Thirty-seven of the artists participating in the current MoMA PS1 group show Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 have collaborated on an open letter addressed to the museum calling for a reappraisal of its “dysfunctional and abusive relationship to toxic philanthropy.” The letter, in particular, asks for the museum to sever ties with two of its board members: Larry Fink, CEO of investment firm BlackRock, and Leon Black, owner of the military security group Constellis and equity firm Apollo Global Management. The two have profited from weapons manufacturing, private prisons, immigration detention centers, and other industries the artists find morally objectionable.
The letter, signed by artists including Ali Eyal, the Guerrilla Girls, Mona Hatoum, Jon Kessler, and Martha Rosler, was sent to MoMA and MoMA PS1 directors Glenn Lowry and Kate Fowle, respectively, on January 9, and was copied to Ruba Katrib and Peter Eleey, the curators of the exhibition. It was partially written to address their support of fellow artist Phil Collins’ withdrawal from the exhibition days before it opened to the public on November 3.
“We, the undersigned participants in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011,” the letter states, “echo this call and support Collins in the hope that his action will ‘contribute to the global momentum to protest inequity, occupation, labour extraction and disenfranchisement, and to see, together, better days.’” Though the letter expresses appreciation for the exhibition’s efforts to draw public attention to the wars in Iraq, the artists “wish to make visible MoMA’s connection to funds generated from companies and corporations that directly profit from these wars.”
The issue was additionally raised in November when artist Michael Rakowitz asked the museum to pause a video of his that was on display in the gallery space. Following their rejection of his request, Rakowitz came to the museum on January 11 to pause it himself and place a written statement on the wall alongside it. “I’ve decided to press the pause button on my video, RETURN, so that we can discuss some recent events,” reads the statement. It then puts a spotlight on the investments BlackRock has made towards the GEO Group and Core Civic, two prison corporations that have been, according to the artist, “responsible for approximately 70 [percent] of all immigration detentions and are part of a racist, carceral system which has made the US the largest jailer in the world.” It separately addressed Apollo Global’s connection to the defense contractor responsible for the deaths of 17 people at Baghdad’s Nisour Square. If Fink and Black do not divest from these companies, the letter requests that MoMa PS1 remove the two as board trustees “so that I may unpause my video and press play.” (It should be noted, as Hyperallergic also reported, the museum took down Rakowitz’s statement and started the video again.)
The artists’ stance against the museum’s board of trustees mirrors a series of events that took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art last July. Eight artists featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial withdrew their participation in a protest against Warren B. Kanders, a vice-chairman of the museum and owner of law enforcement and military supplies manufacturer Safariland. Kanders stepped down from his position later that month amid growing pressure from the artists and a number of activists that staged protests in the museum’s ground floor lobby.
MoMA PS1 has not yet provided a public statement regarding its stance towards the open letter.