Current Affairs

How Art Connects Prisons and Museums

Most people don’t see the link. Advocates—and incarcerated artists themselves—are fighting to change that.

Early in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Harvard University Press, 2020), Nicole R. Fleetwood relates an interview with Jared Owens, an abstract painter who wanted to make bigger paintings. He’d found a plinth, a piece of wood that would help him to stretch larger canvases, but Owens was incarcerated: the plinth was located at the end of a corridor and not designated for prisoner use. Owens vividly describes his efforts to secure this plinth as “the longest three yards of my life,” during which he risked confiscation of his possessions and solitary confinement.

Marking Time is both a book and an exhibition now on view at MoMA PS1, the site for the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s more “experimental” exhibitions and programs. As a project, Marking Time is a comprehensive examination of how art is made in prison and how that art circulates inside and beyond prison walls—what Fleetwood calls “carceral aesthetics.” In Marking Time, Fleetwood demonstrates that art by incarcerated artists is deeply political art that engages with contemporary art produced by nonincarcerated artists, along with a variety of traditions from art history. Fleetwood does not deal in categories of innocence or guilt, nor does she want to focus on narratives of exceptional prisoners. Instead, Marking Time is Fleetwood’s attempt to examine how art by incarcerated artists circulates and what their art—and their incarceration—enables outside prison walls.

Portraits have always been highly commodified—even now, portraits lead Sotheby’s lucrative evening sales—and the artist who is most successful in prison is one who can create an accurate likeness of a person. Incarcerated artists use these highly valued artworks to build social ties, secure supplies, and finance more ambitious work. For incarcerated artists, portraits can also reclaim one’s self from the dehumanizing state violence of the police photo, a practice that was widely institutionalized in the 19th century with the support of proto-cop Sir Robert Peel, founder of the London Police and a collector of 17th century Dutch oil paintings. In her close reading of incarcerated artist Ronnie Goodman’s San Quentin Arts in Corrections Art Studio (2008), Fleetwood situates Goodman’s painting within the art historical tradition of artists creating in-studio self-portraits, drawing comparisons between Goodman’s self-portrait and Gallery of the Louvre (1831-1833) by noted 19th century oil painter Samuel F.B. Morse (who had previously painted Marquis de Lafayette, in addition to inventing Morse code). Goodman’s work also has connections to more contemporary art, such as Kerry James Marshall‘s Untitled (Studio) (2014) [1]. Marking Time also places Goodman’s self-portrait and portraits by incarcerated artists within a tradition of Black, brown, and indigenous artists “creating portraits to visualize their humanity, aspirations, and collective struggles throughout the longue durée of racial subjugation in this country.”  

Paintings by incarcerated artists can also make visible how incarceration works. In more abstract paintings by James “Yaya” Hough, white prison guards are ghostly and formless and anonymous as they supervise Black men being rendered and machined into commodities like boxer shorts and money. Hough’s paintings illustrate how prisons extract wealth in the form of penal labor and government contracts, and how (as abolitionists have argued) “prisons enable money to move because of the enforced activity of people locked in them.” 

The money that moves because people are locked inside prisons is the same money that funds art institutions and buys art. Art by incarcerated artists circulates in the same economy as art by nonincarcerated artists, even when art by incarcerated artists is not exhibited in the same spaces as art by nonincarcerated artists. The prison-industrial complex is still churning: the massive expansion of contemporary art museums as financial institutions (and the ever-escalating value of contemporary art) is part of the same carceral economy. Thus, art made by artists who are incarcerated is deeply political because of the conditions under which these artists work, and the conditions that their confinement makes possible.  

Facing restrictions on materials, incarcerated artists are extremely resourceful in acquiring and improvising tools for their work. Owens’ procurement—a term for securing state goods within prison—of a canvas-stretching plank demonstrates his commitment to his art in the face of state violence [2]. Other artists show similar creativity and dedication. For Apokaluptein: 16389067 (2013), artist Jesse Krimes used hair gel to screen image transfers from the New York Times Sunday Styles section onto large sheets (produced with prison labor through Unicor, the Federal Prison Industries program) to construct a massive, panoramic exquisite corpse installation inspired by Dante’s Inferno and the writings of philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In short, incarcerated artists remake and reclaim materials (such as commissary supplies, penal goods, and time) into art that makes incarceration visible. Making art is a way of relating to others that links the art made in prisons to the possible lives and worlds outside. The artists in Marking Time read the same magazines as nonincarcerated artists (like Art Forum, Art in America, or Art News) and their art refers to the same critical theorists (like Agamben and Michel Foucault). They also organize “crits” (in-studio peer feedback sessions) and mentor each other, and view frequent prison transfers as opportunities to study with other artists.

Like most public-facing institutions (such as hospitals, universities, and public schools), museums and prisons have been reconfigured by privatization under neoliberalism. In the 1970s—around the same time that Richard Nixon expanded the War on Crime, and Nelson Rockefeller developed the mandatory minimum drug laws that would expand mass incarceration—art critics bemoaned financier and collector Norton Simon’s takeover of the Pasadena Museum when the museum went into debt to finance capital expansions, then couldn’t pay the bills. Austerity seized other museums; meanwhile, artists and arts workers organized for collective bargaining and better contracts. Artists used pseudo-pedagogical and documentarian installations to “critique” the rise in corporate museum funding. By the 1990s, what emerged in contemporary art was something that Fleetwood emphasizes throughout Marking Time: relational art, or social practice, which re-enacts and stages human interaction in ways that are temporary in institutional or quasi-institutional settings. Relational and social practice art use exchanges—and the relations formed by exchange—to resist the objectification of art by institutions, and to push back against the feelings of alienation that so many of us feel within society. 

Fleetwood argues that art made in prison is more than “outsider art” or therapeutic outlet: making art in prison is a form of survival, and carceral aesthetics make the carceral visible within and beyond the prison walls. Incarcerated artists are part of this avant-garde even if they are artificially, forcibly separated from cultural institutions and the art market. The work of artists like Owens and Krimes shines light on widespread experiences that are consistently obscured and misrepresented in mainstream culture. Mass incarceration is a political project—the prison regime was constructed to protect the property regime and people are imprisoned for political reasons. Therefore, the work that’s produced in prisons is political in content and in form.

Museums often stage exhibitions that are critical of the processes and systems that enrich the museum and its board members, which frequently leads to protests—and sometimes to meaningful change. In October 2019, MoMA employees demanded that the museum’s pension divest from Fidelity Investments and that MoMA board member Larry Fink, CEO and chairman of the BlackRock investment group, divest from “prison companies, the war machine, and the destruction of the global environment.” Both Fidelity and BlackRock were invested in CoreCivic, a private corporation that provides “quality corrections and detention services.” (CoreCivic also develops housing for people who are re-entering society, as well as what the company website calls “criminal justice real estate solutions.”) That same year, relational artist Phil Collins withdrew his work from a MoMA PS1 show of art against the war in Iraq to protest Fink’s ties to CoreCivic.

I mention these recent protests because Marking Time makes visible just how much mass incarceration undergirds U.S. society: by making people of color invisible and stealing their labor, by providing jobs to unskilled rural white populations and more skilled but still mostly white arts professionals, by enriching investors in companies like CoreCivic. Just as art produced in prison is part of the same art market through which contemporary art metastasizes as an “asset class,” so is the museum a financial institution. The fact that such things do not strike the average observer as obvious makes it all the more urgent to call attention to them.

The CoreCivic protests followed the Teargas Biennial protests of July 2019. Before the protests against Whitney Museum Board member Warren Kanders and his company Safariland (which sells “crowd control” products to the NYPD, IDF, and other organizations with dubious respect for human rights), there had been protests led by photographer Nan Goldin and Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) against various museum wings named after the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma and remorseless purveyors of opioids. In London, there have been calls to boycott the Zabludowicz Collection, a project bankrolled by a London tycoon whose fortune is derived from weapons sales to Israel and illegal real estate development in the occupied Palestinian territories.

As public-facing institutions with often progressive aims, museums made statements and gestures towards diversity, equity, and inclusion and solidarity with Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis announced that the museum would not contract with Minneapolis police for security and the Minneapolis Institute of Art made a similar statement. (At the time, MIA was host to When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration, funded by noted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contractor Thomson Reuters ). Other museums around the country followed suit, and a group of arts workers and artists, Arts for Abolition, began tracking museum ties to mass incarceration with a crowd-sourced spreadsheet that documented which museums still contracted off-duty cops, which board members supported the NYPD’s annual gala, and other less-than-flattering actions. A striking number of arts benefactors who also love cops are real estate developers.

But the most meaningful reforms of the museum as an institution are those that attempt some kind of material redress, which often necessarily includes making visible works by people who have historically been excluded from museum audiences. MoMA PS1 president emerita Agnes Gund helped to fund the Art for Justice Fund with the sale of a Roy Lichtenstein painting; through different non-profits, this fund has supported some of the artists in Marking Time. (Fleetwood is also an Art for Justice grantee.)

The most successful criticisms of the museum so far have begun by targeting individual corporations or people, such as the calls to remove Kanders. (He eventually resigned from the Whitney’s board in 2019, then later announced that Safariland would stop selling tear gas, which really meant that Safariland would sell its two subsidiaries that sell tear gas and other “crowd control” solutions to law enforcement.) Targeting the ultra-rich and their corporations can be effective in making individual elites resign from museum boards and in raising awareness of how the museum is a violent institution. But the root cause of museums’ immorality—which is also a problem for art—is not that billionaires and corporations have billions of dollars, or even that billionaires have billions of dollars because people are in cages. Nor is the problem simply that billionaires exist. A very large part of the problem is that museums—their executives, administrators, and boards—believe that they need billionaires or corporations or real estate developers or cops or layoffs to survive, and that this is somehow not related to the art inside the museum, that art does not need to do good to be good.

As Fleetwood argues throughout Marking Time, the same false divisions that segment art by incarcerated artists from contemporary art made by artists who are not incarcerated are part of the same “aesthetics” that discourage art critics, historians, and curators from considering the ethics and politics of who sponsors an exhibition. The contradictions between a museum’s exhibitions, its mission statement, and how that museum is funded aren’t shallow ones. They’re structural and systemic problems—and museums can do more to mitigate this. Already museums are very careful about what the “wall text” that appears next to a painting says. They can do more to address what the other wall text—that greets visitors upon entry with the names of donors, foundations, and sponsors—says as well.


[1] Untitled (Studio) can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Marshall also painted portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.
[2]  No longer incarcerated, Owens is a painter based in North Carolina; his paintings recall delicate figurative works by John Currin and David Hockney.

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