A view of the Hope to Nope exhibition (image provided by Charlie Waterhouse)

Over one-third of artists featured in the London Design Museum’s activist-oriented Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–18 have joined to form the group “Nope to Arms” to demand their work be removed from the exhibition. The action follows recent controversy surrounding the museum hosting the Farnborough Airshow, a private event organized by arms-trading company Leonardo. Artists and supporters claim the public was not privy to the existence of this event.

The Museum describes the exhibition as exploring, “how graphic design and technology have played a pivotal role in dictating and reacting to the major political moments of our times.” Finding their artistic ethos in opposition to the Museum’s relationship with Leonardo, a group of featured artists released a statement on July 25, requesting their works be withdrawn from the exhibition, set to close August 12. Initially, 30 artists and Design Museum contributors signed the statement, calling on the museum to financially and ideologically divest from the international weapons industry. The artists requested their work be removed from the gallery by August 1 and urged the museum — and others like it — to reconsider their economic relationship with companies dealing in arms, fossil fuels, and tobacco.

The number of opposing Design Museum contributors has grown to 40 since the initial release of the statement. The artist-led action has worked closely with the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), who has publicly promoted the campaign against the Design Museum’s decision to host the fair. According to a statement sent to Hyperallergic by CAAT, many of the artists plan to attend the removal of their work this Thursday, August 2. The artists have collectively requested the museum adhere a statement in place of each of the removed works, explaining:

The artist has asked for their work to be removed because the museum recently hosted an arms trade event. The artist views this as a violation of their personal ethics and ethics that should be the norm for arts institutions. It is the artist’s hope that the museum will now establish a new policy stating that they will not take money from the arms, fossil fuel and tobacco industries or use art to legitimise those profiting from war, repression and destruction.

Shepard Fairey at the National Portrait Gallery unveiling of the Obama “Hope” poster (via flickr.com/nostri-imago)

Notably, Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the famous Obama “Hope” poster, signed the petition against the Design Museum. Fairey’s work was the initial inspiration behind the promotional artwork for the Hope to Nope exhibition. The artist posted a statement condemning the Design Museum’s decision via his Instagram. A press release sent to Hyperallergic also indicated the artist behind the iconic “I ❤ NY” design, Milton Glaser, and Hong Kong-based artist and activist Jobie Yip Oi Yiu, whose protest art on view in Hope to Nope was once met with tear gas and rubber bullets by Hong Kong police officers, have also added their names to the list of protestors. The exhibition catalogue includes with both Fairy and Glaser.

Following the artist’s decision to remove their work, on July 30, the Design Museum made a firmer stance on their website. In a statement by Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black, directors of the Design Museum, the executives say:

As an educational charity, we cannot take an overt political stance as some activists would like us to do. Recent events have shown us that breaching the laws that regulate charities could put us at risk of having our charitable status removed. In a statement today the Charity Commission reminded the charities sector that, “educational charities can play an important role in informing the public. The law is clear, however, that they must do so in a balanced and neutral way. There are clear rules for charities regarding political activity that form a key part of both charity law and public expectations.”

On Tuesday 17 July the Design Museum atrium was hired by a company in the aerospace and defence industry for a private event. Professional activists whose work didn’t feature in the exhibition took the view that the museum had acted wrongfully and were quick to exploit the situation.

The museum is now being targeted by a group of activists, not all of whom are being accurate in their presentation of the situation. We are in the midst of an argument not of our making. We will not be seen as an easy target and a surrogate for the real targets of these campaigners. We do not want our programmes to be co-opted by the agenda of others and we stand by our curatorial independence.

The Design Museum policies are in line with those of all other major cultural institutions around the world. These haven’t changed since the exhibitors agreed to be part of the exhibition. We have committed to review these policies and those that apply for event hire at the museum. The outcome of these protests will be to censor the exhibition, curtail free speech and prevent the museum from showcasing a plurality of views.

Jess Worth, a member of BP or not BP?, which has been one of the most vocal organizers in the endeavor, told Hyperallergic in an email:

BP or not BP?’s entire raison d’etre has been to try to challenge the sponsorship of our cultural institutions by unethical oil companies using creativity, performance, and direct action. I’d checked the sponsor list of the Design Museum for particularly problematic companies before we agreed to be part of the exhibition. So then to discover we were unwittingly associated with the arms industry like that was a huge blow. We immediately reached out to other artists and activists we knew who were also featured in the exhibition, to talk about how we could respond.

The artist adds, “ … representatives of communities who have been repressed by UK-manufactured arms — from Syria and Hong Kong (both movements who had work in the exhibition) and Bahrain — so their presence and words will help us connect to the reason why all this has happened in the first place.”

A view of the “Brixtopia/Brixton Pound” display by This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll (image provided by Charlie Waterhouse)

Other artists requesting their work be removed are the designers responsible for This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll, a brand and design company whose efforts lie in “making every effort to only work with clients who make the world a better place.” Charlie Waterhouse, one of two artists behind the company, told Hyperallergic via email, “ … it’s important that artists and designers and creatives of all kinds continue to visualise such positive alternative futures — because if people don’t imagine these things, how will other people know that change is possible?”

Artwork by artist Oddly Head, set to be removed on August 2 (image provided by Oddly Head)

Waterhouse adds, “When art is co-opted by dirty money and greedy people it needs a foil to that shadow. Hope to Nope has been a timely reminder of that from the off. A brilliant exhibition with art and artists completely misunderstood, underestimated, and finally misrepresented by the very institution showcasing them.”

Worth told Hyperallergic, “I think it will be a massive cautionary tale to other cultural organisations to think very carefully about who they choose to take funding from. And also maybe embolden other artists to voice their discomfort when they see their work being used to support unethical industries like arms, tobacco or fossil fuels.”

As a result of the controversy, the exhibition will be free until its closing. The Design Museum website explains:

As of 1 August, some artwork has been removed from the exhibition, before the exhibition closing date of 12 August, at the request of the lenders. As a result, and until the end of the run, the exhibition will now be free to visit. If you have already purchased a ticket, please call the bookings office on: 020 3862 5937 or email bookings@designmuseum.org.

Hyperallergic reached out to Leonardo for comment but has not received a response.

Jasmine Weber is an artist, writer, and former news editor at Hyperallergic. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.