Departing from the premise that cultural institutions are much stronger than they think they are, Institutional Realism works with the real effects that such institutions have on the social. By targeting under-explored leverages and impacts, a realistic approach is a means to fortifying future institutions as proactive social agents. Today, cultural institutions — e.g. museums and art academies — are often trapped in a vicious circle of identifying with outdated protocols and simultaneously perceiving themselves as victims of a hostile system. Nowhere is this dynamic more clearly evident than in cultural institutions’ approach and relationship to “market forces.”
The unnecessary paralysis is likely to endure as long as affordances are misconceived as limitations and/or are suppressed through the number one go-to model of cultural critique. Instead, a more realistic approach towards institutions proposes to develop strategies that tie the ontology of institutions to their societal effects — to work with institutions’ in-built capacity to create the context for action in urban policy, economic organization and geopolitics. If, as has been established in sociological theory, institutions define behavioral expectations and sanction non-compliance, an institutional realist approach is to proactively instrumentalize this mediator status between culture and society at all (socio-economic, political, artistic) levels.
Cultural institutions are not deficient organizational forms, nor are they outdated apparatuses; yet, they currently lack the necessary formal self-reflexivity as institutions to strategically direct the contradictions and double-binds that they embody. The potential for recalibration lies precisely in exploring the gaps between what cultural institutions think they do and what they actually do, their formal organization and their informal politics, between individual intentions of their representatives and the social “necessities” that guide the representatives’ behavior, the discrepancies between values that are proclaimed and norms that have become routine.
In lieu of undergoing substantial institutional recalibration, patching up tactics have become the norm. This has meant that suppression of one problem at institutional level has the tendency to reemerge as an increasingly consolidated and pronounced systemic dysfunctionality across the entire art/cultural ecology. For example, institutional failure to integrate theory into art education in a manner that makes producers more conscious of and prepared to take on art’s/culture’s ever-evolving societal/systemic functions has led to a proliferation of summer schools. This might not be a bad development in and of itself, but unlike institutions that can set infrastructural precedent, summer schools can only offer theoretical devices to produce more critical content. A similar dynamic may be observed in regards to institutional conservatism when it comes to developing novel financial models and longer-term financial policies. Failure to seriously engage with the latter questions means that producers who cannot be supported by the market (or whom the market does not want to support) tend to over-rely on temporary and precarious financial and developmental structures such as residencies, which — once again, — while not bad in and of themselves, do not offer a solution to the goal of attaining a diverse artistic ecology.
Ad hoc solutions can only address institutional issues at the surface and can be easily recognized for their inability to provide systemically meaningful recalibration.
A realist approach to institutions must operate on the premise of inherent interdependence between all formal planes (art historical, financial, geopolitical, etc.) that make up the DNA of the respective institution. For example, with the advent of industrial modernity, cultural institutions occupied an important mediating role in the formation of modern subjects. Hundred years later, such institutions have been transformed into vehicles of socio-economic valorization for financial elites — a dimension that to this day remains largely untapped as a fertile ground for recapitalization by the institutions themselves. Meanwhile, “new” global actors, such as China, may have been faster to operationalize the nuances of this dynamic but still seem to a large degree reliant on modern paradigms of production, and therefore underutilize the multi-purposefulness of the contemporary art paradigm.
A slow crystallization of systemically-oriented micro reforms in attempt to redress some of these issues — e.g. emergence of such initiatives as Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), attempts by some older and completely new academies to fundamentally remodel art education, and a shift away from project-based engagement with artists towards more long-term commitments, — is indicative of a tidal change.
Institutional Realism aims to amplify and develop this strategic direction by locating and harnessing institutional capacity to increase value, influence pricing, play into geopolitical and ideological agendas, and hence support institutions in taking on their role as rating agencies in a more conscious and strategic manner. Development of such methodologies must combine conceptual analyses and tools that are outside of cultural field’s well-established (but unsustainable) comfort zone in order to not simply define or create a new field of research, but of practice, a field in the making and by doing.
Understanding what institutions really are as social agents and changing them are not two different processes, but must march hand in hand. Thus, Institutional Realism is not realistic in the modest and all too often regressive sense of “gotta be realist,” but with the speculative intuition that socially progressive institutions are both needed and are possible. Contemporary cultural institutions are junctures at which geopolitical and economic interests intersect — this gives them a critical advantage in transforming politics and economy through cultural mechanisms.