“Protest prep,” Hrag Vartanian
The New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was founded in 1929 to “challenge the conservative policies of traditional museums and to establish an institution devoted exclusively to modern art.” Yet since its inception, the museum has been marred by white supremacy and wealth inequality, often reproducing the very practices that its creators aimed to eradicate. Founded by three wealthy arts patrons—including a Rockefeller—the museum has often failed to live up to progressive standards. From collections filled with artifacts of colonialism to bloated executive salaries, the museum remains a space where existing global inequities are reproduced.
This spring, members of the group International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF) led a campaign titled Strike MoMA, which included 10 weeks of action that aimed to highlight the historic and ongoing racism and imperialism of the institution. The protests drew together a broad coalition of community members ranging from artists and activists to staff members. While the 10 weeks of action began in April and concluded in June, the coalition remains engaged in a long-term project of reimagining one of New York’s largest art institutions.
In recent years, MoMA has increasingly come under fire for receiving funding from donors whose sources of wealth are tainted by connections to industries such as weapons manufacturing, fossil fuels, or pharmaceuticals. Strike MoMA itself was catalyzed in part too by the relationship of recent board chair Leon Black to Jeffrey Epstein.
MoMA’s funders are not just behind-the-scenes actors, as is the case with many institutions. In fact, the museum’s top donors are often board members whose wealth supports entire collections, gallery wings, and new buildings. As the Strike MoMA coalition writes on its website, “Their billions in assets hang on the wall, works of art twisted into ornaments of repression and ciphers of extraction.” In return, these donors are seen as cultural benefactors serving the public through their generosity to the arts—often masking the nature of their fortunes.
The role of museums in rehabilitating the reputations of wealthy donors with questionable income streams is no secret, but criticism of museums who enable these wealthy villains has steadily increased over the past few years. In 2018, artist Nan Goldin led protests at several museums throughout New York and London against the Sackler family (the manufacturers of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin). One of the protests was staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and called for the museum to stop accepting money from the Sackler family. In 2019, artists Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett penned a statement for ArtForum blasting the Whitney Museum for accepting large donations from then-board member Warren Kanders. Kanders’ company Safariland provides a variety of tactical supplies to police and military forces throughout the world, including tear gas that has been used against protestors across the globe from Gaza to Ferguson.
Enter Strike MoMA. The coalition’s actions throughout the spring called attention to different facets of oppression perpetuated by the elite funders of MoMA: gold mining in the Dominican Republic, Israeli occupation of Palestine, and more. From marches and banner drops to circles of music and dance, the protestors gathered to bring awareness to these issues—but gathering itself was also the point. As stated on the Strike MoMA website, “What matters is being engaged in the struggle and breaking the dependency-complex that MoMA has created for art, ideologically and materially.” The 10 weeks of action provided an opportunity for individuals from disparate identities and cause areas to come together and build capacity as a united front against elite museum culture.
This process of creating a concentrated base of people power dedicated to the arts—one that does not rely on tainted donations or powerful billionaires—is the broader project of Strike MoMA. The coalition aims to reclaim the museum as a site of art for and by the people; as their manifesto asks, “Why strike MoMA? So that something else can emerge, something under the control of workers, communities, and artists rather than billionaires.” They ask all of us involved in the arts to consider whether these institutions work for us, and if not, what we could rebuild in their place.