Cleaning the museum—maintenance art

The artist asks us if maintaining can be as important as creating

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (July 23, 1973), Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art ©Mierle Laderman Ukeles

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Key points

  • Ukeles’s public action called attention to the “invisible” labor often performed by women and the working class. She created a political body of art that focused on important, but undervalued, tasks. In this particular series of actions at the Wadsworth Atheneum, she highlighted the labor of maintenance and cleaning that is necessary to cultural spaces like the museum, but goes unnoticed and is often underpaid and undervalued.
  • In the 1960s and 1970s, institutional critique emerged as an artistic strategy that criticized the power structures and cultural hierarchies of spaces like the museum. Engaging with the inequities and injustices of how we think about maintenance work, Ukeles created a new area of art-making, which she called “Maintenance Art.” This included the repetitive, and often thankless work of cleaning and repair that is essential to the functioning of domestic and public spaces.
  • In creating her manifesto and performing public actions, Ukeles moved away from the role of the artist as a maker of objects in favor of producing more conceptual projects. This built on the example of Marcel Duchamp, whose readymade sculptures were based on the idea of taking an existing object, changing the way we look at it, and recontextualizing it as art. By making it visible through performance and photography, Ukeles does the same for maintenance work, and in the process hopes to change the way we think about this type of labor.

Go deeper

Read more about Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art

Read Ukeles’s “Maintenance Manifesto” from 1969

Listen to Ukeles explain what influenced the development of Maintenance Art

Learn about Ukeles’s other artworks

Watch a video discussing the origins and ideas of performance art

Feeling skeptical? Watch “The Case for Conceptual Art” and decide what you think

Learn more about the social and political implications of women’s invisible labor


More to think about

In her work Touch Sanitation, Ukeles spent a year shaking the hand of every employee of the New York City Sanitation Department, meticulously documenting her process along the way. Can art be an action rather than an object? Do you see this project as art, and what are your reasons for your position?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.