Art museums hear from, and answer to, the people who show up — a disproportionately white, affluent, and educated segment of the population that doesn’t reflect the whole public. This isn’t a coincidence. Most museums were built and curated under white leadership and center white narratives of history, value, and beauty (Dewhurst & Hendrick, 2016).
As pressure builds to shift the legacy of art museums, it remains a challenge to make these debates accessible to individuals who aren’t already visiting museums. The wider community is gestured to but rarely in the room. Free days? They’re mostly attended by existing visitors.
Look at Art. Get Paid. (LAAGP) is a socially engaged art project that pays people who don’t go to art museums to visit one as guest critics of the art and institution. The program’s pilot launched at the RISD Museum in 2016, where we hosted 41 guest critics. Critics generated expansive feedback about the museum, ranging from surveillance and signage to behavioral codes of conduct and cultural representation in the art collection. See here for a breakdown of how we ran the program—from selecting the critics to bringing their critiques to the museum’s staff.
We, Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu—the artists behind Look at Art. Get Paid.—use the circumstances under which people look at art as a site of artistic intervention. By paying people to engage in an activity commonly considered leisure, we call out the emotional labor and risk of entering an institution built to center white and affluent visitors. Compensation also recognizes the intellectual labor of voicing one’s honest opinion—even when it runs counter to the institution’s authority.
Critique is a hallmark of the art field. Yet, the vast majority of paid cultural critics, curators, museum leaders, and museum visitors are white and affluent. In a world that systematically amplifies these voices and silences others, what possibilities and truths are we missing? We believe that the very people whose vision is most needed to help reimagine and reconfigure these spaces shouldn’t be expected to donate their time or assimilate in order to get a seat at the table.
Since launching our pilot at the RISD Museumin 2016, we are preparing to launch LAAGP across a cohort of art institutions. An exercise in public imagining, LAAGP posits a world in which typical assumptions of relation and value are momentarily suspended, sparking critical dialogue about knowledge politics, institutional accountability, and equity in the arts.
Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu
Co-Creators, Look at Art. Get Paid