The Met Gala is Colonial Trash

Scott Bentley
8 min readSep 23, 2021
Photograph of The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Kai Pilger

The Met Gala, also known as the Met Ball, was founded in 1948 by Eleanor Lambert. It was previously called the Costume Institute Gala or the Costume Institute Benefit. It is an annual fundraising event, typically it is held on May 2nd, it marks the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibit. However, the 2021 gala took place in September due to COVID restrictions. The gala is colonial trash, and I don’t fvck with it.

This event is marketed as a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art also called the Met in New York City. More than a fundraiser, the gala is an exclusive social event for celebrities, and New York’s social elite. It has become a source of spectacle, entertainment content. This event is characterized as the annual red-carpet event for the fashion industry. In the video, “Texas V Women, Drones V Children, Maher V a Dress: News of Justice — SOME MORE NEWS” Cody Johnston, from Some More News calls the gala “prom for rich people.”

Celebrities attend the event to signify status and post about the event on social media platforms. Attendees have been prohibited from using social media at the event since 2015 but attendees still post before and after the event and the gala receives reports, photographs, and coverage from entertainment and fashion media organizations. There is a lot of media coverage of the gala every year, and people do this because it signifies perceived social status, and it gets attention. A lot of people create content, reacting to the event and a lot of people engage with this content, but keep in mind most people will never go to this gala or be able to afford the ticket cost. That is a conscious choice by organizers to gatekeep, to make the gala and this culture based in exclusion.

I’m not interested in the criticism of what celebrities wore to a fashion event because I find it shallow, and I don’t care. Did Lil Nas X look amazing, yes, but why do musicians need to adhere to specific physical beauty standards to be successful in the first place when their only barrier to success should be making music?

The event has been the subject of controversy and criticism in previous years. In 2014, the event was criticized by Lily Rothman writing in Time and Guy Trebay in the New York Times for the dress code. The dress code was full evening dress and decorations, also known as white tie. This is the most formal of formal wear, even more, formal than black tie, and meant the dress code was not accessible for attendees. The gala which is inaccessible was criticized for being even more inaccessible than usual. The dress code has generally not been criticized in the past when requiring black-tie formal wear.

In 2015, the gala’s theme, originally named “Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film, and Fashion”, was renamed to “China: Through the Looking Glass.” The theme and the gala were criticized by Complex as “a reminder of the subtle institutionalized racism that’s been compounded by centuries of Asian isolationism across the board, and enduring Western stereotypes exacerbated by ignorance and the meme-able nature of social media.” The theme was a collaboration between the Met’s Costume Center and the Department of Asian Art. The gala engaged in appropriation, Orientalism, and used China as a misrepresentation for the entire continent of Asia. Racialized white and non-Asian attendees dressed in Asian cosplay for the 2015 gala.The Complex article continued “the idea of China and Asia remains an exotic mystery where the natives remain outsiders to mass culture.” This quote from Complex resembles sentiments I’ve seen from Asian Americans describing their experience as being mischaracterized and mistreated as outsiders within mass culture.

In 2018, the event was criticized for having a Roman Catholic theme. The organizers collaborated with the Catholic Church for the event. Critics didn’t like seeing a religion or part of their identity trivialized as fashion and entertainment. And I can understand this criticism to an extent. I get frustrated whenever I see people trivialize Indigenous culture for fashion and entertainment. I also find this theme controversial because I have issues with the Catholic Church as a mixed Indigenous man from California. Catholic missions are responsible for the genocide of 80 percent of Indigenous people in California during a sixty-year period.

In 2021, the event had multiple controversies. Outside the event, Black Lives Matter protesters were met with force and arrested by the NYPD. One of the arrested activists Ella Dior is quoted by NowThis as saying the protesters were trying to draw attention to the issues facing her community, to the lives of 33 Black Trans women reported killed in this year, that black lives still matter, and that people are on the brink of housing insecurity at the expiration of the eviction moratorium. When Dior says “35,000 dollars for a ticket while our people are still dying,” I connect with it in a way I suspect only racialized Black people and Indigenous people who are seeking liberation or who have been mistreated by the police can connect with it. I admire Dior as a woman risking her safety to advocate for her community which is being exploited.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was the source of controversy for wearing a dress that stated “Tax the Rich” to the gala. In her video “Why AOC’s dress matters,” Alice Cappelle defends Representative Ocasio-Cortez. Cappelle says this is an effective way of shifting the Overton window towards progressive taxation policy and the dress itself is a method of including the rich in the erosion of capitalism and the Tax the Rich message. While I agree shifting the Overton window is admirable, I relate more to Dior when she says “Wearing ‘Peg the Patriarchy,’ ‘Tax the Rich’ doesn’t do anything for us.” Cappelle uses the image of Dior in handcuffs in her video but doesn’t mention Dior’s name.

Cara Devine’s outfit to the gala stated “Peg the Patriarchy” and is also a source of controversy. In her video, “let’s talk about the met gala looks” Mina Le says she believes Devine “has good intentions” but Le points out this message “implies sexual violence” and suggests that pegging or “penetration implies taking power away from something or someone is patriarchal.”

I also saw Quannah Rose Chasinghorse-Potts, a Hän Gwich’in and Sicangu/Oglala Lakota Taah’ Trinja Hodek 19-year-old Indigenous model, climate warrior, and land protector simultaneously criticized and celebrated for attending the event. Chasinghorse-Potts looked great, and she can attend any event she wants. I can’t remember ever seeing an Indigenous land protector ever represented this way before in non-Indigenous mass culture. But I’m also skeptical of this kind of representation as a good thing. I’m worried about desirability politics in mass culture.

The museum has a Native North American Art gallery, which is also the subject of controversy. In 2017, Charles and Valerie Diker donated a private collection of historical Indigenous art to the Museum. The Dikers are non-Indigenous and the way they discuss their private collection and their role as collectors of Indigenous arts gives me hella white savior vibes. This gallery is called Art of Native America: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. The collection is from over fifty Indigenous Nations, including Indigenous Nations in California. It is the first significant display of Indigenous art in the American wing of the museum. In 2020, the museum appointed Dr. Patricia Marroquin Norby, who is Purépecha as the associate curator of Native American Art.

In 2018, Gabriella Angeleti wrote an article about the gallery for The Art Newspaper. In the article, Angeleti says since this collection is comprised of promised gifts and items on loan from a private collection it’s not subject to the “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law passed in 1990 that obligates museums receiving federal funds to have their holdings of Native American objects and human remains inventoried and to allow Native American tribes the right to repatriation.” In Angeleti’s article, Shannon O’Loughlin, the executive director at the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) alleges “Most of these items are not art: they are ceremonial or funerary objects that belong to their original communities and could only have ended up in a private collection through trafficking, and looting” and “illegal theft.” O’Loughlin alleges the museum is not substantively engaging “with tribal government representatives to understand whether they possess sensitive items and acquiring consent to display those items.” O’Loughlin’s allegations make me desire for a radical Indigenous Killmonger who would break into the museum to steal back any Indigenous artifacts.

In an 2019 article by Marabou at the Museum, Marabou says the collection does include examples of contemporary art made for purchase, but Marabou also notes they “felt uncomfortable and questioned the ethics of presentation and acquisition processes. Overall, for every object, Marabou had a big problem with provenance (record of an object’s ownership). For every object in the exhibition, the provenance is listed as either from the collection of, a gift of, or on loan from Charles and Valerie Diker. That’s it. The lack of any detail in provenance sparks questions about acquisition methods.” Marabou writes, “how did the Dikers acquire these objects? Valerie and Charles have said they worked mostly through dealers. Why not list the dealers? From whom did the dealers acquire the objects? Are any of these objects stolen? Are any of these objects sold under duress? When understanding use of some of these objects, Marabou can’t help but wonder if the beautiful objects on display were indeed stolen or handed over or sold under pressure.”

Marabou writes that Emily Johnson from the Yup’ik nation in Alaska formulated questions with Jane Anderson, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies at New York University, to ask the Dikers at a lecture regarding the collection. Johnson asked “Was an inventory of all potential NAGPRA material in this collection made? And what was your process of consulting over the display of NAGPRA items? And when will the provenance of all the items be made public?” and “Do you have a repatriation coordinator here at the Met? Who is the relevant contact person for us to talk to, to discuss care of our belongings and the potential repatriation of the items in this collection?” Marabou says the Diker’s response to Johnson was to shut down the conversation. They characterize the response as unsurprising, but disappointing. Marabou describes Charles Dikers’ interaction with Jonson as “defensive, paternalistic, and condescending.” According to Marabou, the Dikers have not done the work on the provenance as private collectors.

In 2019, artist and activist somáh haaland (pueblo norsk lenapehoking) an organizer with the Pueblo Action Alliance, spoke with Jordan Klepper and field producer Todd Bieber for the Klepper Podcast on Comedy Central about their experience of visiting the Met. On the podcast, haaland says “people don’t realize that they’re (objects displayed in museum exhibits) used, they have a purpose and also we still use all of those things today, right. They’re like oh, this is this like old dress or these old mocasins, it’s like no we still use all that stuff.”

I’ve seen people recently defend the gala from criticism by saying it’s a fundraiser for charity, so the museum is free for residents. But there isn’t much transparency regarding this, regarding where these funds go and how the funds are spent beyond going to the operating costs of the museum Costume Center, which houses the collection of the Costume Institute.

I’ve done fundraising, I’ve volunteered my time unpaid to raise funds for non-profits, but my experience as a fundraiser has never taken the form of anything resembling the gala, something so expensive, exclusive, and celebrated. A ticket to this event costs more than my annual salary, and more than half the average annual salary in the city where I was born. But price aside, I don’t think I would ever attend this event. Even if I could afford to go, if someone else would cover my ticket costs and travel expenses I don’t believe I would choose to attend.

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Scott Bentley

Scott received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell.