Architecture’s Role in Erasing the Guggenheim’s Ongoing Legacy of Violent Extraction

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In 1971, the Guggenheim Museum abruptly cancelled Hans Haacke’s exhibition Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, a series of photographs which exposed the vast, shadowy network of slum housing managed by a prominent New York real estate mogul. Justifying the cancellation of the show through the museum’s charter, director Thomas Messer’s official statement proclaimed that “[the] Guggenheim Foundation is pursuing esthetic and educational objectives that are self-sufficient and without ulterior motive. On those grounds, the trustees have established policies that exclude active engagement toward social and political ends.” This was a startlingly explicit stance, indicating their sentiment that art and the museum are grounded outside of the global political issues.

On top of a hesitancy to display certain forms of political art, the political and economic histories of the institution are notably absent from museal space. The self-projected image of the museum as a politically neutral zone is reinforced by an architectural language which isolates the spectator from a broader social and political context. The ever-expanding Guggenheim global brand, which boasts an impressive roster of architects for its numerous franchises, is a clear example of this phenomenon. While the Guggenheim is an exceptional case by nature of its expansive reach, they are certainly not the sole beneficiary of museal space-making techniques which obscure the interests of capital. An inquiry which explores this concealed relationship requires a critical engagement with the legacy of exploitation embedded in the foundation of the modern museum.

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