive and the Whit­ney Inde­pen­dent Study Pro­gram. From 2018 – 19, he was a U.S. Ful­bright Fel­low in Cyprus and the inau­gur­al Post­grad­u­ate Research Fel­low in the Depart­ment of Fine Arts at the Cyprus Uni­ver­si­ty of Technology.