Q FOCUS. The Long Path to a Code of Ethics. Do Czech Museums and Galleries Take Social Responsibility Seriously? Marek Pokorný

We have grown accustomed to viewing public museums and galleries through the prism of individual details: exhibitions, publications, projects. But we forget to ask about their more universal social responsibility, and thus also about whether they follow any kinds of ethical rules. Constantly putting off and ignoring the discussion of what ethical principles public cultural institutions follow in their day-to-day operations leads us into a state of uncertainty and aimlessness characterized by reproaches, misunderstandings, and weakened trust. The need to discuss (among other things) the ethical framework of the functioning of public cultural institutions is thus more acute than ever.

Marek Pokorný is a critic and curator of contemporary fine art, and has been the director of the Plato Ostrava gallery since 2016. He is also the former director of the Moravian Gallery in Brno and in 2020 he was a candidate for the position of director of the National Gallery in Prague. In 1995, he founded Detail, a magazine focused on the art of the post-1989 art scene. He is a member of the board of Czech Radio.

The only formal ethical framework that most public museums and galleries work with is the professional code of ethics of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which defines certain areas of  these  institutions  behavior but provides no specific guidelines. Museums and galleries that own and manage collections – museums of natural science, local history, ethnography, and art – usually refer to this code in their charter documents. Nevertheless, none of them have any mechanisms in place for identifying ethical risks and making practical decisions in conflict situations, nor have they articulated a position regarding potential conflicts of interest and the defense of their own autonomy against economic and political pressures that might influence their activities.

The subject of the ethical questions associated with a museum’s operations was first addressed more intensely around the world around twenty years ago. The 1980s and 1990s were dominated by the neoliberal logic that museums and galleries should become increasingly efficient and effective, and so, partly out of necessity, public institutions focused their operations on the sale of services and on injections of private money – from sponsors all the way to an increasingly more intense love affair with the art market – until their behavior began to resemble that of classical companies or (to use a popular term among ordoliberals) enterprises.

At the time, it looked as if we had found the one true path (i.e., that of business). Perhaps the most monstrous example is the reign of Thomas Krens as director of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, who promoted the museum’s expansion along the model of transnational corporations and franchises, profit-oriented investments, and a policy of aggressively pushing a global product into ever newer markets. In fact, most Czech cultural institutions still dream of something similar.

Nevertheless, over the past twenty years the museum scene in Germany, Great Britain, France, and the United States has also recognized the danger of public cultural institutions’ increasing dependence on revenues and on the interests of the public sector. Private entities support public institutions not just out of a sense of altruism; generally speaking, they are not enlightened philanthropists but have their own economic, political, status, and symbolic interests. In addition, their support for or symbiosis with museums is often done at the expense of the museum’s public function. The rising level of economization, pressures on a higher share of self-financing, and the tendency towards the “multi-source” financing of cultural institutions are other aspects of the same danger – things are done not because they have meaning, but because they pay.

Another danger is the growing dependence on elected officials and political support, not to mention direct interventions into and demands placed on the functioning of public cultural institutions like the kind that have unfortunately become a regular part of social life in neighboring Poland or in Hungary. Similarly, some of the economic or personnel decisions affecting museums and galleries that in recent years have been made in the Netherlands and France are a form of ideological or political pressure as well.

What Is to Be Done?

On the other hand, some areas of this debate, which we have been following for the past decade, seem to be headed toward a conclusion, often with positive input from political elites. This applies in particular to ethical questions related to the origin of museum collections – a problem that is not generally present in public discourse in the Czech Republic. Instead, it is discussed by a small circle of curators, critics, and people at universities, or it appears in professional journals such as Artalk. In other countries, this debate has led to often radical changes in the  presentation,  interpretation, and contextualization of works acquired over the past roughly two hundred years from colonized or plundered countries, and has even led to the return of some items and collections to their places of origin.

We, too, should ask ourselves whether our collections might contain items that should be returned or at least exhibited in a different light. Our memory institutions already have experience with, for instance, the restitution of Jewish property, meaning art and other items stolen during the Second World War. Unlike the current debate in other countries, however, the Czech museum scene only responded when it was forced to from the outside – by politics. The social consensus of the 1990s enabled an extensive coming-to-terms with that part of museum and gallery collections that had been acquired as a result of the repression and murder of a large group of citizens. At the same time, these institutions produced thorough reports and publications about collection items that came from confiscated property.

But – and this is important – Czech museums did not see restitution as a call for internal discussion of the ethics of their collecting activities: The only subject that was discussed was the political coming-to-terms with the regimes of the 20th century. Like the rest of society, museums were dominated by a general consensus that it was “they” who were to blame, meaning someone else, and that the museums and galleries that had such items in their collections were victims as well. Museums simply did not understand that the issue is just one of many far more fundamental questions related to memory institutions’ ethical and political responsibility. Efforts went no further than the minimum required by law, and nobody ever thought of identifying the mechanisms that consistently place museums as public institutions into ethically problematic situations.

Despite their unwillingness, cultural institutions must nevertheless explore the question of their own responsibility; they must engage in internal debate without someone telling them to, so that they may actively formulate their own position with a view to the future. If they don’t respond until asked to do so by societal or political pressure, they will not fulfil their basic function and we can hold them co-responsible for the miserable state of society at large. In this sense, our public cultural institutions have spent the past thirty years growing accustomed to ethical passivity and are in a similarly defensive position as before 1989. The social, political, and personal roots of today’s state of affairs, and the unwillingness to change it, reach all the way back to the 1990s.

Fortunately, we are at a turning point: The younger generation of curators or theorists in particular is beginning to vocally call for museums’ and galleries’ social responsibility. To some extent, of course, they do so because it’s fashionable or they make a virtue out of necessity (after all, what we have here is a vacant professional niche that, thanks to the established foreign discourse, can be easily occupied), but we are also dealing here with fundamental questions as to the societal relevance and trustworthiness of public cultural institutions.

No Longer at Ease

But let us return to the question of decolonization. Although we did not have any colonies, decolonization is not an entirely distant or abstract matter for the Czech museum scene. It relates to us intensely through the Náprstek Museum (today a part of the National Museum) and may also affect the National Gallery’s collections of non-European art. And what of the Aleš Hrdlička Museum in Humpolec or the Emil Holub Museum in Holice? We are ostentatiously proud of the legacy of Hanzelka and Zikmund, whose wild travels around the world were nevertheless a kind of post-1948 mental colonialism. The Baťa company’s expansion into India and South America shows all the traits of economic colonization. And so on. All of these questions are ones that our society has to come to terms with through its cultural institutions, which possess – or should possess – the intellectual and material tools for their critical assessment.

In my vision for the National Gallery, I first proposed – some ten years ago – combining its collections of art from non-European civilizations and cultures with similar collections from the National Museum to create a new and independent institution. The National Gallery “reads” these collections from the perspective of art and aesthetics, while the National Museum (or more specifically, the Náprstek Museum) understands them from the perspective of anthropology, ethnography, and cultural history. Bringing the two together would create a platform for a far more sophisticated approach to interpreting and exhibiting these collections and would thus help to clarify the post-colonial situation of Czech society. The public debate associated with the planned renovation of the Náprstek Museum, which the museum only agreed to after pressure from the professional community, may perhaps mark the beginning of long-term changes.

Secluded, Near Woods

I am especially interested in the question of self-reflection, which should have practical consequences for cultural institutions. In putting off this task, I see a weak link in the Czech museum scene. I understand that any discussion that involves addressing certain ingrained approaches and established solutions will be uncomfortable – all the more so if you consider the conservative audience and unprepared or dismissive founding bodies (i.e., political entities) – as recently exemplified by the rapid firing of the director of the Lidice Memorial, who had sought to defend the autonomy of this memory institution against political motivated denunciations. Nobody from the museum scene raised their voice.

It is to their own harm that museum representatives consistently avoid engaging publicly as museums workers; as a result, nobody counts on their participation in societal or political debates as natural and respected partners.

The value of museums and galleries rests not only in their collections and exhibitions; they also possess a certain symbolic weight as institutions. But what we see is the weakness of the entire discipline, its marginal position. The public simply does not feel that memory institutions are actively and uniquely involved in defining cultural identity or actively shaping debate in society. This is not only because large institution have failed to take an active position on issues in society, but also because, after spending years renovating their buildings, they have been incapable of presenting long-term exhibitions reflecting today’s professional and visitor standards. The National Museum is failing, the Museum of Decorative Arts has taken a highly cautious approach to social questions, and the Museum of Czech Literature has been similarly silent. Yes, museums with a long tradition will probably never be radical leaders of debate, but it is they who have the strength, the means, and the people to explore these questions at the appropriate level. But they don’t.

Fear and Trembling

I have already mentioned that Czech museums and galleries do have customized codes defining the ethical dimension of their behavior. Everybody is aware of the dangers involved in formulating an institution’s standpoint on certain things, so they choose the path of cautious opportunism. After all, declarations of one’s values are logically perceived as a de facto political act, and, additionally, clearly formulated ethical rules might weaken an institution economically. Such rules create obligations that limit the institution’s ability to gain (financial as well as material) support from stronger actors: private collectors, corporate sponsors, and – in the case of art museums – art dealers and auction houses. Paradoxically, these sources of income are almost negligible in the Czech Republic, or at least weaker than they are in the surrounding countries. And once you anger potential sponsors, you lose further political support from your founder (local, regional, or state government), who generally does not understand the importance of public cultural institutions’ autonomy.

Over the past thirty years, the museum community simply has failed to build up a sufficiently strong self-awareness or presence as a social actor despite the fact that it has the tools to do so, such as the Association of Museums and Galleries, ICOM, or the Council of Galleries.

Representatives of cultural institutions avoid expressing their positions and viewpoints out of fear that they might harm themselves and their organization. Everybody prefers to play a defensive positional game and nobody wants to be the one to lead the debate.

So who should be leading the debate? One natural candidate in the field of fine art is the National Gallery, side by side with Prague City Gallery, the Moravian Gallery in Brno, the Olomouc Museum of Art, or the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. But they require support from others such as the National Museum, the Moravian Museum in Brno, or the Silesian Museum in Opava.

But I find it hard to imagine that someone like the National Museum would discuss the ethics of museum operations. What kind of code of ethics could allow a museum to host an election debate of party leaders? The presence of party politics on the grounds of an institution that should by its very nature be autonomous is a rare phenomenon, unthinkable in a civilized country.

The World as Will and Representation

What is more, museums and galleries of fine art have one specific characteristic, and that is that they are constantly aware of the threat posed by the art market and by the interests of large collectors and private individuals, who in recent years have begun establishing their own private institutions, with some of them quite logically vying for public support.

The ease with which such private undertakings manage to gain public attention distorts the weight and importance of public galleries and art museums. Public cultural institutions cannot and should not compete with this pressure for easy solutions, nor should they try to fight for economic dominance or submit to populism.

Their disadvantage – i.e., their complicated rules for managing public resources and the requirement that they discuss their planned activities – is also a declaration of a specific type of social responsibility that simply is not in private enterprises’ DNA by the very nature of these enterprises.

Public institutions’ somewhat cumbersome nature and their need to defend their decisions should, however, go hand in hand with responsibility and trustworthiness. If we are going to consider that a weakness, the private sector will certainly notice. In recent years, the private sector has indeed realized that it can easily play a more significant role on the art scene. One result has been a wave of newly founded private galleries that don’t have to follow the rules of the game when it comes to the use of public money. These new organizations are more efficient and don’t have to negotiate with curators, curators’ principles, or other participants in the public discourse. They deal with private money, and it is solely up to the investor to choose what to do with it.

If, among other things because of these reasons, public museums and galleries have failed to convince their partners from the private sector that it is advantageous and appropriate for them to support public institutions, they will pay for it in the end. Because for people who invest in art there is no point in dealing with public institutions if it is better to found your own. The symbolic capital of public cultural institutions has sunk below a level where it pays to invest in them.

In the early days of the existence of a private institution such as DOX, there was a need to support certain values. To this day, DOX perfectly fills the role of a venue that nurtures a certain type of audience (such as the middle class), gives its needs a certain direction, and meets certain ideas regarding quality of life. But the moment we ask whether everything truly is as this private institution proclaims, we encounter a very ill-tempered response. Several years ago, DOX failed in the first round of a grant process to receive the large amount it had requested, because the members of  the  committee  did not recommend the gallery’s project. Soon, the media were full of interviews with this private institution’s representatives about the injustice they had suffered. A perfectly ordinary situation that has happened to more than a few people, but not everyone has the prime minister’s telephone number. It is a model case: a private institution asks for support from the public purse but is taken aback when not everybody appreciates the quality of its public service.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

The strength of public  cultural  institutions must rest in their symbolic and social weight, which compensates for their lack of economic strength and political connections, even at the price of some conflict. A public museum of art, meaning an institutions engaged in collecting activities, can never be financially competitive on the art market. On the other hand, it possesses all the prerequisites for building a strong and symbolic position and convincing the artist or seller that the context of its collection and the tradition it represents can make up for any financial “loss” they might incur. This means first and foremost investing into knowledge, interpretational skills, the mediation of an artwork’s significance, and so on.

So far, we have primarily been witness to the opposite case, when the lending of an artwork is dependent on the good will or even promotion and accommodation of a private entity that, in this way, looks after its own interests above all else. And here we find ourselves in a ethically problematic area. Private entities can lend a work for an exhibition or, under certain conditions, deposit it with a museum under the presupposition that its market value will increase thanks to the “symbolic investment” resulting from its placement into a qualitative or historical context that increases its value and significance. Precisely for this reason, some institutions (for instance in the United Kingdom) ask lenders to commit to not placing a work on the market for a specific period of time.

By comparison, Czech public museums and galleries put on exhibitions that act like a kind of golden goose for increasing a work’s value. Very simply, it works like this: I finance your catalogue but you put a painting on the cover that I will soon sell for tens of millions… Such simplistic and denigrating forms of reciprocal cooperation, in which the public sector
subjugates itself to private interests, is unacceptable within a European context. In return for a small gift, a museum will exhibit a “work of the month” that soon thereafter appears at an auction.

I will admit that, fifteen years ago, even I did not find such actions unacceptable. Entire monographic exhibitions are held at public cultural institutions, paid in large part by those who stand to earn from selling the particular artist’s works – and without any rules regulating the subsequent marketability of the exhibition’s content. Yes, audiences were satisfied, but what did they actually receive? Was it an experience underscored by a professional artistic assessment, or did they visit an art dealer’s showroom?

Naked in the Thorns

The most recent scandal involved the Mikuláš Medek retrospective at the National Gallery, from which a private collector pulled a large number of artworks – supposedly because the gallery had failed to indicate the name of the collection for one of them. It was a mistake that could be rectified in a matter of hours for the exhibition, and in several days for the catalogue. The media provided the collector with an unprecedented amount of space, which he used to not only express certain suspicions that the form of the exhibition may have been influenced by the interests of other players on the art market – he even questioned the form of and concept behind the entire exhibition.

Now that is a scandal.

It is almost unbelievable that person with an immediate collecting and  economic  interest in the exhibit works of art should question the symbolic framework of the country’s most important museum of art, including its autonomous decisions regarding the form of its exhibitions. What such a retrospective should look like can be a legitimate subject of professional debate and criticism, but a collector assailing the competence of the National Gallery is simply unconscionable. In this case, however, the institution itself failed as well, or at least its then director, Anna-Marie Nedoma, who refused to discuss the matter and accepted the collector’s demands without discussion or explanation. In so doing, she undermined her own institution and contributed to the further serious weakening of its social importance. You are speechless; we are speechless.

There is no doubt that the public and private spheres must work together – all the more reason to find a common modus vivendi. I don’t question the interests and often even the good intentions of private investors and collectors. But we cannot ignore the fact that these do not necessarily overlap with the public interest – which must be guaranteed by public cultural institutions. However, they must not under-mine their authority by their own excesses and cowardice.

Our neighbors have not ignored this debate. Today, when the Slovak National Gallery takes in a large, high-quality private collection of modern Slovak art, it does so within a carefully discussed and detailed contractual framework and without any conditions that might interfere with the museum’s public functioning. The important thing is to establish a transparent maneuvering space in which both parties’ interests can be met under certain conditions. Public cultural institutions must stand by their positions even at the risk that there will be a time when they will not have access to the desired works of art necessary for them to properly function.

The Philosophy of Money

For some time, Western Europe and the United States have been engaged in a lively debate regarding the origin of money. These discussions have sometimes been called post-Marxist, but the questions and arguments that they raise cannot be generally ignored. Is it right that the money for a gallery’s operations comes from the business of poverty, from the exploitation of vulnerable groups and workers in countries with low wages, or from the profits of environmentally undesirable business activities? The British trend of leading museums cutting ties with British Petroleum, which for decades was one of the country’s largest sponsors of arts and culture, is just one consequence of this debate about the origin of money. The boycott of companies that produce addictive medicines in the United States, coupled with calls for the Metropolitan Museum to reject sponsorships from these companies and to remove company representatives from the museum’s board of directors, is another example.

In any case, it is a debate we cannot avoid. And at the same time, I myself am not entirely clear as to my position towards the question of codes of ethics. I am a pragmatic person, but I also believe that my institution is still capable of making positive and proper use of resources, no matter where they come from. Such money must be invested in the right things and should not be used to atone for the sins committed in the process of making it. But here, too, there exists a certain limit that cannot be crossed: money made from debt collection and repossession, child labor, gambling, the systematic destruction of the environment.

At the Top of My Voice

Every large institution should incorporate its positions on these issues into a kind of constitution or code of ethics so that it can be predictable and consequent in future negotiations. In the end, a debate regarding the conditions under which we can properly fulfill our function in society could benefit everyone. It may even help to create a balance of power, strengthen the symbolic value of public cultural institutions, and thus compensate for their relative “weakness” vis-à-vis economically and politically powerful actors. For cultural and symbolic capital is all that our institutions have to offer.

This text is the result of a conversation initiated by Pavel Klusák, whom I would like to thank for his input and for the effort he put into transcribing the spoken word into a draft written form.