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The US Government Shutdown’s Hard Lesson for the Arts

Federal museums ensure that art is not merely the purview of the leisured class; the impasse is an abdication of that responsibility

Governments can run out of funds – from a contraction of the tax base say, or a lack of foreign reserves or access to credit markets. This is decidedly not the case in the US, which is in the midst of its longest ever federal shutdown, and has, again, shuttered agencies and services across the country for strictly political reasons. Funding expired for a slew of agencies and programmes at midnight on 22 December, with far-ranging consequences: from environmental destruction and trash accumulation at national parks to hundreds of thousands of workers and contractors furloughed or working without pay. Historically (and, it appears, this time around) back pay is authorized once the self-inflicted crisis abates – Trump will get his wall or, probably, not. But capitalism waits for no one, and genuine anxiety about keeping the heat and rent bill paid this winter are shaking many workers’s faith in jobs that have long been a bastion of labour security amid a precarious economy. Elsewhere, lawsuits, ‘sick-outs’, missed inspections, and talk of strikes are roiling the economically vital aviation sector.

With the stakes this high, it can be easy to overlook the shutdown’s impact on art in America. For one, when faced with keeping groceries in the pantry or the Coast Guard on patrol at home, the prospect of heading to the museum seems less pressing. On the other hand, much of the US art market is a privatized affair, and openings continue apace in New York, ticket prices stay the same from coast to coast.

Sign outside the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2019. Courtesy: Bloomberg via Getty Images; photograph: Alex Edelman

Sign outside the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2019. Courtesy: Bloomberg via Getty Images; photograph: Alex Edelman

For all that, Washington in particular, with the Smithsonian Institute, the National Galleries, and the collective ‘front yard’ of the National Mall, is a vital hub, all the more important for its symbolism as a shared cultural patrimony, free and open to all. Family road trippers aiming to take in the paintings of Thomas Cole or Albert Bierstadt at the American Art Museum are out of luck, as are the scores of tourists who might hope to see Amy Sherald’s magnetic portrait of first lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery, or cash-strapped students encountering the contemporary art or brutalist architecture for the first time at the Hirshhorn. Federal museums help cement a civic mythology, but they also ensure that in an America where municipal museums are financially distressed, art is not merely the purview of the leisured class.

Those sites are unceremoniously locked down, and visitors are greeted by a sign noting that federally funded ‘all museums’ and the zoo are ‘closed today due to the government shutdown.’ Washington is a notoriously buttoned-up city, more wonky than electric and with most of the action happening behind unremarkable technocratic facades. But the city is usually thronged with tourists, both foreign and domestic, clamouring to see the sights. With many bureaucrats stuck at home, and little draw for outsiders, a feeling of eerie quiet pervades, like a snow day or sick leave that has gone on too long.

Thomas Cole, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, 1829. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum and Wikimedia Commons

Of course, shutdowns end, and the museums will open again. But it’s worth remembering that the voluntary abdication of responsibility is part-and-parcel of a governing strategy that, fundamentally, does not believe in government, and a conservative party that is hostile to unions, to workers’ rights, and to progressive culture more broadly. Until this month, the longest shutdown lasted for 16 days in the winter of 1995-1996. It was a tactic employed by the so-called ‘Republican Revolution’ in Congress, which sought to roll back the welfare state, impose austerity, and wage the culture wars of the 1960s by other means. Many will remember that the comparatively meagre US-government subsidies for the arts became a political football, with the National Endowment for the Arts serving as a rhetorical bête-noir for its putative support of work that was ‘obscene’ or not viable on the open market. Pressure to censor Robert Mapplethorpe’s valedictory travelling show at the Corcoran Gallery in DC in 1989 presaged a controversy – driven by a resurgent Republican Congress – over the ‘anti-Christian’ leanings in a David Wojnarowicz piece (A Fire in My Belly, 1986) at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010. In short, the arts and their display at federal collections have long been trotted out as synonymous with mislaid tax dollars.

And shutdowns more generally rely on a dubious form of accounting, determining which people and projects are ‘essential’ and which are not, who will be furloughed and who will clock in without receiving wages. Many of those ‘inessential’ workers do things like inspect food and airplanes, cut paychecks, or run computer networks. As such, it’s somewhat difficult to report on the plight of the ‘inessential’ workers in the cultural sectors of the government because emails or phone calls simply don’t go through. On the other hand, in buildings that house libraries, archives, or art itself, subtle variations in funding became apparent – foundation-supported researchers or technicians press on, even amid floors of empty offices and cubicles.

National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum entrance, 2016. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum entrance, 2016. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

DC is also home to the fine-art think tank CASVA (federally funded), and to dozens of NGOs, internship programmes, and research fellowships that keep the engines of scholarship and curatorial work running: if the National Gallery is where one might see modernism for the first time in a school group, then the dozens of buildings around it are the places where the often-invisible labour that is, collectively, integral to the ‘art world’ takes place. Most of these culture workers will see back pay, or the reinstatement of cheques associated with various grants. But then, the contemporary art ecosystem relies heavily on those at the financial margins – young artists living week-to-week, gallery assistants with little savings, or interns who might miss a crucial season of their training as they climb the slippery ladder into that system. At the same time, the Trump administration has apparently recalled workers to keep the permits flowing for offshore oil exploration.

And that is, perhaps, the deeper lesson. Shutdowns are a broadside against governance itself: they imperil some of the last redoubts of lifetime employment and organized labour in the US, but they also ask us to choose what is ‘essential’ and what is not. As of this writing, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is passing a series of small measures to open sections of the government piece-by-piece. For now, these entreaties fall on deaf ears in the Senate and White House, but they distill a clear hierarchy of what counts, what is important. Such Democrats are, in the main, friendlier to contemporary culture than their colleagues. Indeed, if the recently ousted Congress had its way, fine art would be both thoroughly retrograde and wholly privatized, this month’s shutdown a mere taste of things to come. But whoever nominally ‘wins’ this latest standoff, a troubling precedent is already reinforced: free access to the arts in the US cannot be taken for granted.

Main image: Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 2018. Courtesy: Bloomberg via Getty Images; photograph: Zach Gibson

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. 

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