The Guardians of Visual Culture: Cops and Robber-Barons


George Orwell wrote in the novel 1984  “Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future.” Tradition has been defined as the selection of elements from the past which present a desired continuity. But in a culture as multi-voiced as the United States, whose continuity is desired and so gets passed down as history? Whose history gets lost?

Lenore Metrick -Chen’s lecture explores the contested field of democracy as it pertains to art, capital, and police. The role of 19th century millionaire captains-of- industry — robber barons — in the establishment of art museum collections is well known. Less discussed is a third component: their relationship with the police. And in fact, this liaison has a fourth and key component: the laboring class, a group which has always had a predominance of immigrants, religious minorities and people of color.

Beginning and ending with the Art Bank’s glass lantern slides originally collected for the University of Chicago, Lenore Metrick -Chen connects labor, art collecting and the robber barons of the 19th  century to the one-percent’s corporate entanglement in today’s art world, attempting to tease out their more hidden relationships with surveillance and the police.


Lenore Metrick-Chen received a joint PhD from the University of Chicago from the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Art History and her research continues investigating the intertwining of art and social histories. Seen together, they reveal alliances of art and power, race and class, that generally go unnoticed. Her book Collecting Art/ Excluding People: Chinese Subjects and the American Art Discourse was published by SUNY Press in 2012 and her upcoming book Creating Cultural Memory: Monuments, Art and Other Ephemera is due out in 2018.