Museums Have a Responsibility to Their Neighbors

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Museums Have a Responsibility to Their Neighbors

For the next 15 years, Chester Stoney will receive an annual check for $476.90 from the Mattress Factory Museum.

Stoney does not work at this contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh. He is not an artist or a curator. He is not a museum member. In fact, he has only visited the Mattress Factory a handful of times in the years he has lived in the neighborhood.

He is a longtime resident of the Northside, where the museum moved in 1977, when the neighborhood was in severe economic decline. The payment — approved by the museum’s board — was the result of a question posed by artist Harrison Kinnane Smith: What if we mortgage the Mattress Factory to compensate Black neighbors for the excess taxes they pay?

When Smith first proposed this to me and Sean Beauford as part of an exhibition we were organizing at the Mattress Factory, it seemed like an unlikely — though groundbreaking — idea. Surprisingly, the museum’s answer was an emphatic yes. 

To this end, with the help of Mattress Factory director, Hayley Haldeman, a lawyer by training, Smith drafted a resolution to take out a $10,000 loan, using the mortgage of a museum building as collateral. With this loan, the museum will pay Stoney for the excessive taxes he would have paid over the next 15 years. Any remaining funds will be disbursed to not-for-profits dedicated to expanding housing access and equitable land use in Pittsburgh. In June 2021, the museum’s Board unanimously passed the resolution. 

Harrison Kinnane Smith, “Homeowner Appraisal (Value Comparison Approach) (2021). As part of his social practice piece, Smith had a Pittsburgh home appraised twice: once with the Black homeowners and their possessions in place, and again with stand-in White “homeowners” and after “de-racing” the home. The home was appraised $36,000 higher in the second instance. (photo Tom Little, courtesy the Mattress Factory)

The gesture — largely symbolic — will not redress an inequitable tax system. It won’t make up for the displacement of homeowners that often occurs when museums and contemporary art spaces move into a neighborhood. 

But it does raise the larger question of the museum’s responsibility to its neighbors, particularly neighbors of color — and calls attention to inequities that are deeply ingrained, structurally and culturally, and will take much more to fully dismantle and right

Across the country, museums are — or should be — rethinking their relationship to local neighborhoods, to the people whose lives and livelihoods are most impacted by their presence. In the wake of the 2020 racial reckoning, many museums have prioritized DEI initiatives, ramping up exhibitions of artists of color, reassessing their colonialist foundations and histories, and diversifying staffs. 

Though these long-overdue efforts have made a difference, they are not enough, and can sometimes feel like knee-jerk and temporary reactions. It just takes a quick glance at the Change the Museum posts on social media to grasp the deep paradox between rhetoric and practice. Ultimately, museums must recognize their own complicity in inequitable power and economic structures, and work to redress their part in contributing to those structures. Museums must move beyond symbolic gestures to enact changes that acknowledge and disrupt the structural conditions and practices by which they have been defined and organized. If not, the portal that opened in the summer of 2020 will close and museums will return to business as usual. 

Artist Harrison Kinnane Smith (photo courtesy Jared Piper)

Smith’s social practice project may provide a blueprint for how museums may begin to do just this.  

Smith’s installation, Sed Valorem, was included in an exhibition in the museum’s 1414 Monterey Annex, a former residence turned exhibition space. Titled making home here, the exhibition focused on the home as a site of belonging and dislocation, particularly for people of color. Five Pittsburgh-based artists took the domestic spaces of the site as a starting point for explorations of identity, gentrification, and what is needed for communities of color to survive in unwelcoming environments. Smith’s multi-tiered work looked out directly to the surrounding neighborhood and to the structures of the museum itself to address this question. 

With permanent installations by contemporary powerhouses such as James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama, the Mattress Factory is the hub of contemporary art in the city, and brings international prestige to this steel town. When it was founded, the Northside was in economic distress. The once tony neighborhood, which produced the likes of Gertrude Stein and Mary Cassatt, had declined. The once-grand houses had been demolished or were in disrepair. In the past few decades, the neighborhood has been transformed, in part by the Mattress Factory. For some residents, that has brought renewal. For others, it has meant displacement. 

The cornerstone of Smith’s Sed Valorem was the refinancing of the Mattress Factory’s 1414 Annex, located in Pittsburgh’s North Side, to offset the excessive tax payments of a Black neighbor. (courtesy the Mattress Factory)

Smith encouraged the museum to marshal its financial and institutional power to intervene in a system from which it had benefited but which was detrimental to some neighbors. It moved the current museum conversation from one focused on lack within its own walls to recognizing the unrealized opportunities for next-door neighbors. 

Based on a research study completed with data analyst Jordan B. Abbott, Smith revealed Pittsburgh’s regressive tax system, in which Black homeowners are taxed, on average, at a rate 7.5% higher than White neighbors. In addition, homes of people of color were consistently undervalued in appraisals. The financial loss to Black homeowners is staggering and cumulative. It accounts not only for personal, immediate loss but also widens the generational wealth gap. 

Smith’s work is driven by the belief that institutions like the Mattress Factory can and should improve livability for the communities within which they are located. It also lays bare a museum’s economic privilege and power — a power that is often occluded by the not-for-profit rhetoric. 
In addition to diversifying the hallmarks of museum practice — exhibitions, collections, and programming — museums must also account for the unrealized opportunities that are lost when staff, especially so-called diversity hires, and artists are not paid living wages and are expected to maintain unsustainable workloads. Some museums have opened their doors to serve as vaccination clinics and food distribution centers, and have even offered services such as caring for vacationing neighbors’ plants. As museums readily draft land acknowledgments, they should also be ready to leverage their presence and power on the land to meet the needs of their neighbors today. They must respect those who called the neighborhood home before they arrived, and plant the seeds for those who will call it home in the future.

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