The Museum of Capitalism is a brand new institution “dedicated to educating this generation and future generations about the history, philosophy, and legacy of capitalism, through exhibitions, research, publication, collecting and preserving material evidence, art, and artefacts of capitalism, and a variety of public programming.” Situated in California, it concentrates on collaborations between a network of researchers, curators, artists, designers, filmmakers, writers, economists, historians, scientists, and non-specialists from all walks of life, including those with direct experience of capitalism. The inaugural exhibition has opened with a series of multimedia presentations by a diverse network of artists, scholars, and ordinary citizens, exploring the historical phenomenon of capitalism and its intersections with themes like race, class, and environment in the United States.

In 1973, members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a self-styled revolutionary group that would eventually include heiress Patty Hearst, shot and killed Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland Unified School System, in the belief that he was about to institute an ID card programme for schools. Oakland, which sits across the bay from San Francisco, has the fifth highest concentration of elite zip codes in the country, and the highest concentration of artists per capita. It has also been credited as the place where modern gang-based drug dealing took root in the United States. In 2017, Stephen Curry, a player with the Golden State Warriors basketball team, based in Oakland (for the time being, until it moves closer to Silicon Valley) signed a five-year contract for $201 million. The Warriors are owned by a venture capitalist and an entertainment mogul. Make a museum about all that.

Minimum Wage Machine, 2008-2010, Blake Fall-Conroy, Turning the crank yields one penny every 4 seconds, resulting in $9.00 an hour (NY state minimum wage, 2016)
The Museum of Capitalism opened in Oakland, California in June. It sits in converted waterfront industrial premises. Its implicit founding assumption appears to be that capitalism – whatever that is – is in its last days, or how else could it be embalmed in a museum? In other words, it’s a historical phenomenon that can’t last forever. The tone of the exhibits lies somewhere between Occupy Wall Street or Michael Moore’s Pets or Meat? and the kitsch of Berlin’s DDR Museum. A certain schizophrenia is inevitable given the nature of the subject, which is everywhere and nowhere.

How do you make a museum that would illuminate, for the casual visitor, the implications of – for instance – land enclosure in England in the 1600s and credit default swaps of the sort that helped bring down the global financial system in 2008? Over the last several decades, Hollywood has taken on the task with great panache and occasional substance, from Gordon Gekko and the Wall Street wolves to The Big Short. Without, of course, ever addressing the question that has provoked economists from Marx to Keynes to Joan Robinson: are profit and wealth really the only possible foundation of human value?

Lenape Wigwam in Clearing, 2016, Curtis Talw Santiago, Mixed media diorama in reclaimed jewellery box
The museum assumes you already know the correct answer to the question, and in that sense, it’s not a museum of capitalism but a museum of anti-capitalist art, loaded with works that preach to the converted. There are artefacts here, as in a natural history museum – neckties, pro-Trump baseball caps, even mug shots, acquired through community donation events. But you’re not going to find a discussion on how a single basketball player’s astronomical contract makes sense for an arena that could never recover that cost in ticket sales – much less the cost of the rest of the team roster.

What you will find are installations that feel very familiar to anyone who makes the rounds of biennials. In a sense, the team of curators has created just that, an anti-capitalist biennial, with the mordancy, superficiality, didactic longueurs, and occasional emotional depth of contemporary art. In the interest of full disclosure, the writer has not had a chance to visit the new space. But a digital survey of the opening exhibitions presented some candidates for more sustained consumption.

Your Name Here, 2014, Jennifer Dalton, One year of credit card offers displayed in an acrylic briefcase, with a wax seal and rhinestone numbers
Artifact Bags series, 2013–2015, Jordan Bennett Bags made from animal hides and tattooed with store logos
By far the most moving to these eyes is also the simplest, an installation that avoids all formal traps. That is Nguyen Phong Linh’s HOME, a wooden boat she built that is somewhere in size between a canoe and a lifeboat. It sits slightly battered and tipped, recalling the primary mode of transport for so many immigrants. Phong Linh’s intention with the title is to one day return it to Vietnam, perhaps indicating a completed journey, a ceremonial conclusion of diaspora. More familiar are two exhibits, Superflex’s Bankrupt Banks, large banners displaying the logos of defunct banks, and Jennifer Dalton’s Your Name Here, an acrylic briefcase filled with a year’s worth of credit card offers.

Many of the targets are low-hanging fruit (bailouts, building security, economic globalisation), and a lot of the works, as clever as they are, feel like stand-ins for others that would accomplish exactly the same demolition. But maybe the point is simply that there is an ocean of work giving form to the same discontent, the same themes. Again, with the caveat that the writer has not experienced them directly, the works that promise to make a lasting impression do have a thematic consistency, which is: labour. Christy Chow’s video De-stitching shows exactly that, a garment being unstitched. This act of literal deconstruction lays bare the human investment in disposable commodities, and strangely enough restores the dignity of the word garment. Blake Fall-Conroy’s Minimum Wage Machine is a hand-cranked device that looks like something from a penny arcade. It emits pennies.

The two-sided coin of current capitalist critique is repression, on the one side, and hyper extreme proprietorship on the other. Fall-Conroy’s Police Flags is a rack of squad car flashers. The Center for Tactical Magic has created a giant chain link made of thousands of handcuff keys. On the possession side, The Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s Rare Endophyte Collector’s Club, a participatory lab for collecting microorganisms, has unsettling implications. The race to collect, patent, and commercially apply these plant dwellers is on. You may love that rosebush you see out of your window but you won’t necessarily own what’s inside it – or control who comes into your garden to harvest the bugs.

One thing is for certain about the museum’s curatorial future: there is an inexhaustible supply of material. And in spite of capitalism’s contradictions (or because of them), the Museum of Capitalism has found itself at the centre of a growth industry.

All photos: Brea McAnally/Brea Photography

This article appeared in DAM64. Order your personal copy.
Bankrupt Banks, 2012, Superflex, Logos of banks that either declared bank-ruptcy or were acquired by other banks
Rare Endophyte Collectors Club, 2017, The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, New, rare, and hard to access microorganisms, revealing the secrets of the microbiome era
People’s History of Capitalism, 2017, Tara Shi, A wooden orytelling booth with a video recorder and a small screen that asks participants to recount their stories and reflections on capitalism
Come, Run in Me, 2015, Christy Chow, A treadmill-activated video game that invites visitors to run as fast as a sweatshop laborer must work
Police Flag, 2009, Blake Fall-Conroy, Red, white, and blue police beacons form an American flag motif, enhancing the flag’s primary purpose as a means of identification and a marker of territory by heightening its visual impact through lights and motion, thereby reinforcing the supposed ideologies of the United States that are already present in the flag’s symbolism on an international scale