At the Museum of Capitalism, viewers will find a hand-cranked machine that spits out pennies at the same rate the U.S. minimum wage does. There’s a trading post for rare, allegedly collectable endophytes (fungi and other microorganisms that live inside plants). And there’s a series of miniatures and figurines based on the U.S. Treasury Department’s 2008 bailout of Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and the other banks deemed too big to fail.
Museumgoers can also browse a library with all the essential texts: Geoffrey Hodgson’s Conceptualizing Capitalism, J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism as We Knew It, David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism—early classics in this fan-favorite late-capitalist genre.
Naturally, no trip to the Museum of Capitalism would be complete without a visit to the gift shop.
The Museum of Capitalism, which opens on June 17 in Oakland, must be the first institution outside the former Soviet bloc dedicated to a pure critique of capitalism. A pop-up exhibition occupying a vacant retail storefront in Oakland’s Jack London district this summer, the inaugural (temporary) exhibit will feature work by more than 50 artists across a variety of media. Admission is free: Entry will only cost you your fragile bourgeois preconceptions.
“Some would argue that opening a museum of capitalism is a radical act,” says Timothy Furstnau, one of the founders and curators for the Museum of Capitalism. “We don’t think it should be considered all that radical, but it seems to fit in place, in the radical history of Oakland, which we admire.”
Furstnau—one of two curators who make up FICTILIS, the curatorial collective behind the Museum of Capitalism—credits a few different sources for the inspiration for the museum. One was a speech by Alex Callinicos, the British political theorist and Trotskyite, about visiting the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. “He gave a moving account and then speculated that there might one day be a museum of capitalism,” Furstnau says. “We read that and thought, Let’s not wait for ‘one day.’”
Over the past two or three years, he and Andrea Steves—FICTILIS’s other half—have been organizing texts, gathering artists, and investigating real estate for a museum to memorialize the future end of capitalism. She says that the institution is focused primarily on art, because art can help people with the “defamiliarization” of a subject that they’ve known all their lives.
“The larger space of the museum will also have elements that your typical museums have,” Steves says. That includes the library, gift shop, and even games, such as Mark Anspach’s Anti-Monopoly. “There’s a commodity library that traces the history of commodities in capitalism”—imagine displays on cotton, sugar, and tobacco. (Some examples of which will be available for purchase in the gift shop.)
The Museum of Capitalism could easily be called the Museum Against Capitalism. Perhaps fittingly, the museum can’t escape certain contradictions of its own enterprise, starting with its partnership with the Jack London Improvement District. The local economic development organization is the fiscal sponsor for the inaugural temporary installation. The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation also supported the show, which runs to August 20, with its prestigious exhibition award.
“We happen to be a district with a significant amount of vacant commercial space,” says Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District. “The waterfront development, Jack London Square, isn’t one of the newer developments in Oakland. This area is just starting to reach the level of density and foot traffic that would support tenancies in these spaces. So we felt we were a good match for an art use that was seeking a home.”
The museum exhibit will occupy a nearly 13,000-square-foot space in a retail center that has remained mostly vacant since the financial crisis struck. The space is part of the story of the Museum of Capitalism, according to FICTILIS. Working with an engine of capitalism in order to put on an exhibit about dismantling capitalism isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.
“Politics as purity is something we’re just not interested in doing,” Furstnau says. “We relish the messy partnership and hope that it can lead to dialogue.”
Works on view in the Museum of Capitalism will contain plenty of winking nods at the theme. Evan Desmond Yee’s Shop of Desires (2017), an installation, mirrors the gift-shop experience—but without any merchandise. With soil-erg (2012), Claire Pentecost proposes a new currency, in the form of bars of soil that resemble gold bullion. Carrie Hott will lead a class on artificial light for a project called The Light That Elongated the Day (2017).
In the library, a special selection of readings called the “capitalisms collection” categorizes capitalisms (plural) by relevant periods (industrial capitalism, agrarian capitalism) or modes (crony capitalism, platform capitalism). There’s another, simultaneous special art exhibition running alongside the main presentation called “American Domain,” curated by Erin Elder. Other artists or entities involved in the museum’s first foray include Dread Scott, Jennifer Dalton, Futurefarmers, and the Center for Tactical Magic.
If the Museum of Capitalism were planned as a permanent institution, it might live long enough to be displaced by the very forces it surveys. That’s practically a given in Oakland—and part of the reason why the museum fits there. “It is an interesting meta-museum to bring to an area that is in transition, in a moment of physical and economic development,” Hauser says.
For the Jack London Improvement District, the museum is an opportunity for economic activation, absolutely. In fact, it may be a little late in coming: Retailers and restaurants are already starting to pour into the area. The Museum of Capitalism also represents an artistic tradition that has disappeared from other parts of Oakland. Hauser isn’t worried that a pop-up multi-media show means that hyper-gentrification is just around the corner. Instead, the Museum of Capitalism is a chance to shore up one category of use—art, like music venues or fabrication businesses—that is becoming harder to find in Oakland.
“Part of what we’re trying to do with this exhibition is to play with the boundaries of the Museum of Capitalism, what is inside and what is outside the walls of the exhibition,” Furstnau says. “Oakland presents itself right now as a convenient, ready-made exhibit on a certain kind of accelerated development and moment in capitalism.”
There are so many other key icons and objects that museumgoers might hope to find in a permanent Museum of Capitalism. A signed copy of The Art of the Deal. Nolan Ryan’s 1979 Million Dollar Contract. A tamagotchi. Perhaps grist for future FICTILIS outings. In the meantime, the curators may have already accomplished their goal. When a specialty museum opens on a subject—see also: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (1995) and the Newseum (2008)—that’s the tell. Capitalism is doomed.