Considering the Alternative Museum




Disgruntled art workers commonly turn to the “alternative museum” as a hopeful model. The chaotic bureaucracy of the museum world tends to hit hard for many artists and art history graduates who sought a dreamy painting-adorned lifestyle. The walls and halls of the museum lose their luster. The paint peels away, revealing beams and boards made from tightly-packed stacks of money. The museum, believed to be a “sacred” site, turns out to be a playground and publicity machine for wealthy real estate tycoons, hedge funders, and weaponry dealers.

In conversations with fellow art workers, I’ve heard a tendency to believe changing elements of existing museums is the way to build an “alternative.” This is reformism. The alternative art space movement, despite its long history, is still outside the periphery of many who need to know it, those who want to challenge the traditional art museum and establish an ethical (art) world.

The alternative museum—an organization independent of established museums—has taken forms of all kinds. Some have been short-lived, while others have stood the test of time (for better or worse). Some have been obnoxious, while others stayed inconspicuous. Each has tried to reimagine the museum formula, sometimes down to the very administrative structure. They sprout in spaces said to be unsuitable for art, yet they make each situation work for their purposes. Many have philosophies that prevent the banal generalness of larger museums, and there is usually critique of the traditional museum itself.

The range in possibility is as great as (and greater than) the range of alternative museums which have existed and currently exist. That vision of possibility and potential is in everything from the Living Museum at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center (NYC) to the Underground Museum (LA); from the Mattress Factory (Pittsburgh) to the King School Museum of Contemporary Art (Portland); from the Museum of Jurassic Technology (LA) to even the New Museum (NYC). There are, of course, many between these and beyond the United States. Each operates in extremely different modes and scales, a testament to the great differences in how the founders and staff believe their museum should appear and behave. An alternative museum tends to emerge from an individual or group’s determination of how they can make a better institution, and everyone has their own idea of what “better” means.

One might see a brighter future for standard museums in alternatives. By appearance, they present established museums with proof of how they can transform into “better” institutions. But do alternative museums really impact the standard museum world? I’ve seen glaring problems with this line of thought during my years of working with a variety of institutions as well as through conversations and tracking of museum affairs in the US. These urgent problems are notably identifiable in the history of the New Museum.

The origins of the New Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side are kin to many other organizations that sprang up during the alternative art space boom of the 1970s. It was founded in 1977 by Marcia Tucker, who, after eight years of curating for the Whitney Museum of American Art, had been fired without reason. Tucker set her sights on creating her own museum, one to be founded on fairness, collaboration, and non-discrimination.

With the help of a lawyer friend (who became her first board member), Tucker established a 501(c)3 nonprofit, a board of trustees, and the museum’s first small temporary office. The inaugural exhibition was hosted by C Space, another alternative project space down the road. The museum later moved into a little room with a gallery at the New School for Social Research. As the museum grew, it moved again in 1983 and expanded its space. After Tucker was succeeded in 1999 by Lisa Phillips—a 23-year Whitney Museum alum—the New Museum announced plans for a new building on the Bowery of Lower Manhattan, which opened in 2007.

This is only a quick history of the New Museum, but the contrast between its origins and present form is the point. Setting aside the personal finances of Marcia Tucker, the museum that got its start in tiny rooms with three people sharing a desk and borrowing exhibition spaces eventually found itself with a massive modern building in Lower Manhattan. In 2020, the New York Times reported that Phillips, who remains the director of the New Museum, made $768,000 annually.[1]

Tucker expressed her distaste for authority, including her own. The board she cobbled together consisted of people she considered friends—nobody she wasn’t “on kissing terms with”. [2] In the beginning, everyone on staff earned the same wage with the exception of Tucker, who didn’t pay herself for three years, though the staff did eventually stratify. She argued there were models other than the corporate, institutional, or academic which the museum could be built on, taking influence from feminist groups—community, self-help, and consciousness-raising organizations. Tucker felt that most existing institutions were not equitable or interested in taking risks. She wanted to create one that would take risks, where coworkers got along and shared the same goals. She wanted the books to be open, for everything to be transparent, and she claimed it was that way for a long time.

How, then, did the New Museum become what it was founded not to be? Firing an entire bargaining committee in retaliation against its workers’ union is case-and-point of an organization that has completely betrayed its values of equity.[3] The New Museum became authoritarian, no different from other standard museums. The presence of big-money interests can be gleaned from its website alone.[4] (Lisa Phillips is even the daughter of the former chairman and CEO of Dow Jones & Company—the market ties run deep.)

The New Museum is the most visible example of a widespread dilemma in the field. An alternative museum is not immune from participating in the same harmful practices traditional museums do. The smallest ones have avoided much of this, but others emulate structures and strategies of major institutions like the Whitney, MoMA, and, sadly, the New Museum. The New Museum’s history explains how an organization with admirable ambitions mutated into a massive, still-expanding monster that serves the upper echelons of society. A museum may be alternative at first, but it can become completely standardized in no time.

A humble board is replaced with businessmen. Salaries diverge, and executive pay soars. Every page of the budget that can be hidden disappears from public view. The nonprofit status shows its true colors as a tax-exempt tool for insidious investments. One cannot seriously look at a

$768,000 executive salary, an $80 million property-hungry capital campaign, and an artist incubator called “NEW INC”—meaning “incubator”, but obviously a play on “incorporated”— and claim the leadership of is not after profit. This is not a unique phenomenon.

I myself saw this kind of corporatocracy at Elsewhere, an alternative museum in North Carolina. After a renovation of its building in 2016—meant to ensure the perpetuity of the organization (and increase property value)—Elsewhere launched a fundraising campaign to cover costs, hoping to pay back a substantial loan to the Phillips Foundation (no relation to Lisa Phillips, as far as I know). In the following years, the last co-founder stepped away from the director position (for a job at the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, though he wrote himself permanently onto Elsewhere’s board), and its reins were handed to an outside executive formerly of the Joan Mitchell Foundation. The new director sowed chaos through a lack of fundraising and upped his own pay, eventually firing long-time staff to consolidate power. That same executive joined the board immediately after his tenure as director, and the museum is now expanding its reach (including redesigning its space for high-priced corporate retreats).

An alternative museum—if it is founded on equity and collaboration—should not be transforming into a bureaucratic corporation. There are alternative museum founders who have a disdain for profit, and some spaces do remain small and structurally-balanced, but becoming another New Museum is possible when a lack of self-awareness meets progressive intentions.

I’m using “progressive” here to mean a value of constant growth and improvement. The socio- political and scientific ideas of progress both suggest humanity will continue to adapt and advance as time goes on—civilization progresses, and history tells the tale of how it has progressed. But this thinking also exists in business, most observably in multinational corporations and the billionaire class. There is an infinite potential in the concept of profit that allows one to envision gaining and gaining forever. It appears in the billionaire class as the raking in of greater profits every year, each sum exponentially higher than the last. Progress for a corporation is finding and extracting new resources, developing real estate, gentrifying neighborhoods, boosting stock value, raising executive compensation, and so on.

The alternative art space can play right into this, typically starting at nonprofit status. Not only does attaining nonprofit status demand corporate structuring (such as an executive board), but it masks its association with profit. Why do so many giant for-profit entities and CEOs support museums? Profit, power, and influence are tied together. The New Museum’s current building, for example, changed the fabric of the Bowery. Cultural influence has measurable effects on capital, even if indirect.

If a desire for perpetual growth is not immediately present in an alternative art space, receiving grants can implant that. A grant is an investment—the donor wants a return which brings some form of financial opportunity, even if it is only the space’s cultural influence. Reliance on grants may emerge if a grant is the difference in funding a whole staff position or program. The donor organization demands a proposal of planned progress as well as a display of progress in each recurring grant cycle in order to continue receiving the money. Donors can also be particular about how sponsored organizations should operate—the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, for instance, has a track record of withdrawing money from organizations that go through leadership transitions. A regular $60,000 award suddenly ripped away can crush an organization.

It’s telling that Lisa Phillips served on the board of the Warhol Foundation for a decade, overlapping with the former director and co-founder of Common Field (the networking organization for small to mid-size art spaces), another co-founder of which also co-founded Elsewhere and permanently sits on its board. The Warhol Foundation is the major sponsor of Common Field, Elsewhere’s biggest funder, and a “leader” organization of the New Museum. The governance of standard and alternative art spaces have been chained together by rings of executives. The layers of bureaucracy emulate an oligarchical state, and the individual art space is made to replicate this hierarchy within itself as reinforcement from the bottom upward. The small art space is to a monumental private body like the Warhol Foundation what a municipality is to the federal government. Endorsement by such large organizations should be approached with the utmost caution.

One can’t settle on merely building an alternative. If even the basic structures are repeated, the paving of a road to a standard, unethical organization has already begun, and absorption into the folds of bureaucracy is imminent. It’s about more than who runs the thing or who is exhibited.

Alternative art spaces don’t have to play this game of hierarchy—there are even some which are (and hate being) nonprofits but committed themselves to capping their growth, (rejecting the need for an expansion in programming, real estate, etc.—just settling at a point of stability). An alternative art space, whether it be a museum or something else, must fight tooth-and-nail against every system of power, otherwise it is doomed to join the rest of the undead, subsumed by the soulless stock market of art institutions. It may also die trying, like so many others have.

When considering the alternative museum, it is not enough to think of variations on the museum formula—one must consider alternatives to the museum as well. Reformist tactics can easily be eaten by bigger institutions, and camaraderie with the market poses no threat to power. If the museum format is to be used, it must be one of opposition, not just an alternative—a museum that rejects the museum. That rejection has to be the form and function in its entirety, nothing short of a total embodiment of intention.