Panelist Natalia Brizuela (second from right) reads the public letter to the audience (image by and courtesy of Adele Eisenstein)

A conference held at The Museum of Modern Art last weekend ended with a surprise reading of an open letter which calls on the museum, and its board member Larry Fink, to divest their investments from private prison companies.

The Multiplication of Perspectives,” a three-day conference organized by the museum’s research program “Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives” (C-MAP,) discussed issues of borders, restitution, capitalism, and the “global” approach to art with the participation of leading international artists and scholars. Natalia Brizuela, Associate Professor of Film and Media and Spanish at UC Berkley, read out the letter to the audience at end of the last panel of the conference.

The letter, initiated by the group Art Space Sanctuary, was signed by the majority of the panelists including artists Kader Attia and Jumana Manna; Zdenka Badovinac, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana; political theorist Achille Mbembe; writer and curator Omar Berrada; and 11 others participants. The letter reads:

We, invited speakers at the MOMA-organized conference The Multiplication of Perspectives, ask that MOMA and its board member Larry Fink divest from private prison companies.

MOMA Board member Larry Fink is CEO of BlackRock, the 2nd largest shareholder of prison companies, GEO Group and Core Civic. With over $2 billion in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), these two companies are responsible for over 70% of all immigration detention including families separated at the border. MOMA’s own pension fund, Fidelity, is also one of the largest owners of these prison stocks.

These prisons punish for profit, break up families and communities, detain immigrant children and impede visits. These prisons are racist, violent and routinely violate human rights. Detained Migrants are denied due process. These prisons cut costs, deny medical care and serve barely edible food.

These prisons think of immigrants as a market. This is just the beginning. They are seeking to expand into other markets.

If the MOMA Board are not convinced of the injustice, we ask that Larry Fink and the MOMA board meet with concerned artists, community leaders, immigrant rights organizations, and detainees to hear the real story about the prison shares they own.

Kader Attia
Zdenka Badovinac
Omar Berrada
Natalia Brizuela
Victoria Collis-Buthelezi
Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz
Cecile Fromont
Timea Junghaus
Jumana Manna
Joe Masco
Achille Mbembe
Zoran Popovic
Harsha Ram
Ann Stoler
Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi

“The point is to not to boycott the MoMA or to vilify the board,” says Abou Farman, an artist, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the New School, and organizer with Art Space Sanctuary. He tells Hyperallergic, “The point is to make the board and Larry Fink understand that it’s important to divest from these companies. Profiteering needs to be abolished.”

The panelists are not asking the museum to remove Fink from the board, but rather implore the billionaire board member to invest his money elsewhere. “Fink should pull his money out [of prison companies] and put it in the community,” Farman said.

Farman added that the letter builds on previous successful divestment campaigns against the “carceral state.” Grassroots groups similar to Art Space Sanctuary have already succeeded in pressuring JP Morgan and Wells Fargo to divest from private prison companies.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock and board member at the Museum of Modern Art (image by Wilson Center via Wiki Commons)

Larry D. Fink is considered one of the most powerful investors in the world. His company BlackRock is ranked the largest investment company worldwide, with its assets under management (AUM) worth around $6 trillion.

As of March 2017, BlackRock owns 12.2% of the private prison company GEO Group, which makes it the second biggest investor in the company. BlackRock is also the second biggest owner (8.7% of the shares as of January 2018) of CoreCivic, the second largest private prison company in the US.

The Museum of Modern Art’s own pension fund Fidelity is invested in private prison companies, according to Farman. “This is not acceptable. Civic institutions have a civic responsibility, which is now at the point of crises. Those institutions have become hijacked by the oligarchy,” he said.

The Museum of Modern Art has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

In 2018, Fink released a letter to CEOs urging them to embrace a more compassionate form of capitalism. “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society,” he wrote

“Larry Fink’s company owns a lot of bad stock including in weapons companies, extractivist companies, and private prisons,” Farman said. “Private prisons incarcerate many, but they consider immigrants as their main market.”

Editors note 4/29/19 5:39pm: The article has been updated to include the full list of signatories.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...