Darby English in The Guardian's Comment is free:
For those who inhabit our condition, strolling confidently into imposing architectures filled with works of accomplished art may appear to entail a particular risk. Because yes: judged by the makeup of their collections, staffs, supporters and by some of their methodologies, many art museums are the predominantly “white spaces” that critics have long said they are.
But museums are typically sited in the public realm, in the commons – a place of encounters and collisions wherein diverse peoples become a public. Judged by their use, museums can only be as white as visitors allow them to be. And they’ll remain white, in this political sense, only for as long as people of color regard them as discontinuous with the sort of spaces we would never dream of avoiding, such as public schools or the cinema.
People’s feelings of unwelcomeness must be honored absolutely. But it is unwise to essentialize museums – to presume to know in advance which ones corroborate those feelings and which do not. Activist lobbying against prohibitive entrance fees or for more inclusive displays are both more practicable and more likely to change the social complexion of museums than simply capitulating to the idea of these institutions’ “whiteness” or to soft science about the “threshold fear” that effectively bars nonwhite visitors.
“Threshold fear” revives the historical perception that art is the exclusive property, right and concern of the affluent upper classes and the upwardly mobile. It reinforces that invisible but quite effective wall separating inhabitants of the commons from the most privileged artifacts of the historical process in which we together participate, albeit in uneven ways. “Threshold fear” throws up images that are hugely disempowering: it stops the striding citizen in her tracks, abstracts from her the curiosity that brought her to the threshold in question, reduces her to a category, denies her imminent claim on the space of the museum, impedes her assumption of a place in the narratives it offers up and severely constrains her relationship to art.
Read the rest here.