Look at Art, Get Paid, Diversify Museums

“Does going to an art museum sound like work? We’ll pay you!”

That alluring slogan, put on advertisements (in English and Spanish) on public buses in Rhode Island, is how artists Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu were able to entice members of the community to participate in their project, “Look at Art. Get Paid.” Their “socially engaged artwork” does exactly what its title suggests: it brings in people from lower-income parts of the community and pays them in cash to go to a museum, look at art, and give their feedback on the artwork and the museums themselves. Chao and Devanbu call these participants guest critics, stripping away the constructed boundary between the “experts” and “amateurs” in art critique. It gives these critics the authority to speak on matters that they find out of their wheelhouses.

On Thursday, March 7th, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk with Chao and Devanbu at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The talk, sponsored by the Philadelphia Area Creative Collaborative (PACC) Program at Haverford College (where Chao and Devanbu are currently completing residencies), provided insight into their project, the circumstances that prevent many people from attending museums right in their backyards, and how this lack of diversity is reflected in the museums.

From left to right: Maia Chao, Josephine Devanbu, and moderator Carol Zou

Paying people to visit museums counteracts the myriad of reasons many have that prevent them from stepping inside such institutions. The price of admission is usually a huge deterrent, but even on Free Days, there’s still the cost of transportation, food, and the potentially huge opportunity cost that takes time away from work or relaxation. And when you get to the museum, what are the chances of even seeing something that represents your lived experience? Will some of the works be a reflection of your cultural identity, or will they be inaccessible art created by old, white, dead dudes? The gamble seems more costly than what the payoff may be.

Chao’s and Devanbu’s passion project addresses the politics of space that exist in art museums and the art community in general. They ask: what is critique without diversity? Who has the authority to make decisions for museums and art? Who dictates what art deserves to be exhibited in museums? “Look at Art. Get Paid.” has become apart of the growing movement of museums and artists that are attempting to change the landscape of the art world to become more inclusive and diverse.

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