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Activists Crash Private Party at the Museum of Modern Art to Demand Prison Divestment

The protesters gathered outside the museum to call on MoMA and its board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, to divest themselves from private prison companies.

About 10 activists infiltrated the museum. They raised banners and wore smocks with pro-divestment messages. (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Four days before it reopens its $450 million refurbished galleries to the public, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York held an exclusive preview party on Friday night, October 18, for VIP guests. But the patrons of the museum had to jostle their way through a group of about 150 organizers and artists, who came to crash the party. A small number of activists managed to infiltrate the event and stage an action that perplexed the cocktail-sipping attendees.

The protesters gathered outside the museum to call on MoMA and its board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, to divest themselves from private prison companies. The protest was organized with the participation of 14 grassroots groups including New Sanctuary Coalition, Art Space Sanctuary, Decolonize This Place, Codepink, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and various prison abolition groups, among others.

The protesters marched toward the MoMA with signs in hand (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)
Melting blocks of ice dripped onto the street. They framed the messages “Melt MoMA” and “Abolish ICE.” (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)
An Extinction Rebellion sign reading “No Art on a Dead Planet” (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)

“Were are here to say that MoMA is complicit in genocide, is complicit in war crimes, is complicit in mass incarceration, and is complicit in the catastrophe that is our climate,” an organizer with New Sanctuary Coalition announced outside the museum’s entrance. “BlackRock manages $6 trillion in prisons, in detention, in war, in military, in fossil fuels, and in deforestation,” she continued. “We are are here to tell MoMA, and Larry Fink, to give our communities back the money that they stole.”

A police force guarded the long line of guests who were waiting to enter the party. One guest expressed her dismay of the interruption. “These protests are everywhere now,” she said. “It’s a good cause, I guess, but I’m getting tired of them.” Another guest who works for an artist’s estate was more sympathetic. “I’d like to stay outside instead of going in,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but there are rich people with good morals,” she stated.

The activists clapped, drums were beaten, and tambourines jingled in the background (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)
The activists faced the museum, chanting phrases like “Art liberals divest from blood money.” (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)
Over 100 protesters were present. (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)

Fink’s company BlackRock is ranked the largest investment company worldwide with its assets under management worth around $6 trillion. BlackRock is the second-largest investor in two major private prison companies: GEO Group and CoreCivic.

Tonight’s protest was announced on October 10, when over 200 prominent artists, scholars, and critics signed an open letter entreating MoMA and its board member Larry Fink to end their investments in private prison companies. The statement, released by New Sanctuary Coalition, has garnered the support of prominent figures in the art world. Signatories include Tania Bruguera, Hito Steyerl, Xaviera Simmons, Andrea Fraser, Claire Bishop, Omar Berrada, Hal Foster, Chloë Bass, Alejandro Cesarco, and Nikki Columbus, among many others.

The activists faced the museum as guests funneled into the museum for the celebration (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)

“We denounce MoMA’s connections to mass incarceration, global dispossession and climate catastrophe, and demand that MoMA’s Board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, divest from prison companies, the war machine and the destruction of the global environment,” the open letter reads. “Stopping the global cycles of dispossession, displacement and detention, and reinvesting in the basic necessities of food, shelter, health and freedom are the best ways to ensure that communities worldwide thrive.”

“With over $2 billion in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), these companies have been responsible for 70% of all immigration detention including caged children and families separated at the border as well as in the interior,” the open letter continues, adding that MoMA’s pension fund, Fidelity, is also one of the largest owners of GEO Group and CoreCivic. “Prison companies are a part of the massive and racist state-sanctioned carceral system of the U.S., which has made the country the largest jailer in the world.”

Over 150 protesters greeted the MoMA’s guests with chants and signs (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)

Activist groups representing the Puerto Rican diaspora are also demanding the removal of MoMA’s trustee Steven Tananbaum, founder of the hedge fund GoldenTree Asset Management. The activists accuse GoldenTree of preying on Puerto Rico’s plummeting bond prices while the island was in the devastating throes of Hurricane Maria.

“The MoMA should be ashamed of itself for having a person like that on its board,” said Gina DeJesus, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, in a conversation with Hyperallergic.

The nonprofit New York Communities for Change is expected to lead a protest against Tananbaum during the museum’s public opening on Monday at 9:30am.

The activists’ signs bore phrases like “MoMA DIVEST” and “BURN PRISONS, PLANT TREES” (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)
The protesters dropped a banner that urges MoMA and Fink to “Make Sanctuary, Not Prisons” (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

A group of about 10 of the protesters infiltrated the VIP party and unfurled a banner from the first floor’s balcony that read “MOMA/FINK, MAKE SANCTUARY, NOT PRISONS.” A museum security staffer immediately riped the banner from the protesters’ hands, but later returned it to them. Down in the lobby, next to a cocktail bar, other protesters carried speeches that were barely audible due to the loud DJ music playing in the background. The protesters held more banners that read “MOMA DIVEST” and “BURN PRISONS, PLANT TREES.” The activists concluded their action with loud, collective screams, hoping to be heard or noticed by a mostly apathetic crowd of partygoers.

The activists chanted “make sanctuaries, no prisons” at the preview party (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Guests at the party, some of whom pulled their phones to record the spectacle, were mainly surprised that the activists managed to pass the security. “I’m glad they could get in,” one guest told Hyperallergic. “I know there are bad board members everywhere but I didn’t know there’s one here,” she said about Fink. “I think it’s a legitimate protest,” a MoMA worker who preferred to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic. “It’s an important issue,” she said, “I’m surprised they could get in.” (Some of the activists entered the party as “plus one” companions to guests, and others were given permission by RSVPed guests to use their names to get it.) One patron promised to “send [MoMA] an email.”

The party’s guests were mostly apathetic (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

After ending their short intervention, which lasted about 15 minutes, the protestors were escorted out of the building by the museum’s security and were welcomed by cheers by the protestors outside.

After exiting the museum, the activists told the protesters about their guerilla action inside of the museum. They chanted at the patrons walking toward the museum: “Your silence will not protect you. You are complicit in genocide, in the abuse of this earth.”

“I’m surprised they could get in,” one patron said. (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)
The protesters leaving the museum’s building after crashing the VIP party (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

Speaking to Hyperallergic, some activists expressed their disappointment from the tepid reaction they received inside the party. “Their faces were blankly staring back at us,” said an activist from the group Sin Fronteras (No Borders) NYC. “It’s disappointing that the art community doesn’t support people who are suffering.”

“Their faces were blankly staring back at us,” one activist said about MoMA’s guests (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)
A melting block of “Abolish ICE” (photo by Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic)

“Their silence was deafening,” a representative of Arts Space Sanctuary told Hyperallergic. “They need to wake up.”

“The art world is kind of weird,” said Rose Asaf, an organizer with CodePink. “You think it’s liberal and progressive, but it was disturbing to see that people just don’t give too many craps about this,” she said.

Rose’s mother, Beth, a Las Vegas-based psychotherapist who’s visiting New York to see her daughter, joined the struggle but used a different tactic. Asaf individually approached guests who were still waiting in line to enter the party and explained the protest’s purpose to them in a calm and empathetic tone. Her efforts solicited positive reactions: “I totally agree with you,” one guest told her; “You’re right, they’re all scumbags,” another said.

“I think it’s important to talk to people and let them know what’s going on: why are we here and what are doing? Not just to make a lot of noise,” Asaf told Hyperallergic. “95% of the people I talked to agreed with me,” she said. “I think in their hearts, people know what’s right, but money gets in the way. It’s too bad.”

MoMA has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

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