Artist-initiated museum upheaval is continuing to have the same escalating effect that it had in 2019, as evidenced by the fact that last week, 37 artists who’ve contributed to the exhibition “Theater of Operations: The Gulf War 1991-2011” at MoMA PS1 sent a letter to the show’s curators, requesting that both MoMA and its affiliate institution, MoMA PS1, “take a truly radical position by divesting from any trustees and sources of funding that profit from the suffering of others.” Specifically, the letter bears references to MoMA board members Larry Fink and Leon Black: the former is the CEO of the multinational investment corporation BlackRock, which is invested in companies that operate private prisons, and the latter is the founder of the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, which owns a defense and security company. MoMA PS1 has a separate board on which neither Fink or Black currently serve.
The 37 signatories of the letter include the Guerrilla Girls, who lambasted MoMA last year for their decision to name a gallery after Glenn Dubin, a museum trustee who had been accused of having sex with Virginia Giuffre, one of the purported victims of Jeffrey Epstein. Last Saturday, Michael Rakowitz, another artist who signed the letter and who has a video installation entitled RETURN (2004–) on view in the “Theater of Operations” exhibition, showed up at MoMA PS1 personally to post a statement explaining why he wanted to alter his artwork in protest, specifically by pausing the work indefinitely. “I kindly request that Larry Fink and Leon Black please divest from these companies so that I may unpause my video and press play,” Rakowitz’s statement regarding his artwork reads. “If this is not possible, then I kindly ask that MoMA please divest from Larry Fink and Leon Black as trustees so that I may unpause my video and press play.”
In deliberate ways, this organized letter resembles the actions taken by artists in 2019 during the Whitney Biennial, when Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman and Nicholas Galanin requested that their work be removed from the exhibition and called for the removal of former board member Warren B. Kanders. Kanders still runs Safariland, a military equipment supplier that’s been resoundingly criticized for its sale of crowd-control weapons like tear gas, but in response to the outcry of last summer, Kanders famously stepped down from his position of vice chairman of the museum. To this day, he still defends his company and its products. “If you look around the world from Paris to Hong Kong to Chile, in the absence of these less-lethal products the results would be quite different,” Kanders told the Financial Times earlier this week.
MoMA has not yet officially responded to the letter signed by 37 artists featured in “Theater of Operations,” but the sentiment expressed therein speaks clearly to the overarching question that will persist throughout this year: how can the arts effectively disentangle itself from a world dominated by capital, accumulation and the abuse of power?