What Can We Learn from Institutional Critique?

Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) protesting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Mar. 10, 2018. Photo JC Bourcart.


Part journalistic exposé, part Conceptual artwork, Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 (1971) comprises hundreds of photostats, photographs, and photocopies set in simple brown frames. The work details business dealings conducted over the course of twenty years by Harry Shapolsky—one of the city’s largest slumlords. Images of tenements in Harlem and the Lower East Side appear alongside maps, financial histories, charts detailing ownership structures, and other forms of data gleaned from combing through public records in the New York Public Library and the Manhattan County Clerk’s office.

The artist made the piece for a planned solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. However, Thomas Messer, the museum’s director, infamously objected to Shapolsky et al., as well as two other works Haacke planned to exhibit: a separate piece analyzing a property-holding business (Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971), and one of the artist’s museum polls that asked visitors for various kinds of demographic and personal information, including their political opinions. Citing the Guggenheim’s policy that the art it showed must “exclude active engagement toward social and political ends,” Messer decided to cancel the exhibition six weeks before its scheduled opening.1

The aggressiveness of Messer’s response fueled rumors that Guggenheim trustees were implicated in Shapolsky’s transactions, though Haacke’s research produced no evidence of such a connection. It seems the mere acknowledgment of predatory capitalism within the walls of the museum was enough to goad Messer into an act of censorship. Sensitivities around such gestures were high at that historical juncture. Art institutions were being challenged by groups like the Guerrilla Art Action Group, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, and the Art Workers’ Coalition—the last of which Haacke was a founding member—to account for their role as conduits of economic and political power.

At a time when artists and activists are once again demanding that museums account for their connections to unethical businesses and donors, Haacke’s work has become the focus of renewed attention. “Hans Haacke: All Connected,” a retrospective organized by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni at the New Museum—an institution that very recently made a deal with its unionizing workers after an arduous battle—offers an opportunity to reassess the artist’s attempts to make visible the material, social, and economic systems within which art circulates.

“All Connected” arrives near the end of a year in the art world marked by protests that not only drew attention to the morally fraught business practices of prominent arts patrons, but also instigated significant change. Over the past twelve months, Nan Goldin and her group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) have demonstrated at the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to urge those institutions to stop accepting funds from the Sackler family. The Sacklers own Purdue Pharma, which manufactured and aggressively marketed OxyContin, the opiate largely responsible for the current addiction crisis in the United States. As a result of PAIN’s actions, these museums, along with the Louvre in Paris, and the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery in London, declared that they would reject further donations from the Sacklers and the foundations they control, including the Sackler Trust. Since February, activists have also staged periodic occupations of the British Museum in London to protest its long-standing sponsorship by the oil giant BP. In June, Yana Peel, the chief executive of the Serpentine Gallery in London, stepped down under pressure after it was revealed that her husband’s investment firm had a majority stake in a tech firm that was supplying spyware to authoritarian regimes. And in July, Warren B. Kanders quit his position as vice chair of the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Kanders’s role at the museum sparked intense protest because his company Safariland manufactured some of the tear gas used by the US military and police forces against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Standing Rock, North Dakota; against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border; and at other sites of unrest around the world.

“All Connected” features thirty works Haacke has made since the late 1960s, with a much-needed emphasis on the artist’s early forays into the study of systems of all kinds, including natural ecologies. His critical approach to institutions grew out of an interest in understanding the world in terms of interconnectivity. Born in Germany but based in New York since 1965, Haacke has made museum directors nervous for more than five decades precisely because he insists on paying attention to who’s footing the bill for culture. The retrospective provides an invaluable measure of how the art world has changed since the ’70s, and the extent to which the models for critical engagement that Haacke proposed remain viable. As artists, curators, critics, and museum audiences question whether and how to participate in institutions that are—and have always been—deeply invested in the dirtiest corners of capitalism, Haacke’s work offers a guide to imagining new relationships to the museum while also suggesting the limits of critique as an artistic strategy.


Messer’s decision to censor Haacke’s show wasn’t the first or last time that the artist caused controversy by insisting on mapping the landscape of money and power of which museums are a part. In an interview that appears in the catalogue for the New Museum retrospective, Haacke claims that leaders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York discussed pulling MoMA Poll (1970) from curator Kynaston McShine’s landmark 1970 exhibition “Information.”2 Haacke’s project asked museum visitors to deposit paper slips in transparent ballot boxes in order to register their views on New York Governor and MoMA trustee Nelson Rockefeller’s tacit support for Nixon’s militaristic policies in Southeast Asia. The museum’s director, John Hightower, resisted pressure to cancel the presentation. Other directors were less resilient. A piece Haacke proposed for “Projekt ’74,” a group exhibition of contemporary art at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne in 1974, centered on a single painting in the institution’s collection, Edouard Manet’s A Bunch of Asparagus (1880). In ten framed panels, the artist traced the work’s provenance, demonstrating that Hermann Josef Abs, the man who donated the piece to the museum and served as the chairman of its board, had been a financial adviser to Hitler and a powerful banker in the Third Reich—and had very likely stolen the painting from its previous Jewish owners. Haacke’s piece, Manet-PROJEKT ’74, was rejected by the museum just before the opening. In response, Daniel Buren, another artist in the show, pasted copies of Haacke’s panels onto his own black-and-white wallpaper so as to circumvent the museum’s attempt at censorship; eventually the museum removed Buren’s wallpaper as well.

Messer believed that by rejecting Haacke’s work he was purging “an alien substance that had entered the art museum organism.”3 His efforts at defending the purity and neutrality of the museum were, however, an utter failure: some of the most incendiary of Haacke’s interventions have been absorbed into museum collections around the world. In 2011, MoMA acquired Haacke’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Board of Trustees (1974), a piece that details the corporate affiliations of the museum’s board members at the time. Similarly, Thank You, Paine Webber (1979), which shines a light on financier Donald B. Marron, who became a major donor to MoMA, has been owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2010. The Centre Pompidou in Paris acquired MetroMobiltan (1985) in 1988, a piece that brought into focus the sponsorship money the Met received from Mobil, an oil company that was doing business in apartheid-era South Africa.

Perhaps the most telling of these acquisitions is that of Shapolsky, et al., which was purchased in 2007 by the Whitney with the help of funds from Fundació Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Haacke’s critique of the real estate investor was last shown at the Whitney as part of “America Is Hard to See” (2015), the inaugural exhibition at the museum’s building in the Meatpacking District—the opening of which contributed to a major real estate boom in the neighborhood.

It would be fair to wonder, given this strange game of “musical Haackes”—whereby pieces critiquing one institution are purchased by others after the antiseptic effect of time’s passage—whether museums love institutional critique only as long as it’s directed at some other institution.

Or perhaps Haacke’s strategies are less worrisome to museums than they were in the past. Rolling with criticism—or even embracing it—has become a go-to strategy for museums to demonstrate publicly their progressive values and open-mindedness. Contrast the fate of Haacke’s 1971 work at the Guggenheim to that of Forensic Architecture’s initial contribution to the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Because journalists brought wide attention to Warren B. Kanders’s business practices around the time the Biennial announced its list of participants, the show became a focal point for protests and debates about art world ethics. Forensic Architecture—a London-based multidisciplinary research collective—took a page directly out of the Haacke handbook with their work. The film Triple Chaser (2019) illustrated their pursuit of evidence documenting where and by whom Safariland tear gas has been used around the world. The group harnessed AI and machine learning techniques, and analyzed crowdsourced data, to demonstrate that tear gas grenades and bullets manufactured by two of Kanders’s companies has been used against civilians in military and police operations in Bahrain, Canada, Egypt, Guyana, Greece, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, Peru, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Yemen, as well as Puerto Rico and the mainland US.

In their statement on the piece, displayed outside the screening room where the film was shown on loop, Forensic Architecture referred to the work as a “commission” by the museum. The group’s use of the term pointed to the uneasy role of institutional critique today, suggesting that by “commissioning” the work, the museum was indeed authorizing it—actively participating in a performative form of self-critique and using Forensic Architecture as their de facto spokesperson in order to short-circuit the protests that had been taking place at the museum during the course of the show, organized largely by the activist group Decolonize This Place. In the end, the work most directly inspired by Haacke appeared to have only a muted effect compared to those protests: Kanders’s resignation was precipitated by artists withdrawing work from the biennial in response to activist pressure. The episode raised the question of whether institutional critique in the vein of Haacke’s art is critical enough to effect change at a time when museums actively work to brand themselves not simply as preservers of culture but as progressive oases in an increasingly inhospitable society.


But other questions have arisen as the current wave of museum protests has strengthened, most importantly about whether it makes sense to play whack-a-mole with particular trustees when the boards of so many major museums are awash with shady money.4 Though some of Haacke’s work examined the activities of individual businessmen and art patrons, the lesson of his practice is that systems are of even greater concern. That the individuals he targeted were typical of art patrons, not exceptional, was exactly the point. Just how typical is demonstrated by 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (2018), a doorstop of a book by artist Andrea Fraser, co-published by Westreich Wagner, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, and MIT Press. Focusing on the way that the politics of museum board members often stand in direct contradiction to institutions’ own idealistic missions, Fraser details the extent of the challenges faced by those who want to transform museums into truly progressive institutions. In the wake of the 2016 election, the artist—one of Haacke’s most famous acolytes and someone who has done much to elucidate the implications of her mentor’s practice—created thousands of spreadsheets on a quest to tabulate the political affiliations (measured by campaign donations) of museum board members in every state in the US.

Of the 943 pages in 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, 906 are devoted to an exhaustive presentation of data, revealing significant overlap between art patrons and donors to right-wing causes. The book also includes a prefatory essay in which Fraser details her methods as well as her motivation for compiling this information. She describes an urgent desire to understand how the racism and bigotry that resulted in the election of Donald Trump might be reflected in the art world.

Fraser makes clear that, as an artist who is most often commissioned by museums to create her works, she is fully implicated in a system reliant on right-wing donors. In this, she is no different from most artists who take part in museum shows, or from critics like me who write about them. In “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” an essay first published in Artforum 2005 and reprinted in the New Museum’s Haacke catalogue, Fraser argues that one of the crucial insights of the work of Haacke and others involved in institutional critique is precisely that there is no “outside” to the art world; artists cannot exist in an antagonistic relationship to the institutions of art because artists are integral to the institutions of art. Art does not exist as a social concept outside its institutionalization. And so it follows that even protesting a museum exhibition is still a form of participation since the gesture takes meaning from its relation to the art world.

In his role as a political organizer—both as a member of the Art Workers’ Coalition early on and more recently as a participant in Gulf Labor, a group that has trained its eye on abusive labor practices by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi—Haacke has advocated protest as a means of changing the conditions of the field in which he operates. But that has not prevented him from taking up space in institutions that took money from Philip Morris, or Mobil, or BP, and the boards of which were overseen by dubious trustees. (One exception to this was his boycott of the 1969 São Paulo biennial as a protest of the military dictatorship that had recently come to power in Brazil.) Indeed, the presence of Haacke’s work in the institutions he was analyzing was precisely the point. His approach reflects not so much a politics of refusal as an insistence on radical transparency, a position that is strengthened when established from within the museum.

The intent of such transparency, however, has long been an open question. Is the goal to make institutions “better,” more responsive to social concern, and as such, models for a just society? Is the goal dismantling institutions in general? In the end, does institutional critique even have a politics and theory of change?

The fine essays by curators and scholars, including those by Gloria Sutton, Pamela Lee, and John A. Tyson in the catalogue for the New Museum show are careful to suggest that, in Haacke’s case, the answers to these questions evolved over the course of the artist’s long career. Yet he has often rejected attempts to identify him as a “political artist,” even though his art is invested in revealing the politics that determine artists’ and viewers’ participation in institutions. In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Haacke wrote a letter to Jack Burnham, a Cooper Union colleague who introduced him to systems theory. Haacke seemed to dismiss the possibility that art could have a significant political impact at all: “Art is utterly unsuited as a political tool. No cop will be kept from shooting a black [sic] by all the light-environments in the world.”5 A few years later, in a New York Times article about the cancellation of the Guggenheim show, he made his refusal of the label “political” plain when he said: “Mr. Messer is wrong on two counts: First in his confusion of the political stand which an artist’s work may assert with a political stand taken by the museum that shows his work; secondly in his assumption that my pieces advocate any political cause. They do not.”6

Without staking a political claim, Haacke’s artwork has nonetheless shaped the way subsequent generations of artists have understood the relationship between art and the social world. In “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Fraser describes the “institutionalization of institutional critique.”7 It has become standard practice for artists to draw attention to the frames, broadly defined, in which they exhibit. (In addition to Haacke, Buren, and Fraser, artists associated with institutional critique as a movement include Fred Wilson, Mark Dion, Michael Asher, Louise Lawler, as well as Walid Raad, Sam Durant, and Renée Green.)

Haacke’s example is only one of many historical touchstones informing artists today, many of whom are adopting strategies from social justice and civil rights movements that have not only sought to expose structural biases but to actively transform society. While Haacke was presenting work inside major New York museums in the ’70s, the artists involved in the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), primed by the strategies of black rights organizations like the Black Panthers, picketed the Met, MoMA, and the Whitney. The BECC was not only seeking the inclusion of black artists in those museums’ galleries, however—they sought to change the way museums did business. The BECC demanded that Manhattan institutions disperse their collections to community centers in the outer boroughs, create training programs for students of color to enter into museum professions, and make childcare available for museum events.

Noting similar needs, many of the most influential artists in the US today, including Mark Bradford, Hank Willis Thomas, and Simone Leigh, have pushed the institutions that show their work to offer expanded opportunities for public engagement. This might mean insisting that museums reach out to new audiences, including audiences that have been actively or passively dissuaded from claiming the museum as their own. As part of Leigh’s 2019 Guggenheim exhibition “Loophole of Retreat,” for example, the artist designed a symposium whose speakers were exclusively black women. The program made space in a predominantly white institution for the participants to speak to the intellectual issues that are most urgent to them, without having to frame those issues in relation to whiteness.

Museums may not always be willing to yield to such pressures, of course. The artist lauren woods worked closely with curator Kimberli Meyer on American MONUMENT (2018), a project meant to open last fall at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach. Using the opportunities afforded by the Freedom of Information Act, woods collaborated with students and staff members at the university to gather recordings of police encounters that lead to the deaths of black victims. The audio was to be presented on vinyl LPs positioned on turntables in the gallery. While aiming to make public a record of these state-sponsored killings, woods also hoped to transform the way the museum communicated with the public; she worked with Meyer to implement strategies for having open—and possibly difficult—conversations about race with museum visitors. But just before the exhibition was to open, the school fired Meyer. Though Cal State Long Beach representatives claimed the firing was unrelated to woods’s project, the action followed complaints from the Long Beach police department and from staff members who felt alienated by Meyer’s directives about how to discuss the project. In the end, woods put the audio installation “on pause,” stating that it was impossible to show a work that challenges larger cultures of violence in an institution that resists confronting its own structural biases. American MONUMENT has been “unpaused” this fall at the Beall Center for Art + Technology at UC Irvine.


Writing about Haacke, Fraser observed that anyone “familiar with his work should recognize that, far from trying to tear down the museum, Haacke’s project has been an attempt to defend the institution of art from instrumentalization by political and economic interests.”8 But artists like Bradford, Thomas, Leigh, and woods—along with many others engaging critically with institutions—seem less concerned with defending the museum from instrumentalization than with instrumentalizing it in different directions.

One of the savviest examples of this is the work of Cameron Rowland, a 2019 MacArthur fellow. His contribution to the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Public Money (2017), required the museum to invest in a Social Impact Bond (SIB)—a new kind of financial instrument being used by local and state governments that replaces public and transparent funding of social services with deregulated, profit-oriented, and opaque ones. In this case, Rowland asked the Whitney to buy a $25,000 bond to fund the Ventura County Project to Support Reentry, a program aimed at decreasing recidivism so as to reduce overcrowding in California county jails. While on the surface such a program might sound well-intentioned, the emphasis on reducing prison populations by preventing individuals from committing further crimes frames the problem of incarceration as a matter of individual responsibility rather than as a structural one related to overpolicing, high conviction rates, and excessive sentences for black and brown people. Moreover, SIBs are available by invitation only to accredited investors, and if you are not an investor, details about them are difficult to come by.

The Whitney, by virtue of its substantial endowment, is a qualified investor for these types of bonds. While the museum’s $25,000 investment is relatively small potatoes in relation to its $800 million net assets (according to 2018 financial statements), what happens when the bond matures is the real payoff: the nondisclosure agreement that the museum had to sign in order to invest will expire, and Rowland will be able to release details of the mechanics of this particular bond to the public. Public Money harnesses the financial power of the museum to access information about how SIBs are structured and utilized—at once laying bare the privatization of state functions happening outside of public scrutiny, and making clear that the Whitney, like many museums, universities, and other institutions, is not only an arbiter of culture but an investing body.

The radicality of Rowland’s approach is brought into sharp relief if one compares his project to another examination of the ties between museums and prisons, also made for the Whitney museum: Andrea Fraser’s 2016 installation Sing Sing. The audio piece, which was installed in a massive gallery on the Whitney’s fifth floor, brought the ambient sounds of the maximum security prison just thirty-two miles up the Hudson River into a hallowed space for expressions of artistic freedom. In an interview with the Guardian, Fraser drew a parallel between the two institutions: “Museums increasingly are warehouses of wealth, capturing surplus in the form of artworks that are no longer financially productive. Prisons are institutions that warehouse surplus labor and populations that have been economically excluded from the labor market.”9 The piece, she said, put Whitney visitors “into the acoustic space of incarceration.”10 While Fraser’s work offered the audioscape of mass incarceration to museumgoers—an experience that at best might heighten “awareness” or “empathy” among her (mostly liberal-minded) audience—Rowland’s project exploits the museum to expose power structures that we can change only once we are able to see them. These are exceedingly different understandings of “transparency.”

Another project by Rowland, “91020000” (2016), leveraged similar mechanisms in relation to Artists Space, where it was first shown. “91020000” traced the direct consequences of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed chattel slavery except when administered “as a punishment for a crime,” and the history of exploiting the labor of incarcerated people, by both public and private prisons. For this exhibition, Rowland required Artists Space to register with Corcraft, the entity that farms out work to prisoners in the New York State Department of Corrections. Corcraft can sell its products only to government agencies, schools and universities, courts and police departments, and certain nonprofits. As a nonprofit, Artists Space qualified. Corcraft produced a range of products for the gallery, including benches, firefighter uniforms, and an office desk, which Rowland displayed for his show; the exhibition’s title is Artists Space’s registration number. The press release for “91020000” also included invoices issued to the gallery by Corcraft for the commodities it had purchased.

Art institutions’ capacity to absorb such gestures is almost boundless, but Rowland’s work points to a potential limit. He refused to sell the pieces in “91020000,” but he did allow MoMA to rent them for a period of five years following their display at Artists Space. That Rowland only allows for a rental, which does not require MoMA to register with Corcraft and make a purchase agreement, is especially important given the Museum’s broader entanglement in the prison system. Earlier this year, activists from Code Pink and ArtSpace Sanctuary began to demand that the museum and its board member Larry Fink divest from certain holdings. Fink is head of BlackRock, the second-largest shareholder of private prisons in the US.

Rowland’s objects, however critical a message they convey, cannot force Fink or MoMA to change. But when the rental agreement on “91020000” expires, the work can never be sold. This built-in withdrawal—a refusal that draws on the history of Haacke and his legacy but grapples with the ever more complex ways that museums are implicated in the most unjust of society’s injustices—may be the most profound act of institutional critique we can imagine today.


ARUNA D’SOUZA is the author of Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (Badlands Unlimited, 2018). 

This article appears under the title “Inside Job” in the November 2019 issue, pp. 56–63.