On April 30, a protest challenging the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) ties with controversial financiers culminated in violent confrontations with reports of injuries from both demonstrators and museum workers. Every Friday from April 9 until June 11, members of a coalition called the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF) have organized a series of talks and actions at the plaza across from the MoMA as part of the Strike MoMA campaign. Why strike MoMA? “So that something else can emerge,” the website states, “something under the control of workers, communities, and artists rather than billionaires.” This series of events is only the first phase of a two-step process. The second phase is a spokescouncil-based convening to “determine the shape, steps, and mechanics of a just transition to a post-MoMA future that prioritizes workers and communities.”
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The coalition targets five MoMA board members – Steven Tananbaum, Glenn Dubin, Steven Cohen, Leon Black, and Larry Fink – for their “ties to war, racist prison, and border enforcement systems, vulture fund exploitation, gentrification, and displacement of the poor, extractivism and environmental degradation, and patriarchal forms of violence.” Hedge fund billionaire Leon Black recently resigned from his position as chair of the board of MoMA after revelations of his financial ties with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Pressure from artists and activists raised after news that Black had paid $158 million to Epstein for financial advice from 2012 to 2017 came to fruition. Black still remains a trustee but before he announced he would be stepping down from his chairman position, Strike MoMA declared “Whether Black stays or goes, a consensus has emerged: beyond any one board member, MoMA itself is the problem.” In an open letter, 150 artists and art workers asked for an end of art’s relationship with “toxic philanthropy and structures of oppression.”
“Stolen land, stolen people, stolen labor, stolen wealth, stolen worlds, stolen horizons,” Strike MoMA’s website writes. “This is the modernity to which MoMA is a monument.”
While the previous three events had remained peaceful, the demonstration on April 30 escalated after protesters attempted to enter the museum. Two security guards and one protester were reportedly injured. One week prior to the protest, organizers had addressed a letter to MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, criticizing board members for their financial investments. In an email to the museum staff earlier this month, Lowry said that MoMA “respects the right to protest,” adding, however, “I do not agree that dismantling MoMA, or any museums, serves the best interests of the public.” While a MoMA spokeswoman had indicated that protesters would be allowed inside the museum if they had tickets and passed a COVID-19 screening protocol, demonstrators were not allowed in when they arrived at the gates of the MoMA. The museum said in a statement that the protesters showed “complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of our staff and visitors” by trying to “force their entry, en masse, into the museum.” The coalition quickly released their own statement on May 1 stating, “We condemn MoMA leadership’s attempt to distort the nature of the confrontation at the museum yesterday.”
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Before reaching the museum doors, protesters started their tour titled “The Ruins of Modernity: From the City to the Museum,” at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. On the way, they stopped at BlackRock, Rockefeller Center, the New York City Police Foundation, the MoMA Tower, and other monuments representing “the ruling class.”
While the back and forth between the coalition and MoMA so far haven’t led to any significant changes, the protests do raise bigger questions about the role of funding and private philanthropy for art institutions in the United States. While museums in most European countries can rely on state support, it isn’t the case in the U.S. and some experts doubt it will change any time soon. However, this won’t stop the coalition who will be hosting more events in the weeks to come.
“This was the first time we knocked on their door, but it won’t be the last,” a member of Strike MoMA said toward the end of the action, according to Hyperallergic.