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Over 120 Protesters Ask Artis Nonprofit to Clarify “Organization’s Position by Signing onto BDS”

Protesters marched to the offices of Artis, a New York-based arts nonprofit that organizes trips for arts professionals to Israel, demanding the group demonstrate they’re not part of a larger movement to normalize the occupation of Palestinian lands.

A view of the #DecolonizeThisPlace protest in front of the Artis offices at Broadway and Howard Street (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
A view of the #DecolonizeThisPlace protest in front of the Artis offices off Broadway in Soho (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last Friday night, over 120 protesters donning Palestinian keffiyehs marched from the #DecolonizeThisPlace hub at Artists Space in lower Manhattan to the offices of Artis, an arts organization that marchers claim “artwashes” the occupation of Palestinian Territories by Israel.

One of the many police vehicles on the block of Artists Space. This one is framed by the front door of Artists Space at 55 Walker Street, Manhattan.
One of the many police vehicles on the block of Artists Space. This one is framed by the front door of Artists Space at 55 Walker Street, Manhattan.

The group gathered at Artists Space, where #DecolonizeThisPlace has been in residence since September 17, and began their action with a series of songs of solidarity with Palestine and then those in attendance were asked to share their personal stories of why they chose to attend. Some of the individuals self-identified as Palestinian, but the vast majority were of various ethnicities and nationalities, including Irish, Israeli, Egyptian, African American, Japanese American, Puerto Rican, British, and various Indigenous groups from across the Americas. (You can hear some of their personal messages in the Hyperallergic video below.)

There were various police vehicles, including two police vans, one of which had roughly 10 officers inside, parked at either side of the block where Artists Space is located. My queries to various officers at the scene as to why there was a police presence for the gathering were not answered. The march organizers told me they did not know why there was a police presence.

Various Facebook share messages of the #DecolonizeThisPlace event that includes anti-Palestinian sentiment. (screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)
Various Facebook share messages of the #DecolonizeThisPlace event that includes anti-Palestinian sentiment. (screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

I was told the march’s Facebook event page had received some negative feedback, and when the group allowed me access to their page, I spotted various post shares that attempt to characterize the event as “terrorist” related. I reached out to one of the commenters, Sharon O’Donnell, to ask what the ground for her concern was but she did not reply to my inquiry. Her profile identified herself as living in Tampa, Florida, and “Looking to help save America and Nursing.”

On the evening of Friday,  December 9, at roughly 5:30pm the marchers gathered behind the red “Decolonize This Place” banner and marched up Broadway towards the Artis offices off Broadway in Soho, where the group sang chants and declared their hope that Artis, which does not receive direct government funding from the Israeli government, would sign onto the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to pledge their support for Palestinian artists and the rejection of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Organizers told me they felt it was a way for Artis to show their commitment to Palestinian artists and to take an active stand against the occupation. Based on many conversations I had in the West Bank in 2014, many see Artis as part of a larger “Brand Israel” strategy to normalize the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

On November 17, NYU professor Andrew Ross and art critic and historian Yates McKee, hand delivered a letter to Artis offices on Broadway (the text of the letter is posted at the bottom of this post in its entirety). The letter, which is signed by both #DecolonizeThisPlace and the MTL collective, asked the New York-based arts organization to sign onto BDS and explained that “signing on to BDS will also send a positive message of support to artists and arts institutions within Israel who are aligned with Boycott from Within, and who are under sharp pressure from the increasingly repressive Ministry of Culture.” In an unpublished video that the group considers part of the larger #DecolonizeThisPlace project, Ross told the executive director that he would appreciate if she read and reflected on it before responding. During the meeting, Artis Executive Director Yael Reinharz explained the organization’s position and said they did once bring visitors to Ramallah, which is in the West Bank, but they have since discontinued that trip in favor of helping visitors to arrange their own transportation if they chose to visit. The group at #DecolonizeThisPlace had not received a response from Artis by the time of the protest.

Hyperallergic reached out to Artis on Friday night for comment on the matter, asking if they planned to respond. We received the following response from Artis Executive Director Yael Reinharz on Saturday:

Artis has always been deeply invested in dialogue around the cultural boycott of Israel. The projects, ideas, and voices of the artists we support are evidence of this. One month ago, we invited Amin Hussein to meet with us. He did not respond and, instead, sent a group from MTL collective to our office (he was not present). The group that arrived was not interested in speaking and instead delivered a letter to us asking Artis to sign on to the BDS.

Members of The Illuminator projecting on a building on Walker Street as the march begins.
Members of The Illuminator projecting on a building on Walker Street as the march begins.

Last year, Artis commissioned a report on the Cultural Boycott of Israel — which is only one aspect of the larger BDS movement — that was written by Israeli-Canadian curator Chen Tamir. Hyperallergic published that report on February 3, 2015. The paper solicited responses — also published on Hyperallergic — by the MTL Collective and Omar Barghouti, who is a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Barghouti wrote:

PACBI has never targeted individual Israeli artists or academics per se, not because they tend to be more progressive or opposed to injustice than the rest of society, as often mistakenly assumed or falsely argued, but because we are opposed on principle to political testing and ‘blacklisting.’

Artis for their part organizes a regular trip of invited art world figures to tour Israeli arts organizations and studios. (Full disclosure: I participated on one of those Artis-funded trips in 2014.) The objective of the trips are to establish ties between individuals outside Israel and artists, institutions, and cultural workers within.

The #DecolonizeThisPlace march traveled up Broadway and rallied on off Broadway, where Artis offices are located. The event lasted roughly an hour. Members of The Illuminator projected messages onto the building using a mobile unit, including “Decolonize This Place” and “stop artwashing settler colonialism.”

A view of the protest in Soho.

The march returned to Artists Space without any arrests. The police escorted the group the whole way, but they interacted very little with the protesters beyond instructions demanding marchers allow the flow of traffic or pedestrians. No one appeared to know who notified the police or how they learned about the march.

Yates McKee, who was one of the people who delivered the letter to Artis and a member in the #DecolonizeThisPlace residency, explained what he thought was the impact of the event: “This action is a milestone in terms of both US arts activism around Palestine, and also the critique of ‘artwashing’ more generally. By artwashing we mean: the systematic use of art, artists, and art institutions to veil, legitimize, and sanitize conditions of oppression. It is a term we learned from our allies in places like the Bronx and Boyle Heights in LA struggling against the deployment of art by developers as a ‘weapon of mass displacement’ to use a phrase coined by Bronx artist Shellyne Rodriguez. It also builds on an event we recently organized with Robin DG Kelley, Jasbir Puar, and Marz Saffore about the connections between the Palestinian struggle and the Movement for Black Lives, which earlier this year endorsed BDS.

“Our action today was designed to make it known that, as cultural producers, we will not tolerate the collaboration of our own colleagues in the art field with artwashing organizations such as Artis. In refusing to sit idly by while the artworld lends itself to complicity with occupation, we open space for a different kind of art world, one that prioritizes art as a force of radical imagination, solidarity, and liberation.”‘

The action comes at a time when there is heightened concern about the push by Israeli government officials to legalize the illegal Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which every government in the world sees as a major obstacle to peace.

I spoke to a number of participants at Artists Space after the event. Monica Perry is a photographer, and she said she was pleased to see the energy in the room. “I’m here for Palestine. I’ve been taking part in these marches for the past 20 years,” she said. “I’m happy that people are still fighting but nothing has changed. People should continue to fight.” She did point out that it was the first time she had seen such an event at an art space.

Noha Arafa, who is a lawyer and artist, said the march was an “inspiring,” “uplifting,” and “positive” action. She originally got involved with #DecolonizeThisPlace when organizing the Justice for Akai Gurley event on November 19, which was the day before the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of Gurley by the NYPD. “I believe art is going to save the world,” she said.

One of the many organizers of the march, Kyle Goen, was equally positive. “Tonight’s action was a beautiful statement. When we came into this space we had five strands and free Palestine was one of those strands. People show up for a lot of things but they have a hard time showing up for Palestine, so it’s good to see this … It’s no longer acceptable for cultural institutions to ignore Palestine, just like they can’t ignore Black Lives Matter and black liberation, and indigenous struggles.”

A #DecolonizeThisPlace contingent in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank, including Habshe Yossef, who is part of the MTL collective,  raised a banner in solidarity with the action that day by the Israeli West Bank barrier, often referred to as an apartheid wall by anti-occupation activists. The following image was one of many shared on social media by #DecolonizeThisPlace:

The #DecolonizeThisPlace banner at the Israeli West Bank barrier. (image courtesy #DecolonizeThisPlace)

 *      *      *

Letter to Artis from #DecolonizeThisPlace:

Letter to the Leadership of Artis:

For the period of our three-month Artists Space residency, MTL+, at Decolonize This Place, are your downtown Manhattan neighbors. Recently, you reached out to us because of our expressed interest in Palestinian arts and politics. It is out of solidarity with Palestinian liberation that we come here today with a request for Artis.

While your organization does not take any money from Israeli government sources, and makes a point of declaring this publicly, you surely must be aware that Artis is widely seen as doing the work of Brand Israel, a state marketing program to re-brand Israel’s image as modern and cultured, as opposed to bellicose and religious. While not a direct arm of  the Israeli’s state’s propaganda — hasbara in Hebrew — program, the activities of Artis are perceived, nonetheless, to be polishing the cultural face of the national brand in the same promotional spirit of hasbara. We call on Artis to dispel that perception by signing on to BDS.

We know that your leadership is on record as opposing BDS because it will constrain the individual freedom of artists to engage in transborder cultural exchange. Anyone familiar with the BDS guidelines will know this is a spurious concern. BDS signatories are only constrained from working with state-funded institutions in Israel. Cultural and intellectual exchange between individuals is not at issue. No one who operates in the true spirit of BDS would support sanctions on individual freedoms.

Since Artis already refrains from any relationship with state funding, and since it will, at the request of clients, curate a “BDS-compliant” tour of Israeli arts locations, we are asking you to further clarify the organization’s position by signing on to BDS. This will be a bold step to take, and, if Artis were to agree, it would send a clear message to other institutional leaders in the artworld who cower in fear at seeing a donor or two threaten to cut their funding. In our experience, this is a pervasive mentality, and to be forced to operate in this environment of fear is an abject predicament for those who subscribe to artistic freedom on almost every topic imaginable—except for Palestine. Lastly, signing on to BDS will also send a positive message of support to artists and arts institutions within Israel who are aligned with Boycott from Within, and who are under sharp pressure from the increasingly repressive Ministry of Culture.

We hope you will respond favorably to the request, and we are happy to advise you on how to negotiate the steps toward such a declaration.

MTL+
Decolonize This Place

Editor’s Note: The map of the march that was previously posted on the article has been removed at the request of Artis.

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