Institutional Critique

Started: 1968
The world of art is not a world apart.
Hans Haacke

Summary of Institutional Critique

Is the gallery or museum where art is displayed a neutral space? Or is it compromised by the international art market, or biased due to corporate sponsorship and the businessmen on its board? Artists engaged in Institutional Critique ask these questions, and highlight the controversies, problems and blind spots of the institutions that display the treasures of our civilization.

Reflecting both a general term used for artists critiquing the way that galleries, museums and other institutions are run, and a specific group of Conceptual artists working between the 1960s and 1980s, Institutional Critique is a movement that makes the unacknowledged mechanics of art world funding, curation and acquisition explicit, in the hope that it can be changed.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Overview of Institutional Critique

In 1968 Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers turned his own home into an art gallery, advertising branded gold bars at inflated prices before trying to sell his museum home for bankruptcy. Whether they were moving works consigned to museum basements to the gallery walls or setting about physically cleaning their floors, Institutional Critique sees artists shaking up gallery practices in provocative ways. The collateral damage was seen in the string of curators and directors, fired in the "movements" wake.

Key Artists

Do Not Miss

Progression of Art


Affichages Sauvages

Artist: Daniel Buren

This photograph, which the artist called a "photo-souvenir", shows his "wild posters" displayed in public spaces in Paris. Comprised of sheets of paper featuring his iconic stripes, the posters were placed on public buildings and pasted on top of advertisements or billboards. The unauthorized works, viewed by the authorities as akin to vandalism, challenged social and political constraints on artistic expression and made the city itself into an exhibition space. As a result, the work challenged institutional hierarchies and structures for how and where art should be shown, and as art historian Andrea Fraser noted, revealed, "how the perception of the same material, the same sign, can change radically depending on where it is viewed."

One of Buren's main concerns in his practice is the site of his work or the art's 'scene of production' (as he puts it). The placement of his work outside the sanctioned gallery space and the implicit questioning of access to art is highlighted by his unauthorized image making. The unsanctioned use of outside space as a protest at the exclusivity and elitism of the art world has been a consistent motif throughout his career. As Buren's notoriety developed and invitations to present inside galleries and museums increased, he maintained this commitment to the street and its egalitarian promise. His first New York solo show at John Weber, for example, featured an even split between works outside the space of the gallery and inside the conventional display space, with a 'transitional' work between, half-out of the doorway. Documenting often temporary installations of work like Affichages Sauvages preserves the impetus to share conceptual work with the greatest number of people possible.

Buren's own description of how "every place radically imbues (formally, architecturally, sociologically, politically) with its meaning the object (work creation) shown there" became a central tenet of Institutional Critique and influenced other artists, particularly Michael Asher. As Alexander Alberro noted, Asher's "critical interventions" were "triggered by his friend Daniel Buren's method of working in situ, selecting his materials and techniques in response to each new situation, Asher began to use only elements already present at the site of exhibition. Henceforth, his projects started to both reveal and integrate cultural phenomena."

Printed paper, temporary


Musée d'Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art)

Artist: Marcel Broodthaers

The 1968 political unrest in Europe, which included artists protesting the commercialization of art by occupying the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, prompted Broodthaers, the artist group's spokesman, to create his own "museum." Housed in his apartment, the museum began with his "Department of Eagles - 19th Century Section," where he displayed postcards and slides showing 19th century artworks that all contained images of eagles, along with object labels which stated, "This is not a work of art." He also used labels to identify and number individual rooms as "galleries". Broodthaers opened the exhibition with a lecture outlining the ideas behind the piece, alongside a more formal art historical lecture given by Dr. Johannes Claedders, the director of the modern art museum in Monchengladbach. As the artist said, "This Museum is a fictitious museum. It plays the role of, on the one hand, a political parody of art shows, and, on the other hand, an artistic parody of political events. Which is, in fact, what official museums and With the difference, however, that a work of fiction allows you to capture reality and at the same time what it conceals."

He described his process, "These boxes arrived and I arranged them in quite a special way, precisely as one would arrange a work of art. And I said to myself: 'But basically, this is what a museum is.'" He developed the project for the next four years, creating eleven iterations, including a "Financial Section," where he attempted to sell his museum for "bankruptcy." He created gold bars stamped with eagles, selling them at twice their metal value due to their 'artistic value,' and in 1972 created the "Figures Section," where he included 300 various objects containing eagle imagery, as he said, "It is easily obvious that I wanted to neutralize the use-value of the symbol of the Eagle and reduce it to the degree of zero in order to introduce critical dimensions into the history and use of this symbol."

The work allowed Broodthaers to pose as artist, curator, museum director, donor, and art trustee simultaneously, and was a bold and innovative multi-pronged attack upon artistic institutions. It questioned their financial structure, aesthetic evaluation, and their concepts of aesthetic originality. The work also invited participation and engagement, prefiguring later works of Institutional Critique. Broodthaers' work is considered a pioneering influence upon the development of Conceptual art, but was equally relevant to Institutional Critique in his questioning of the museum, as art historian Thierry de Duve said, "as the seat of an arbitrary, monopolistic art power".

Mixed-medium installation - Mixed medium-19th century Section: MoMA, Publicity Section: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Financial Section Gold Bars: Galerie Beaumont, Luxembourg


MoMA Poll

Artist: Hans Haacke

This work features two Plexiglas boxes that included automatic counters where viewers were asked to place color-coded 'yes' or 'no' ballots, to respond to the question, "Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon's Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?". The question referenced then-President Nixon's policy of expanding the tragic and widely protested war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia. Haacke's question prompted museum visitors to question the culpability of the museum in this political issue, as Governor Nelson Rockefeller was on the MOMA board. Displayed in transparent boxes, the results can be seen clearly by viewers over the course of the installation. In the photographic documentation above, the "yes" box on the left contains over twice as many votes as 'no'. The artwork created a context where the public played an active role in its political punch through their participation, effectively collaborating in creating the artwork. As art historian scholar Rosalyn Deutsche wrote, Haacke's work challenges "the prevailing dogma that works of art are self-contained entities."

Included in Information, an exhibit intended to present contemporary artists, Haacke's project pioneered the act of Institutional Critique as a precisely focused and specific challenge to the structure of an art institution and its wide-ranging political connections. The notion that an art organization should consider the political and ethical dimensions of those who support it prefigured similar contemporary conversations, but what is notable here is that an artist chose to raise it explicitly in the work that was created for the institution, rather than alongside. This disrupted the usual model of artist's relationships with institutions, and indicated the personal responsibilities of the viewers in their patronage of the museum.

As he said of the show, "Nelson Rockefeller, the incumbent Governor of New York State, was on the board of MoMA. His brother David was the chairman (also chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank), and their sister-in-law, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, was also a board member. I expected the museum would not particularly care for the question of my MoMA Poll, therefore I didn't reveal its wording in advance. I brought the panel with the question to the museum only the night before the opening. And, sure enough, the next morning, an emissary of David Rockefeller appeared and told John Hightower, the museum director, to take it down. Hightower, to his credit, didn't comply. Decades later, I found David Rockefeller quoting the question of my MoMA Poll in his autobiography and saying that to keep it in the show was one of several things that prompted him to sack Hightower soon thereafter." Acting from social conscience, Haacke became a lightning rod as a number of his subsequent projects were censored, and/or followed with the firing of museum curators or directors.

Haacke's risk-taking nevertheless became widely influential. He taught and influenced Andrea Fraser, who wrote of his work that in it "the largely abstract and invisible forces and relations that traverse particular social spaces can be made visible", and would go on to create her own works of Institutional Critique in the 1980s and 90s.

Plexiglas boxes, poster board, paper - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


'Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1st, 1971' (detail)

Artist: Hans Haacke

This exhibition by Haacke continues his socially-conscious political questions. Using journalistic investigation and then displaying the results as an exhibition, it again forces the viewer to invest time and activity in the consideration of their own role and culpability (even if only by not paying attention) in the injustices around them.

The exhibition includes the artist's photographs of four run-down apartment buildings, owned by Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, along with addresses, legal descriptions of the building types, lot size, and records of acquisition and ownership, taken from public records. The artist described how, "The properties of Harry Shapolsky and his family and associates were mostly located in Harlem and on the Lower East Side, making them the largest slumlords of Manhattan. Poor tenants were subjected to the group's notorious rent gouging, and their buildings were known for many violations of the building code. The properties were frequently sold and mortgages were exchanged within the group for the purpose of getting tax advantages and disguising who owned them." Taking these photographs from the street, the artist eschewed any attempt to frame the structures artistically; rather, the images are presented as social documentation, while their tilted perspective with their facades and a tier of fire escapes rising above storefronts, conveys an effect of dingy overcrowding and negligent management.

Along with 142 documented photographs, Haacke also created two maps to highlight the corporation's holdings throughout the neighborhoods and a diagram showing the network of family connections and pseudo-corporations. The sheer amount of information was meant to create an overwhelming effect that drew the viewer into understanding the situation depicted. As a result the viewer becomes an active participant, almost a journalistic investigator critiquing and questioning a network of financial power, gradually becoming aware of the fundamental contradiction between property rights, exploited by Shapolsky, and the housing needs of ordinary residents. However, it took years before the public could actually view the artwork.

Intended for the artist's Real Time Social System solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, the work was rejected by the museum's director Thomas Messer, even though Edward F. Fry, the curator, defended it. Shortly thereafter Fry was fired, and there were a number of rumors that the Shapolskys had some undisclosed connection to the museum's board. Messer defended his decisions in a newspaper interview, saying "I'm all for exposing slumlords, but I don't believe the museum is the proper place to do it." As a result, as the artist noted, "It took 15 years until New Yorkers could finally see Shapolsky et al., and get a sense of what the fuss at the Guggenheim was all about. It was part of my 1986 exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art." Due to the controversy, his work was no longer shown in American museums in the subsequent decade, and he turned to exhibitions in Europe, though even there, often only private galleries would show his work. His Manet-PROJEKT '74 (1974) was rejected by the Wallraf-Richartz museum in Cologne, as it revealed that the donor of Edouard Manet's Bunch of Asparagus (1880) in the museum's permanent collection was involved in the Third Reich. Nonetheless, Shapolsky et al. continues to receive contemporary interest both in the art world and the world at large, as the Whitney Museum exhibited the work in 2015, where the questions the work provoked also connected to contemporary urban issues of gentrification.

Photographs, legal documents, maps - MACBA, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain


Jean-Antoine Houdon's George Washington 1788/1917

Artist: Michael Asher

At the center of this installation is a life-sized bronze statue of George Washington, cast from the original marble by the noted Neoclassical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, and moved by the artist from its location outside the museum's main entrance into the center of Gallery 291. Exhibiting late 18th century sculpture, painting, and decorative arts, created by Houdon's contemporaries, the small gallery, painted a grey blue, and with its artwork arranged symmetrically from floor to ceiling, was also meant to be a period setting.

By moving the statue from the entrance, where it had functioned as a commemorative monument celebrating the first president and his role in the Revolutionary War, the artist decontextualized it, in effect using an artwork from the museum to critique the museum's aesthetic and cultural hierarchies. It raises questions for the viewer, asking them to consider what is or should be publicly displayed, preserved or given a high-profile, whilst also highlighting the difference in our attitude to purely aesthetic and historically resonant objects. The artist said, "In this work I am interested in the way the sculpture functions when it is viewed in its 18th-century context instead of in its prior relationship to the façade of the building... Once inside Gallery 219 the sculpture can be seen in connection with the ideas of other European works of the same period." The overall effect, as Alexander Alberro noted, was that, "the monumentality that the sculpture had conveyed for over 60 years in front of the museum was lost altogether, while the timeless quality of the original objects in the period room was disrupted by the weathered bronze copy. The questions that these and other works raised were only provisionally plastic or even spatial. Increasingly, the formal issues called attention to socioeconomic factors affecting the role of artworks and the public function of museums."

Asher's innovative work emphasized shifts in the phenomenology of perception and temporality, as his work left no artifacts or traces beyond occasional records, like the postcards made by the museum for the exhibition. At the same time, the work framed questions that extended beyond the museum, as art historian Anne Rorimer wrote, "The mediocre quality of the cast along with the weathered look of its patinated surface...did not permit the sculpture of George Washington, the "Father of his Country," to be completely and unquestionably absorbed into the domain of the gallery despite the statue's period credentials. Although an outdoor sculpture of an American hero par excellence took its place stylistically amid European works of its own time, it injected a sign of discontinuity." Asher's works, using objects as if they were 'performing' by being displaced, had a noted influence on subsequent Institutional Critique artists including Andrea Fraser and Fred Wilson.

Installation - The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois


Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk

Artist: Andrea Fraser

This photograph depicts the artist's performance as her persona Jane Castleton, where she played a museum tour guide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Here, she lectures in the museum cafeteria, as she announces whilst dramatically gesturing that "This room represents the heyday of colonial art in Philadelphia on the eve of the Revolution, and must be regarded as one of the very finest of all American rooms". The audience, seated at tables, look up with bemused looks of consternation and forbearance. Her verbose style, as she celebrated a water fountain on the same tour as "a work of astonishing economy and boldly contrasts with the severe and highly stylized productions of this form!" was meant to satirize and critique the pretentiousness of art museum jargon, used as a method of systematic exclusion in order to maintain cultural and social hierarchies. The privileging of this overly verbose and frequently non-sensical jargon over immediate or unfiltered responses to artworks excludes people from the debate around art and has the effect of making people unused to it feel that they have no place in the modern museum. Fraser's work highlights the ridiculousness of this institutional convention.

Fraser drew her script from a number of sources, including the essay collection On Understanding Poverty (1969), the philosopher Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), and "Salad and Seurat: Sampling the Fare at Museums" (1987), an article that appeared in The New York Times. As art critic Karin Bellman wrote, "Fraser parades frequently employed rhetorics, roles and relationships before viewers in an attempt to unveil the positions that institutions, market forces, galleries, collectors, the audience, critics and, of course, the artist occupy in this network...she does not set out to establish a counter-discourse but to dismantle the existing ones from within."

A leading member of what has been called the 'second generation' of Institutional Critique, Fraser innovatively employed performance throughout her practice. She cofounded feminist performance group The V-Girls in 1986, the artist initiative collection Parasite in 1997, and the cooperative gallery Orchard in 2005. Fraser has said, "I define institutional critique as 'critically reflexive site specificity,'" and her performances are keyed to specific institutional events and audiences. She has been equally influential as a teacher of New Genres at the University of California in Los Angeles. Her work continues to attract contemporary attention as in 2016, the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona in Spain and the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City organized and exhibited her traveling retrospective.

Performance - Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin, Germany


Metalwork 1793-1880

Artist: Fred Wilson

This image juxtaposes a display of 19th century silver repoussé goblets, tankards, and pitchers with a display of iron shackles for slaves. To create this work, part of Wilson's Mining the Museum, the artist 'mined' the archives and collection of the Maryland Historical Society to arrange an exhibit that included paintings, doll houses, statues of Indians displayed in cigar stores, marble busts, and household items. The artist then created interrogative juxtapositions, such as turning the cigar-store Indians away from the viewer, leaving them facing prints that showed the lands held by Native Americans before colonialism. Similarly, pedestals meant to display statues of Frederick Douglas and other African American notables from Maryland were left empty to create a sense of rising disquiet. As art critic Joan Ann Lewis wrote, "If Wilson's subversive purposes aren't clear by the time you get to a glass case labeled "Metalwork, 1793-1880," they soon will be. For amid the display of elaborate silver repoussé goblets and tankards - all made in Baltimore - is an example of another kind of 19th-century Maryland metalwork: a pair of iron shackles .. shocked into awareness, the viewer is prepared to receive more subtle messages about the anonymity and lost origins of Maryland's large African American community."

The artist said, "I was aware that I wanted to bring people in with a lot of head-scratching and curiosity, but not hit them over the head with the most shocking thing. I wanted people to come in and realize that they had to do some work, to put it together." To prompt this voyage of discovery and reflection, the first object displayed was a 19th century trophy for truth in advertising. As art critic Kurn Huston noted, "the globe-shaped award quietly but insistently prompted viewers to confront the term's brazen absolutism. Which truth? Whose truth? Quietly but insistently, Wilson was pressuring the idea of a master narrative, and challenging the museum's role as a nominally objective arbiter."

The exhibit intensified as the viewer preceded through a display of 18th century Maryland portraits. Each of the portraits, focused on a notable person, included a slave, often a child, as a compositional motif, as seen in the portrait of Henry Darnall III, a boy himself, depicted with his slave. Wilson added an audio in a child's voice, asking, "Where is my mother? Where did I come from? Who combs my hair? Who calms me when I'm afraid?" to highlight and humanize the otherwise anonymous slave. Staged tableaus - four empty chairs seated around a whipping post, and another displaying a large Punt gun, used to shoot a flock of ducks from the sky, pointing at reward posters for runaway slaves - had a powerful and unsettling effect.

Wilson described his intention in creating the project as coming out of his experience visiting the Historical Society. As he remembered, "When I went into the Historical Society, I had kind of a visceral response. I felt uncomfortable there. I thought if I'm having a visceral response, and not really understanding it, I want to explore why." Living in New York, Wilson made regular trips to Baltimore, where he began to explore the collection. "I just looked at things, and I just talked to people. Really, that's all it was." As Huston wrote, "Slowly, though, he began to see relationships between seemingly discrete objects", with the result that "Wilson unsettled the museum's comfortably white, upper-class narrative...Texts, spotlights, recorded texts, and objects traditionally consigned to storage drew attention to the local histories of blacks and Native Americans, effectively unmaking the familiar museological narrative as a narrow ideological project."

The exhibit received enormous critical acclaim and was a popular success. The American Association of Museums also awarded a 1993 Curator's Committee Award to the exhibition as the best show of the year. The director of the historical society museum was later fired however, with Wilson suggesting that it was "not because they were mad about the show as it was, but because it was so popular - which meant they had to change."

Metalwork. Slave shackles with silver pieces - Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland


Vanitas :Evidence, Ruin, and Regeneration

Artist: Amalia Mesa-Bains

This work shows an installation that was originally staged at Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in 1993. The installation included the Dutch artist David Bailly's Vanitas with Negro Boy (c. 1650), depicting the boy, thought to be a slave, standing beside a table holding his master's prized objects, including a human skull. The painting, framed by a stage-like setting of green satin curtains, becomes the central and somber focus of the room. To the right a telescope perhaps ironically comments upon the inability to 'see' what is so close, while trying to bring the 'faraway' of the historical past into view.

An ofrenda, or Mexican altar traditionally made for the day of the dead and dedicated to César Chávez (the political activist who had died in 1994), is on the other wall, along with a display case containing artifacts from the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán. A veterinarian's autopsy table, heaped with various medical instruments, glass bottles and vials and a human skull diagonally intersects the room while also functioning as the third point of a triangle connecting the ofrenda and the painting. Taken in together by a viewer, the work critiques colonialism's desire to classify, collect, and scientifically examine other cultures, and the museum's complicity within that.

Originally the artist intended to include the painting from the museum's permanent collection, but the director objected, saying her installation "would undermine the integrity of the object," and provided her with a reproduction instead. Consequentially, Mesa-Baines included the director's comment on the wall beneath the reproduction, saying, "I just feel like museums need to be slapped around from time to time, because that was without a doubt one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen." As Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, the leading Chicanx art historian noted, she "introduced a new genre, that of altar installations," while also innovatively expanding Institutional Critique by adopting personal motifs related to her heritage, and employing them to interrogate racial and cultural inequities.

During the exhibition, Daniel Joseph Martinez's outdoor sculpture was vandalized with racial epithets and swastikas. Supporting the student protests that followed, Mesa-Bains attached 1969 photographs of African-American students occupying Cornell's student union to the veterinarian's table in the exhibit. As art curator Lowery Stokes Sims said, her "impact on the art world is not just in terms of being a preeminent artist associated with the Chicano Movement. Through her writings and her theories, she's one of the few to successfully combine a visual practice with a critical one, and her voice and her writings have been important beacons for talking about and impelling a lexicon for Latino and Chicano art."

Installation - Museo Eduardo Carrillo, Santa Cruz, California


Everything You've Heard is Wrong

Artist: Carey Young

This photograph shows the artist giving a performance at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park, in what the artist describes as "the traditional Sunday mayhem of speakers and onlookers." Wearing a business suit, and holding notes in her right hand, she gestures as she dispassionately presents a workshop on giving "corporate-style presentations" to onlookers. Explaining the importance of knowing one's audience, and of adopting the right persona and language to reach them she asserts "when you can do this, you realize that you're quite powerful." The performance is heavy with irony, satirizing the corporate jargon of high business, and contrasting it against the often-unfiltered arguments aired at Speakers' Corner. It perhaps also reveals the unacknowledged strangeness of the corporate world but placing its rules, conventions and regulations of dress alongside other, markedly different oratorical styles.

As the artist noted, she chose the location because the "Speakers' Corner has a long history in the public imagination, whether as a popular site for political demonstrations or as a symbol for unregulated free speech. It is a location renowned for entertainment, madness, and outrage, but particularly for extremes of religious or political belief." She has, accordingly, positioned herself near a Muslim orator speaking on her right, to draw upon, as she said, the location's "anachronism, with the almost biblical feeling of a souk," and its "model for the sort of free speech supposedly so central to the 'information age'. Communication flows freely here, without the mediation of machines."

Young was born in Zambia, and later studied at Manchester Polytechnic, followed by the University of Brighton. She received an MA in photography from London's Royal College, and then went to work for a management and IT consulting firm where she presented new technology and its uses to corporate clients. Richard Long and Joseph Beuys influence her work, and this piece referenced Broodthaer's silent performance at Speakers' Corner in 1972, where he wrote various phrases and the titles of paintings being shown at the Jack Wendler Gallery in London on a blackboard. As art historian Elizabeth Manchester wrote of Young, "She transfers the language and processes of the corporate business world to an art context, drawing parallels and heightening differences."

Single channel video; color, sound. 6 mins 35 secs, looped - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Gift Horse

Artist: Hans Haacke

This monumental bronze sculpture, more than 15 feet tall, occupies the space originally meant to be filled with a never-completed statue of King William IV (1765-1837). Haacke installed a rider-less skeletal horse in its place. Standing upon a stone base, the horse looms over Trafalgar Square, while a black bow tied around its left front leg flickers with a LED display that continuously updates the price fluctuations of stocks on the United Kingdom's stock exchange. As the artist said, "I've always been interested in systems and how they work. Political and social systems, of course, are part of that. They can't be escaped". Here the horse frames and illuminates the connections between three realms: the art world, the financial world, and political power. The work references George Stubb's Whistlejacket, both a 1762 engraving and life-sized painting of the most famous racehorse of the day which was commissioned by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, the horse's owner and the artist's patron.

The Fourth Plinth project in London commissioned the work, part of an ongoing series where international artists would be invited to create works for the vacant space in Trafalgar Square. Haacke's piece asks questions about the historical privileging of certain narratives, and indicated through the bow the underlying significance of money and business in running the outward manifestations of the establishment (such as the monarchy). In a move classic of Institutional Critique, the sculpture uses the commission itself (inaugurated by the Mayor of London) to ask whether power really lies where it seems to. Unusual for work positioned as part of Institutional Critique, as the movement usually eschewed more traditional sculpture and painting, Haacke's horse wryly exposes the barebones structure of political and economic power, while suggesting those invisible structures haunt and dominate, not only the art world and its history, but also the modern city.

Bronze - Trafalgar Square, London

Beginnings of Institutional Critique

The term "Institutional Critique" has two related but differentiated usages. It is often used as a phrase which describes how many different modern art movements or artists critiqued in various ways the artistic, cultural, or social institutions of their era. Critique, or the detailed and systematic study and analysis of systems and concepts, has always been part of artistic production (to greater or lesser extents depending on individual contexts and examples). In an artistic context, to say that an artist is engaging in a critique of something often suggests a negative slant to their analysis, or an attempt to reveal ethical or systematic problems about that which they are assessing.

An artist engaging in Insitutional Critique is then usually understood to be one that reflects the negative aspects of artistic institutions as they see it, which might include galleries, museums or the art market. Any art which challenges the aesthetic criteria of the time, or deals with controversial or 'unsayable' things might be then read as implicitly critiquing the institution -what cannot be said or displayed, and why not? What does that exclusion reveal about the political, financial or social underpinnings of the art world? These conversations feature significant crossovers with other activist artistic projects, often including work that addresses access and ethics in relation to issues of gender, race, class and disability. Almost any artist that confronts the deficiencies of the gallery through their work might then be said to be engaging in a kind of Institiutional Critique.

However, in the mid 1970s the term began to be used more specifically to identify a movement made up of Conceptual artists that, beginning in the late 1960s, focused on critiquing the systems and structures of art institutions, as well as their connection to larger political and social structures. Influenced by Minimalism and the Light and Space movement's focus on the phenomenology of the viewer, the movement referred to as "Institutional Critique" created site specific installations that emphasized the indeterminate and the temporal to question the financial, social, and cultural structure of the art world, and the systems of aesthetic evaluation that world employed.

As art historian John C Welchman wrote of the movement: "Art historians have identified two main waves or generations of institutional critique as they developed in Western Europe and the US, the first dating to the 1960s and 1970s with a focus on the institution of the museum and gallery, and the second associated with the later 1980s and onwards in which the institution being critiqued came to include a range of others beyond museums, from the political to the financial, and the 'institution' of the artist as situated with the museum of gallery." This first wave includes artists considered the pioneers of the movement, such as Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, and Daniel Buren (although these artists often resisted collective definition as a movement). The second generation, which included Fred Wilson, John Knight, Louise Lawler, Andrea Fraser, Carey Young, Renée Green, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Barbara Bloom were generally more comfortable with the label of "Institutional Critique" being applied to their work than the first.

Relationship to Conceptual Art

The pioneers of Institutional Critique took Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" as a working precedent, while emphasizing a conceptual framework similar to Sol LeWitt's argument that "No matter what form [the artwork] may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned". Institutional Critique therefore adopted both an emphasis on concept and the notion of the readymade, with both turned toward an interrogation of art institutions and their relationships to the financial, political, and social power. The arrival at a final artwork was therefore less the objective of the artists involved than the thought processes and research that went into the piece's realization.

This is usefully illustrated by Hans Haacke's MoMA Poll (1970). In this work Haacke asked its viewers to vote on the ethical ramifications of Nelson Rockefeller's position on the MoMA board. It therefore placed the executive operations of the museum where the work was being displayed under the microscope, and became a seminal work in launching Institutional Critique in the United States. Like most Conceptual works, the aesthetics of this piece were simple at first glance, but were actually a sophisticated illustration of a current political issue. This became clear once the concept was revealed to the viewer. This reveal of meaning, arrived at through the tactical deployment of seemingly familiar or unremarkable objects is a hallmark of both Conceptual Art and Institutional Critique.

Institutional Critique in Europe

In Europe Daniel Buren and Marcel Broodthaers pioneered their own form of Institutional Critique. A Conceptualist, also sometimes identified as a Minimalist, the French artist Buren was known for his stripe works, using white and one other color on awning canvas as what he called a "seeing tool", to challenge the viewer's perception of traditional art. He displayed his Affichages Sauvages (1968-69), or "wild posters" in unauthorized public spaces in Paris, challenging traditional ideas of how art should be exhibited. The series also reflected Buren's involvement in the 1968 student protests in Paris.

Similarly, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers was the spokesman for an artist group that occupied the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1968. As his combination apartment/studio became a hub for the group, as well as a storage space for their various works, he conceived of turning the space into an imagined museum. He subsequently created his first iteration of his Musée d'Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art) (1968-72). This consisted of a fictional museum, created within an apartment and which satirically labelled objects with labels which read 'this is not art' and similar subversions of institutionalization. Both artists reveal a tension in Europe between the highly traditional and formal grand museums of the continent and a new wave of irreverent, politically active artists willing to move between the street and the gallery.

Pioneers in the United States

Though he grew up in Germany, Hans Haacke played a leading role in Institutional Critique in the United States. In 1965 Haacke wrote a manifesto advocating for art that was nonstable, indeterminate, could not be predicted precisely, and that lives in time. Each of these were concepts that became fundamental to Institutional Critique. Early works like Condensation Cube (1963), for example, emphasized the condensation cycle, a natural process that occurred in real time during the installation. As he noted, "Whether one looks at the Condensation Cube as an artwork - there is no definition for art other than one based on a social agreement - or one doesn't, in either case, the object's physical interaction with its environment is an integral part of it. In other words: it is not an autonomous object. Its surroundings belong to this "system" of interdependent relations." Haacke was influenced by Jack Burnham's "System Esthetics" which discussed the effect of science upon 20th century sculpture and by Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General System Theory (1968), which he said, "inspired me to continue with my kinetic, process-oriented works, and also to expand into biological and - toward the late 1960s - to deal with social 'systems.'"

In 1967 Haacke began teaching at Cooper Union in New York, where his interest turned toward the art world and the critique of its social and political systems. As he observed, "what we have here [in the art world] is a real exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored." In Haacke's view, financial sponsorship of art by institutions resulted in them gaining "symbolic capital", including an enhanced public reputation and visibility that added to their financial value. In his view, while the corporations and art institutions were aware of this exchange, the public was not.

Haacke was also active in the Art Workers' Coalition, a 1969 protest movement which included Lucy Lippard, Robert Morris and other artists. The group issued "13 Demands", calling for artists' rights, the equal representation of woman and black artists in art institutions, museum reform, and the end of the war in Vietnam. As he noted, it was "the time of the cultural revolution that shook Paris and other European cities. In the US, the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prompted me to write a preface to a lecture that I was scheduled to give. The Vietnam War affected a great number of American families directly. It fired demonstrations on campuses and in the streets of major cities. There were the My Lai and the Kent State massacres. Racial discrimination triggered large public protests. In New York, artists got together and formed what they called the Art Workers' Coalition to challenge the boards of trustees of museums whom they saw as representative of the forces they viewed as allied with the powers they despised. Nobody had the time to worry about the fortunes of the art market."

Alongside Haacke, Michael Asher was another key pioneer of Institutional Critique, with projects that he called "dislocations." Associated with Minimalism and the Light and Space movement, Asher began creating installations in the late 1960s that explored form while also, as art critic Alexander Alberro wrote, "probing the often hidden conditions that determine how art is viewed, evaluated and used." In 1969 he installed blower units above the door at the Whitney Museum of America Art, so that viewers had to pass through invisible but tangible curtains of air as they negotiated the gallery space. In the 1970s his work turned, as Alberro describes, "to critical interventions. His central concern now became the symbolic and material economies underlying art practice". This can be seen in his Installation Münster (Caravan) (1977-97) where he placed travel trailers in the streets with local museums serving as the information source for their location, then moving the trailers every Monday when the museums were closed. He revisited the project in 1987 and 1997.

Second Wave

The second wave of Institutional Critique in the 1980s included Fred Wilson, John Knight, Louise Lawler, Andrea Fraser, Carey Young, Renée Green, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Barbara Bloom. Many of the artists were influenced by Haacke and Asher in particular. Fraser became a leading critic and theorist within the movement, noting that the, "'institution of art'...includes not just the museum, nor even only the sites of production, distribution, and reception of art, but the entire field of art as a social universe." She was also a leader in the movement's emphasis on performance that expanded the nature of critique to include corporate and legal systems, as can also be seen in the works of Carey Young. At the same time, artists like Fred Wilson and Amalia Mesa-Bain reconfigured museum collections to create startling juxtapositions that critiqued not only the museum, but also historical, political, and social structures of racial and social inequities, tying the movement to the then emerging narratives around Identity Politics in the art world.

The art environment faced by the second wave of artists was different, in part because art institutions had begun to move toward incorporating Institutional Critique into their exhibition programs, and due to the increasingly globalized art market. As Hito Steyerl noted, "It wasn't so much different from the point of view of the artists...who tried to challenge and criticize the institutions which, in their view, were still authoritarian," but that the cultural institution was now "often viewed as an economic one," rather than "a representative public sphere." Artists responded by expanding the critique to other institutions, for example, corporations and corporate language or systems of colonialism, with Fraser describing how the movement "opened the way for the artistic conceptualization - and commodification - of everything."

Institutional Critique: Concepts, Styles, and Trends


Artists working with installation, a dominant mode within Institutional Critique, primarily employed readymades to reimagine the museum as an institution operated on different principles, or as a site of internal inconsistency in their judgement of quality, as in Broodthaers' invented Musée d'Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art) (1968-72). By focusing on a superficially random element in artworks from the 19th century (such as the use of the image of an eagle), Broodthaers revealed the arbitrariness of the unexamined curatorial fixations that often govern major European institutions. Another action characteristic of Institutional Critique involved installations altering an already existent institutional environment, as seen in Michael Asher's interventions or Hans Haacke's Viewing Matters: Upstairs (1996), where he moved works previously consigned to the basement to the main galleries in order to question the museum's hierarchies and curatorial values.

Subsequent artists, including James Luna, Fred Wilson, and Amalia Mesa-Bain similarly challenged aesthetic and cultural hierarchies by presenting works from a museum's collection in new configurations that, as art historian Jennifer A. González wrote, emphasized that "race is a social discourse that has a visual history. The collection and display of bodies, images, and artifacts in museums and elsewhere is a primary means by which a nation tells the story of its past and locates the cultures of its citizens in the present." The recontextualization enacted by these artists, such as James Luna's incorporation of his own body into anthropological displays relating to Native American culture, reveals the often unchallenged primacy of a white European curatorial perspective. Renée Green's later work of Institutional Critique Permitted (1989), an installation focused on Sarah Baartman (known as the 19th century "Hottentot Venus") similarly critiqued the aesthetic and cultural contexts of the Black female body put on display.

Later artists have expanded the range of the movement's critique to social and cultural realms, with Amalia Mesa-Bains' altar installations drawing upon Chicanx cultural history and aesthetics to create work within institutions which had consistently presented them in reductive or patronizing ways. Other artists like Pepón Osorio have similarly contrasted the frame of the museum and its expected audience against their own experience, particularly in relation to societal issues of cultural marginalization, through installations that include material that has historically been kept out of the museum (such as testimony from working-class voices of color).


Performance was an important medium within Institutional Critique, with many artists positioning their own bodies as artworks to be displayed, documented, sold or engaged with through financial transactions. Mierle Laderman Ukeles' cleaning of the Wadsworth Athenaeum's public spaces in 1973, for example, reveals the 'invisible labor" that maintained the institution. Artists often critiqued the institution by playing 'roles' within it, as seen in Andrea Fraser's Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989) where she parodied a verbose and pretentious museum guide. Other artists, like Carey Young, gave lectures and performances that expanded the critique outside the art world into corporate communications and the judicial system.

Performances often referenced art history and its hierarchies, such as Fraser's Kunst muß hängen (Art Must Hang) (2001) which replicated a 1995 speech by the German artist Martin Kippenberger. As art historian Helen Armitage described, the speech, "in Fraser's words, was laden with homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia - viewpoints she suggests that Kippenberger affected as a caricature of the German art scene at that time, her re-enactment becoming an institutional critique of Kippenberger."

In each case, the respective artist's performance was site specific, keyed to a particular institution, event, and audience. Fraser's Official Welcome (2001), commissioned by the MICA Foundation in New York, was performed at the foundation's private event for the unveiling of a new art work, as she impersonated various art celebrities and patrons, then stripped to her underwear and stated, "I'm not a person today. I'm an object in an artwork." Chris Burden's works like his Five Day Locker Piece (1971), in which he locked himself inside a university locker for five days were an implicit critique of the MFA as an art institution. In his Exposing the Foundation of the Museum (1986), Burden also excavated beneath the Temporary Contemporary, newly designed by Frank Gehry, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as a critique of museum construction projects designed by famous architects that overshadowed the art they were intended to exhibit.


Institutional Critique often used found images, as seen in Marcel Broodthaer's readymade images of eagles, and photographs taken by the artist as seen in Hans Haacke's Shapolysky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings (1971) to starkly illustrate the real-world nature of their critique. Andrea Fraser's White People in West Africa (1989/91/93) similarly combined found images with her own photographs "to examine white tourism within the contexts of colonialism and neo-colonialism", as art critic Helen Armitage wrote.

Though primarily known as a member of the Pictures Generation, Louise Lawler's work had equal relevance to Institutional Critique, as her photographs of artworks by leading artists like Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol in collectors' private homes or in auction houses creates provocative juxtapositions of art and setting. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote, "The floral pattern on a Limoges soup tureen vied with a Pollock drip painting on a wall above it", offering an implicit critique of aesthetic evaluation driven by art investment, and the market that valorizes it.


While amateur and professional video, both planned and unplanned, documented the temporary nature of some of the installations and performances that made up the Institutional Critique movement, video as a medium also directly informed and shaped some artists' work. As a cheap and quick medium, video suggests immediacy and veracity, which adhere to the central objectives of Institutional Critique - the revelation of unjust or unexamined systems. By the use of editing, framing and narrative structuring artists were able to use video to guide viewers through their critique of a particular institution in a more direct manner than might be possible through a single sculpture or installation.

The Photographers' Society of London commissioned Carey Young's Everything You've Heard is Wrong (1999), a piece drawing on corporate presentation practice at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. The artist delivers a corporate-style speech in the anachronistic public location, a space which invites questions and debate from the audience that gather. Using an awareness of the medium of video as a framing and focusing device, the performance ends at the moment the audience begins to ask questions, fundamentally differentiating it from the live experience and illustrating the inability of the corporate model of communication to function in immediate and direct engagement with people on the street.

Renée Green's video Venue (1994) similarly used the temporal possibilities of video to document her attempted conversion of the Pat Hearn Gallery into a rental space meant to be a community and commercial venue in New York. The month-long process involved advertising the space, hiring a booking agent for a concert, art exhibitions, and a fashion show within the gallery. Telescoping the month-long project into a concise summation of its key moments, the video documentation presented with full transparency the economic processes tied up with this activity. Its documentation of the ramifications to the institution and wider community conveyed an implicit critique of the opacity of the art world, and the impossibility of objective analysis within a day to day engagement with them. Video allowed Green to present the experience as a single, easily followed narrative that would have been far more opaque if presented through other forms of documentation.

Later Developments - After Institutional Critique

Artists of the Institutional Critique movement were immensely influential, informing many later artists and movements. The Guerilla Girls, for example, whose Feminist Art began on the street in the 1980s, challenged art museums, galleries, art collectors and critics for their underrepresentation of female artists and artists of color, echoing many of their criticisms of the gallery as an institution. This work eventually migrated inside the institution, arguably changing it profoundly.

At the same time, critique was also turned upon the movement itself. As Andrea Fraser in "From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Cri-tique," (2005) wrote, "Just as art cannot exist outside the field of art, we cannot exist outside the field of art, at least not as artists, critics, curators, etc....So if there is no outside for us, it is not because the institution is perfectly closed, or exists as an apparatus in a 'totally administered society', or has grown all-encompassing in size and scope. It is because the institution is inside us, and we can't get outside of ourselves." Noting Daniel Buren's Guggenheim exhibition, the LA County Museum of Art's "Institutional Critique and After," and the 2005 Getty symposia on the movement, Fraser wrote, "Nearly forty years after their first appearance, the practices now associated with 'institutional critique,' have for many come to seem, well, institutionalized."

Haacke in particular, however, has continued to be an influence on artists including Olafur Eliasson, Tuer Greenfort, and Mark Lombardi, who engage in similarly irreverent and playful interactions with the audience for their art. Haacke has also provided a model for resisting the pressures of the art world and the relentless focus on career progression instilled in many forms of art education (such as MFAs). As writer and editor Andrew Russeth noted, "for many young artists, Haacke remains a kind of gold standard - a heroic example of remaining independent in the face of market pressures, and for 35 years, from 1967 to 2002, he was a guiding force for free-thinking students as a professor at Cooper Union."

The international breadth of the movement has remained characteristic of Institutional Crtique, and has expanded to include younger artists from diverse backgrounds, such as the Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo, whose work addresses invisible social forces and their influence on individual desire, the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, whose work manipulates the social contract of artist and audience, the interventionist Finnish artist Pilvi Takala, and German artists Maria Eichhorn and A. L. Steiner, whose practices interrogate the invisible backstage forces that govern the ability of artists to display certain images over others.

At the same time vigorous consideration of this third wave of Institutional Critique has been undertaken by a new generation, as in video artist Hito Steyerl's The Institution of Critique (2006), an essay where Steyerl breaks down the political and social contexts of each wave of Institutional Critique, building to an assessment of recent work (a 'third wave') in the field. Steyerl argues Institutional Critique in previous format was unable to negotiate the limiting strictures of neoliberalism in an effective way, becoming trapped in its attempt to offer a meaningful answer to the problem of the increasingly decentralized institutional model.

Art critic and curator Simon Sheikh locates the movement's third wave primarily within the curatorial world, particularly in group projects like Transform (2005-08), a project of the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies that used a variety of research and cultural exchanges, exhibitions, and conferences to focus on the practices of Institutional Critique. Another example might be the work of curator Jonas Ekeberg, who launched the project space Oslo Kunsthall in 2000 in Norway, as part of what he calls the "New Institutionalism". Changing the institution in response to Institutional Critique, he asked, "If the artists were critical of the conservative structure of the institution, why not change that structure?" As a result, the movement has taken on an ever-greater complexity, encompassing these curatorial initiatives as well.

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