The precipitous rise in wealth inequity and decline in social mobility is a central problem confronting our democracy. American art museums symbolically bridge this gap by transforming private wealth into public good, and by teaching diverse populations about art as a shared value. However, behind the scenes, many museums contradict this mission with an organizational structure ruled by a wealthy minority. My central question is: how might a museum’s structure instantiate a desire for access, democracy and wealth equality?
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) presents a unique opportunity to explore this question. In 2006, SAM and Washington Mutual Bank (WaMu) became partners in a shared real estate agreement that allowed SAM to expand its galleries and WaMu to build new headquarters. Two years later, WaMu became the largest bank in U.S. history to fail, leaving SAM on uncertain financial footing. The aftermath of SAM and WaMu’s relationship provides the motivation for this project, and what we believe is real opportunity for social change.
Seattle Art Mutual will consist of sequential two-year phases. In phase 1, a research group will investigate the social, political and economic history of SAM. We will analyze alternative models for corporate administration and creative methods for promoting institutional change. We will place this research in the context of Seattle’s history of utopian socialist communities. In phase 2, we will work with museum stakeholders to devise a plan to democratize SAM’s organizational structure and advocate for its adoption within the museum and city at large.
Artistically, I am most interested in the process of consensus-building and persuasion: creating space to talk about difficult subjects such as class and wealth. “Museum stakeholders” represents a diverse set of communities. Roughly 40,000 households are currently SAM members. In addition, there are museum staff, curators, trustees, volunteers, artists, students in education programs and other non-member visitors. Initially, we will focus on the sixty-eight trustees who are SAM’s governing body. This focus is unusual among socially engaged artwork, which has largely partnered with disadvantaged or marginal communities. Seattle Art Mutual poses the interesting challenge of working for social change within communities of privilege. In my work, I have sought to position sites of authority as multivalent spaces full of potential for agency, pleasure and invention.
I have found that non-confrontational artistic approaches can access and influence existing power structures where political processes may fail. Alongside the trustees, my research group will work with the local artists’ community. Preliminary conversations have suggested this community will be a strong source of ideas, support and solidarity. Later in the year, we will expand our outreach to the museum membership in order to rally a broad base of support. Seattle is at a moment of extraordinary physical and economic change with increasingly stark economic divisions. Museums are powerfully symbolic institutions. With Seattle Art Mutual, I am framing the museum’s administrative structures themselves as symbolic forms. My project proposes transforming a very visible and charged civic site, rich with history and symbolism. In doing so, I hope to transform the way many people understand what is possible for ourselves and our city.
– Matthew Offenbacher