Review of ‘After Institutions’ by Karen Archey

Every few years, the question reappears: Whatever happened to institutional critique?[1] Is today’s art capable of critiquing the injustices perpetuated within the art system, without becoming entirely subsumed into the system itself? In 2020, Karen Archey, an in-house curator at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, confronted these questions and curated the exhibition After Institutions, exploring what institutional critique can be today.

The history of the Stedelijk offers a lot to work with. In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles published the Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, a proposal for an exhibition to display maintenance work as contemporary art, and a defining work of institutional critique. In the same year, the exhibition Op Losse Schroeven took place at the Stedelijk, which has since gained fame as a landmark in the history of conceptual art. Works like Lawrence Weiner lighting a rocket flare on the outskirts of Amsterdam questioned the limits of art and the limitations of objecthood. However, the exhibition also explored the limits of the institution. Jan Dibbets’ Museum Pedestal with Four Angles of 90 o consisted of the artist manually digging up the pavement on the four corners of the Stedelijk Museum, literally laying bare the museum’s fundaments. The historical antecedent of Op Losse Schroeven, combined with the museum’s present-day international network and serious budget, raises high expectations about a show of contemporary institutional critique.

Unfortunately, we will never know if After Institutions could live up to these expectations. Just before the exhibition went into production, the COVID pandemic struck and the Stedelijk went into lockdown. After some initial postponements, the exhibition was ultimately canceled. Still, After Institutions did not go into the bin entirely. Archey turned the exhibition concept and research into an essay published by Floating Opera Press in 2022. The result is a valuable booklet. It uniquely shows what happens when ‘dangerous’ art enters a typical contemporary art museum.

Three Waves

Archey breaks down the history of institutional critique into an exhibition-friendly structure. To this end, the curator defined a model of three historical ‘waves’ of institutional critique. The first wave, which emerged in the 1960s, includes artists like Hans Haacke, Lawrence Weiner, Marcel Broodthaers, and Daniel Buren who ‘focused on the formal and phenomenological aspect of sites understood as physical space’, critiqued the functioning of these spaces, and sought to create anti-aesthetic, non-commodifiable artworks. For instance, Hans Haacke’s famous Condensation Cube (1963-1965), a plexiglass cube filled with water to show the climate control of the exhibition space, was to be included in After Institutions. These artists and their works have been extensively exhibited, studied, traded, and canonized. As early as 2005, Andrea Fraser wrote: ‘Nearly forty years after their first appearance, the practices now associated with “institutional critique” have for many come to seem, well, institutionalized’.

Today, this is also true for second-wave artists, a group to which Fraser herself belongs according to Archey, among other artists like Gregg Bordowitz, Mark Dion, Zoe Leonard, and Fred Wilson. These artists differed from the first wave of institutional critique in that they were not so interested in anti-aestheticism and had ‘no more questions about gallery walls’.[2] Instead, Archey argues, they critiqued art institutions as expressions of failing state governance. They ‘looked back at the genesis of the institution in order to analyze how institutions function and continue to produce public knowledge [with] the same taxonomical systems first employed by natural history museums’. So far, nothing strange or radical.

The novelty of After Institutions is the author’s attempt to define and canonize the contemporary third wave of institutional critique. Archey argues that the historical characteristics of institutional critique are not necessarily an adequate framework to understand what institutional critique is today. The point is not to showcase contemporary works that look or function conceptually like the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, but to platform art that has the same critical potential today that the Manifesto for Maintenance Art had in 1969. It follows logically that contemporary works of institutional critique might use different strategies than the anti-canonical, antipictorial, and anti-commodity strategies associated with institutional critique. For Archey, another reason to be suspicious of existing definitions is the demographically unrepresentative canon they created. She therefore argues that we need a new, expanded, and more inclusive definition of institutional critique.

The idea of expanded institutional critique strikes me as an exciting and necessary art historical provocation. However, I’m less convinced by the way Archey defines this expansion. In third-wave institutional critique, she includes mainly established but not yet canonized high-end artists, like Nan Goldin, Hito Steyerl, and Carolyn Lazard. Archey describes their most important common denominator as a shared interest in the position of the artist ‘as a person in relation to their surrounding material reality, which makes it possible, or not, to create artwork, be productive, and live a fulfilling life’. This is all too general. Goldin, Steyerl, and Lazard are all formidable artists. But grouping them under the banner of institutional critique because they reflect on their material position is far-fetched.[3] Their work shows little more commonality than a shared concern for societal issues, and the fact that they make individually authored, clearly identifiable, and collectible works of art. In the end, Archey’s more ‘representative’ new definition returns institutional critique to the realm of objects that smoothly fit in the exhibition regimes of the Stedelijk Museum.[4]

Even when Archey’s definition of third-wave institutional critique is more specific, it’s hardly more convincing. She states that ‘one of the most perceptible connections between the artists associated with this third wave is their interest in bodily and mental well-being’. Two examples of works that she includes are Park McArthur’s Ramps (2014), a display of ramps that were created to make exhibition spaces wheelchair accessible to the artist, and Joseph Grigely’s ‘Inventory of Apologies’ (2020), a publication that includes all the apologies the artist has received from institutions after they had organized online talks or events made inaccessible by the absence of captions. While these works address important issues in aesthetically interesting ways, they don’t expose fundamental contradictions of the institutional infrastructures. Framing these works as institutional critique only highlights the ‘manageable’ nature of the problems that inspired their creation, which really doesn’t do a service to the artworks. It does, however, service the institution. By defining the third wave along the lines of health and care in this way, Archey reduces third-wave institutional critique to the watchdog of contemporary art institutions.[5]

Missed Opportunities

An expanded take on institutional critique could have been exciting. Even the generic direction Archey suggested could have led to surprising results. Because, today, to think about art as an experiment with the fundamental societal and governmental limitations of artistic production, one is immediately reminded of all the artists, collectives, and artist-run initiatives associated with social art practice. It would be fascinating to explore parallels between contemporary social practice and the history of institutional critique, based on a shared interest to test the institutional (im)possibility of art in relation to the institutional (im)possibility of a good life. This unorthodox approach could have offered a contemporary take on institutional critique that would prove resilient to immediate institutional neutralization and canonization. I’m thinking about documenta fifteen and the weird but often-heard critique that there was ‘no art’. Understanding lumbung as (among many other things) an anti-artistic strategy could clarify why it is so powerful. But, then again, that was never the aim of After Institutions. So, Archey totally ignores social practices, art collectives, and, generally, non-objectifiable art. A big, missed opportunity.

There are more such omissions in After Institutions. Archey goes out of her way to emphasize that today’s institutional critique goes ‘beyond the symbolic’, that artists want ‘material change’. However these statements are never followed up by actual material analysis beyond collection statistics. Apparently, the author cannot engage critically with the specific institutional reality of the Stedelijk Museum. We know that the Stedelijk Museum is complicit in the politics of liberalization, marketization, and precarization. It has increased precarity among freelancers during the COVID-19 pandemic, its former director was fired over a dubious double role as a private art advisor, it keeps murky relations with philanthropists, and to go back to the roots, its building was paid for with money donated by plantation owners.

These issues have been addressed by artists, both within and beyond the perimeters of the museum. For instance, for an exhibition in the Stedelijk in 2020, Timo Demollin created Visit (1883–2020), an artwork of archival material that traces the history of the location of the Stedelijk. He found that exactly where the Stedelijk now is, there used to be a building dedicated to the exhibition of colonial riches. A year later, Demollin published the article ‘The Philanthropy Trap’, describing the rise to power of a new generation of philanthropists, including a former board member of the Stedelijk Museum, and calling on art institutions to speak up against the philanthropist’s attack on public governance. Neither Demollin nor other artists raising questions about the material relations and financial interests of the Stedelijk were invited to participate in After Institutions.[6]

A totally different, but equally relevant example is the work Fossil Free Culture NL. For years, the collective of artists and activists has carried out ‘disobedient art performances’ to address the ties of Amsterdam art institutions with the fossil industry. They have shown that the ‘traditional’ tactics of institutional critique, playing off institutional logic against itself, still work when adapted to the social media age, and can lead to real, material change.[7] All four big museums in the center of Amsterdam have ended their sponsor deals with oil and gas companies. Why wasn’t the work of Fossil Free Culture part of After Institutions? Is it not of sufficient ‘artistic quality’? Not ready for canonization? Too political? In any case, it would have been riskier – but therefore more exciting and relevant – to invite serious, specific, material critique of the Stedelijk in the spirit of expanded institutional critique.

We can push this point a little further. By divorcing institutional critique from the specific material conditions of the actual museum, Archey also becomes insensitive to the many unexpected, more-than-artistic ways in which societal issues might enter the art institutions. In recent years, climate activists of Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and Letzte Generation have entered museums around the world, throwing soup at, or gluing themselves to artworks. With their actions, they remind us that ‘there is no art on a dead planet’. The International Council of Museums has responded to this activism as one would imagine: the museums ‘share climate activists’ concerns but condemn art attacks’. How much more interesting would it have been if contemporary art museums used their historical awareness of institutional critique to legitimate and support the interventions of climate activists as (among other things) artistic gestures?

Of course, from the perspective of institutional self-preservation, it is understandable that a museum is hesitant to take this kind of controversial position. But running away from societal commitment is ultimately much worse – especially when pretending to be committed. All in all, I mainly see missed opportunities when I look at the institutionally and art historically safe way After Institutions was made.

I must admit, though, that it can at times be comedic as well. Archey included Isa Genzken’s Ohr (1980), a series of large pictures of ears. She wrote: ‘Drawing upon the ear’s biological function as a filter between the body and the outside world, Genzken positions the organ as a metaphorical membrane that highlights the institution’s mediation between art and society. Further, an ear adorning an institutional building suggests, well, that it’s listening.’ Like Orwell’s Big Brother, and the phone in your pocket, the museum is ‘listening’. Are you reassured?

A Useful Publication

Op Losse Schroeven could have been an exciting historical antecedent given Archey’s ambition to write art history. Instead, reading After Institutions makes 1969 feel very long ago. It’s hard to point out the weakest link in Archey’s argumentation, but not for a lack of candidates: the reduction of contemporary institutional critique to an accessibility watchdog; the reduction of institutional critique in general to three waves of individually authored art objects; the inclusion of hardly related artworks for no apparent reason other than canonization; the inability to address material issues at the Stedelijk; the unwillingness to take art historical risks; and the blindness to more-than-artistic forms of institutional critique. All in all, I guess this book won’t determine the transmission of art history. And yet, After Institutions is a useful publication.

Artists with engaged practices are often wary of working with bigger institutions because they fear ‘neutralization’. In many cases, it turns out that seemingly critical exhibitions or programs are, in fact, rescue operations for the institution. But while we know that this happens, it is not always clear how it happens. Without wanting to, After Institutions reads like a blueprint for institutional rescue operations using critical art. First, the admittedly flawed (because exclusive) canon of art must be repaired in an art historically correct manner. Then, the newly invented tradition of institutional critique can be instrumentalized to reaffirm the museum’s role as the guardian of art history and thus, ironically, to save the institution.



[1] This question was first raised in 1993 by the American art critic James Meyer, in a catalogue essay for an exhibition at American Fine Arts titled ‘Whatever Happened to Institutional Critique?’.

[2] These are the words of Gregg Bordowitz.

[3] This is not to say that Goldin, Lazard, or Steyerl don’t have affinities with institutional critique. I think that especially Hito Steyerl’s work can often be understood as a critique of institutional realities.

[4] The same can be said of the idea to define institutional critique in terms of art historical waves. This model is contrary to the anti-canonical approach of the artists associated with institutional critique by Archey. It is no coincidence that the notion of institutional critique was first used in writing by Andrea Fraser in 1985 (more than twenty years after Haacke made Condensation Cube), and even then, only to describe an ‘approach’ rather than an art historical category.

[5] It also reduces care to representative canonization (as if canonization and representation are not mutually exclusive) and of societal engagement to accessibility.

[6] Another example is Renzo Martens who, on the occasion of the opening of Buro Stedelijk, proposed to put the entire building of the Stedelijk and the entire acquisition budget at the disposal of the (former) plantation workers’ communities whose exploitation originally funded the construction of the museum. Martens presented his proposal referring to Dibbets’s digging up of the fundaments of the Stedelijk, suggesting that reparations are a contemporary, expanded mode of institutional critique. See:

[7] The disobedient art performances of Fossil Free Culture NL were always uninvited interventions. By making sure that these were well-documented and spread on social media, they built up pressure that would have been impossible to achieve thirty years earlier.