Leon Black steps down as MoMA chairman as artists and activists plan to strike

In The Black

Leon Black steps down as MoMA chairman as artists and activists plan to strike

(Jamison McAndie/Unsplash)

The Museum of Modern Art is not an institution unfamiliar with controversy. In the last year alone, artists and architects (including members of the Black Reconstructive Collective, whose individual work is now on display at the museum) called on MoMA to divest of its association with the late Philip Johnson over his history of racism and Nazi sympathies, going so far as to cover his name at the entrance to the Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America exhibition.

Now, a coalition of artists and activist groups have turned their attention on the museum’s board, announcing a 10-week “strike” of MoMA beginning April 9 over everything from chairman Leon Black’s payment of $158 million to the late Jeffrey Epstein to purported unfair treatment of workers on the ground.

In a March 23 document released by the StrikeMOMA Working Group of the newly formed International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF), the coalition announced that it would be striking for 10 weeks across two phases. The first will entail “a variety of activities, including trainings, writing projects, agitprop campaigns, and direct actions at the museum and beyond,” while the second, held at the end of the 10 weeks, will call stakeholders to imagine a post-MoMA future where the museum’s resources could be redistributed to create a community-run institution. It’s important to note that all of this is being done specifically without dialoguing with the museum; the IIAAF comes out against the “liberal governance” of task forces and pledges to up diversity rates, arguing that offers to talk or hold forums only stall direct action and lend legitimacy to the museum’s regime.

The IIAAF is made up of: Artists for a Post-MoMA Future, Comité Boricua En La Diáspora, Curators and Educators for Decolonization, Decolonize This Place, Direct Action Front for Palestine, Forensic Architecture, Formers Employees of MoMA, Global Ultra Luxury Faction, Insurgent Poets Society, MoMA Divest, Take Back the Bronx, Wardance Collective, and We Will Not Be Silent. The IIAAF pointedly notes that its Strike MoMA manifesto is not open to signatories, nor was it intended to build a formal coalition, only to put its ideas out there and encourage people and groups to share their struggles.

The top of the IIAAF’s list concerns Leon Black’s role as the chair of the MoMA’s board of trustees and the museum’s continued access to his vast art collection. Last week, Black stepped down as the CEO of private equity behemoth Apollo Global Management amid continued scrutiny of his Epstein ties, and on March 26, Black announced in a private executive committee meeting that he would not seek reelection for another term as MoMA board chairman this June. As the New York Times reported, Black is expected to formally announce his stepping down at a board meeting tomorrow, March 30, for health reasons but will remain on the board.

Even if Black leaves the museum altogether (unlikely at this point), the IIAAF’s concerns go well beyond his role. As the group elaborated in their strike manifesto:

Whether Black stays or goes, a consensus has emerged: beyond any one board member, MoMA i[t]self is the problem. MoMA Divest offered a summary of its reasoning as follows, ‘Five MoMA board members — Steven Tananbaum, Glenn Dubin, Steven Cohen, Leon Black, Larry Fink — have been identified and targeted by different groups over the last year 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. Board members also have ties and donate to the NYPD Police Foundation. In short, the rot is at the core of the institution, which includes PS1.’ We agree, and also point to Honorary Chair Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire who is also president of the Zionist lobbying group World Jewish Congress and a major Trump donor. Deserving of recognition as well is board member Patricia Phelps Cisneros, whose billions come from the right-wing Grupo Cisneros media-industrial empire in Latin America. Speaking of Latin America, let’s shine a light on Steven Tananbaum, Jeff Koons enthusiast and chief investment officer at Golden Tree Assets, one of the hedge funds involved in extracting wealth from the people of Puerto Rico through the PROMESA debt-restructuring program. And how could we forget Paula Crown and James Crown of the General Dynamics armaments fortune, whose Crown Creativity Lab on the second floor of the museum hosts The Peoples Studio, an ‘experimental space where visitors can explore the art and ideas of our time through participatory programs.’ This is the condition of modernity that we find at Modernism Central: death-dealing oligarchs using art as an instrument of accumulation and shield for their violence.

The IIAAF (which includes former MoMA employees) also noted that at a time of precarity for the arts—when New York City alone has lost two-thirds of its cultural jobs during COVID—inequality, both economic and racial, pervade the MoMA’s offices. The group also made it clear that it’s solely taking aim at the administration, not the work therein:

What about the art? We love art, but we have zero allegiance to the art system of which MoMA is the epicenter. Art exists beyond MoMA. Art is not a luxury, and it is a vital part of our communities and movements. Art is one of the few means of production available to oppressed peoples for the creation and sustaining of worlds in the face of death and destruction.

AN has reached out to MoMA for a comment and will update this article accordingly.