Thirty-seven artists participating in MoMA PS1’s exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011, have signed an open letter calling on the museum to separate itself from trustees with ties to private prison companies and a defense contractor that was involved in the American wars in Iraq. The letter was sent to Glenn Lowry and Kate Fowle, the directors of MoMA and MoMA PS1, on Thursday, January 9. It was also copied to the curators of the exhibition Ruba Katrib and Peter Eleey.
The list of signatories includes Dia al-Azzawi, Ali Eyal, Guerrilla Girls, Mona Hatoum, Jon Kessler, Laura Poitras, Michael Rakowitz, Martha Rosler, Rijin Sahakian, and Ali Yass, among others.
The open letter expresses the artists’ support of Phil Collins, who withdrew his video work baghdad screentests from the exhibition in support of the activists who have been demanding that MoMA’s trustee Larry Fink divest himself from private prison companies. Fink’s company BlackRock is the second-largest investor in the private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic. Hal Foster, Andrea Fraser, and Tania Bruguera were among 200 prominent artists, scholars, and critics who signed an open letter demanding divestment in October of last year. Later that month, a coalition of grassroots groups staged a protest at a private party at the museum ahead of the anticipated reopening of its expanded galleries.
“We, the undersigned participants in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011, echo this call and support Collins in the hope that his action will ‘contribute to the global momentum to protest inequity, occupation, labour extraction and disenfranchisement, and to see, together, better days’,” the open letter says.
The letter also targets the Chairman of MoMA’s Board of Trustees, Leon Black, whose equity firm Apollo Global Management is invested in the defense contractor Constellis Holdings, formerly named Blackwater. The company, according to the open letter, is “notorious for its role in the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre, when Blackwater guards killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians and injured many more.”
“We support these artists’ right to make their voices heard,” a spokesperson for PS1 told Hyperallergic.
“We call on PS1 to stand by its stated mission and, together with MoMA, take a truly radical position by divesting from any trustees and sources of funding that profit from the suffering of others,” the open letter reads. “MoMA has just rebuilt itself and opened a newly renovated and expanded museum with a more global and inclusive curatorial narrative; surely it must also be capable of rebuilding its board and envisioning new ethical standards and best
practices when it comes to sourcing philanthropic support.”
An artist involved in drafting the open letter told Hyperallergic that the artists have not yet received a response from any of the recipients.
Read the open letter in full here:
An open letter to the directors and trustees of MoMA PS1 and MoMA
On November 3, 2019, the exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 opened at MoMA PS1, bringing together artwork made by artists around the world in response to the Gulf wars, with a particular focus on Iraqi artists – many of whom worked in the midst of the continuous trauma of siege, sanctions, and occupation. On the eve of the opening of the exhibition, Phil Collins announced the withdrawal of his work baghdad screentests (2002) from the show in support of the MoMA/BlackRock Divest campaign.
We, the undersigned participants in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011, echo this call and support Collins in the hope that his action will “contribute to the global momentum to protest inequity, occupation, labour extraction and disenfranchisement, and to see, together, better days.”
We also broaden this call by drawing attention to the Chairman of MoMA’s Board of Trustees, Leon Black, and his relationship to Constellis Holdings. Black is co-founder of the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, which in 2016 acquired Constellis, the rebranded private security firm Blackwater, notorious for its role in the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre, when Blackwater guards killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians and injured many more.
The war in Iraq did not end in 2011: it is ongoing. In recent months there have been countrywide protests against foreign interference and entrenched corruption ushered in through the US-led invasion and occupation. Security forces have killed more than 400 peaceful protestors since they took to the streets in October 2019. But this war has been invisible and far from the attention and concerns of most Americans. We appreciate the visibility this exhibition gives to the Iraq wars and to the work of Iraqi artists; however, we also wish to make visible MoMA’s connection to funds generated from companies and corporations that directly profit from these wars.
PS1 has a proud history as the first non-profit arts center in the US devoted solely to contemporary art, and it has a stated commitment to showcasing the most radical art, ideas and issues of our time. Yet almost twenty years ago the center became an affiliate to MoMA and, while we recognize that PS1 has a Board of Directors separate from MoMA’s, Leon Black serves on the PS1 board in an ex officio capacity. We agree with Collins when he states that “museums and cultural spaces, their collections, exhibitions and programs, should not be aligned with or funded by investments in mass incarceration, war profiteering, ecological catastrophe, debt ownership, devastation, oppression and the pain of others.”
We call on PS1 to stand by its stated mission and, together with MoMA, take a truly radical position by divesting from any trustees and sources of funding that profit from the suffering of others. MoMA has just rebuilt itself and opened a newly renovated and expanded museum with a more global and inclusive curatorial narrative; surely it must also be capable of rebuilding its board and envisioning new ethical standards and best practices when it comes to sourcing philanthropic support.
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