Battle for the Museum: Cultural Institutions in Crisis by Rachel Spence - review by Julian Spalding

Julian Spalding

But is It Art?

Battle for the Museum: Cultural Institutions in Crisis


Hurst 268pp £20

This is a brave book, fluently written, at times almost in a torrent, about what Rachel Spence dubs ‘Planet Art’. It gives a convincing account of the ‘global expansion which, over the last half century, and much accelerated since the turn of the millennium, has driven the strategies of museums, auction houses, private galleries and art fairs’. It is always personal and thought-provoking, and at times highly entertaining. It will make compelling reading for anyone interested in contemporary art and where it’s heading. I’ve rarely read a book where the thinking is so transparent. Towards the end, Spence writes, ‘Readers may have noticed that in this last chapter, I have become less wedded to the term Planet Art. In the process of writing this book, I’ve reminded myself that the sector is not a hermetic bubble sealed off from its environment.’

What comes across throughout is the author’s nagging doubts. ‘We – on Planet Art and beyond – have let things go very wrong, somewhere along the line,’ she writes. She sees cracks everywhere in the glittering facade. In March 2022, she observed chauffeur-driven limousines disgorging passengers (mostly white) draped in furs at the Whitney Museum in New York while the museum’s workers (mostly black) shivered in the cold on strike outside. (I hope I can be forgiven for mentioning here that I wrote extensively in my 2002 book The Poetic Museum about the need for a museum’s staff to reflect the society it serves.)

Spence writes authoritatively about the relationship between art and money. She gives a fascinating account of the multi-million-dollar payments made by the United Arab Emirates to the French government to attach the Louvre’s name (for a limited period only) to a museum development on an island called Saadiyat (meaning ‘Happiness’)

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