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Institutional Critique

Institutional Critique Collage

Started: 1968

"The world of art is not a world apart."

Hans Haacke

Summary of Institutional Critique

Is the gallery or museum where art is displayed a neutral space? Or is it compromised by the international art market, or biased due to corporate sponsorship and the businessmen on its board? Artists engaged in Institutional Critique ask these questions, and highlight the controversies, problems and blind spots of the institutions that display the treasures of our civilization.

Reflecting both a general term used for artists critiquing the way that galleries, museums and other institutions are run, and a specific group of Conceptual artists working between the 1960s and 1980s, Institutional Critique is a movement that makes the unacknowledged mechanics of art world funding, curation and acquisition explicit, in the hope that it can be changed.

Key Ideas

Institutional Critique demands that the systems that allow art to be displayed, sold, bought or written about are as politically sound as the artworks themselves. Where an artwork highlights a political struggle, or gives voice to the oppressed, it should not move into a system that perpetuates the status quo or reinforces that oppression.
In Institutional Critique the art objects themselves draw attention to the institutional apparatus around them, with the audience asked to reflect on the processes of art making as well as the finished product in front of them. They make their viewers think about how and why art is funded, and the often-invisible systems of preference and bias that dictate what work is displayed.
As a predominantly Conceptual movement, artists engaged in Institutional Critique ask their viewers to imagine alternative institutions and systems of curation. This might be accomplished by the reimagining of an already existing space, by rearranging or displaying objects that change or reveal a museum's curatorial emphasis, or by creating new objects and installations to draw attention to what is or isn't already valued by galleries.
Calling attention to these systems can cause controversy or individual artworks to be censored. Many artists engaged in Institutional Critique are charged with "biting the hand that feeds", or criticizing the industry that sustains them. But for many of the artists involved, the responsibility to address the inequality and hypocrisy that exists in the art world outweighs any negative effects on their career. Perhaps ironically, many of the artists most critical of the international art market have later achieved success and fame within it, revealing the adaptability of the institutional system and its ability to assimilate critique.
Institutional Critique continues to be a live, 21st century concern of artists, with many of the same critiques levelled at institutions in the 1960s and 1980s, such as the compromising nature of corporate donations. Investment from arms manufacturers, fossil fuel companies or pharmaceutical corporations in museums have become a particular target for artists and activists in relation to greater public attention to climate change, the global refugee crisis, and the epidemic of opioid addiction in the United States.
Institutional Critique Photo

In 1968 Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers turned his own home into an art gallery, advertising branded gold bars at inflated prices before trying to sell his museum home for bankruptcy. Whether they were moving works consigned to museum basements to the gallery walls or setting about physically cleaning their floors, Institutional Critique sees artists shaking up gallery practices in provocative ways. The collateral damage was seen in the string of curators and directors, fired in the "movements" wake.

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