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Over 150 artists, art workers, and activist groups are calling on the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York to separate itself from its chairman, billionaire Leon Black. Michael Rakowitz, Xaviera Simmons, Hito Steyrel, Nan Goldin, MoMA Divest, and Decolonize This Place are among the many art world figures urging Black’s removal over his links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Last week, Black announced his plans to step down as CEO of his private equity firm Apollo Global Management after an independent report found that he paid Epstein $158 million in fees between 2012 and 2017. The report, conducted by the law firm Dechert, found no evidence that Black had participated in Epstein’s criminal conduct, but revealed the extent of the close financial ties between the two. According to the report, Epstein advised Black on trust and estate planning, tax issues, and matters related to the billionaire’s vast art collection. Epstein’s services saved Black around $2 billion in taxes, the report says.

Meanwhile, Black continues to serve as the chairman of MoMA’s board of trustees, a role he assumed in 2018, despite mounting calls for his removal. The New York Times reported that in an email to MoMA trustees last week, Black showed no sign of stepping down, telling his colleagues: “I look forward to seeing you at our February board meeting.”

Now, artists are amping up pressure on the New York museum, with a series of statements provided to Hyperallergic by leading artists and art groups urging MoMA to address Black’s presence on its board. (Each of the four statements is reproduced, in full, at the closing of this article.)

MoMA visitors gather around Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” on display at MoMA. Black purchased the work in 2012. (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

“We, as artists and art workers, support the removal of Leon Black from the board of MoMA for reasons that have already been stated by many others,” says one statement signed by 157 artists and art workers. “However, this should be considered the bare minimum.”

Signatories include Nicole Eisenman, Andrea Fraser, Baseera Khan, Noah Fischer, Paddy Johnson, William Powhida, Guerrilla Girls, the Dismantle NOMA collective, and Artists For Workers. The list also includes Iraqi artists Ali Eyal and Ali Yass, who participated in the 2019-2020 MoMA PS1 exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011.

“Beyond [Black’s] removal, we must think seriously about a collective exit from art’s imbrication in toxic philanthropy and structures of oppression, so that we don’t have to have the same conversations over and over, one board member at a time,” the statement continues. It concludes:

This thinking can only catalyze action once we state plainly: We do not need this money. Museums and other arts institutions must pursue alternative models, cooperative structures, Land Back initiatives, reparations, and additional ideas that constitute an abolitionist approach toward the arts and arts patronage, so that they align with the egalitarian principles that drew us to art in the first place.

Protesters outside of MoMA in October of 2019 (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

The group MoMA Divest, which crashed a VIP preview at MoMA in 2019 before it reopened its refurbished galleries to demand prison divestment and staged a protest at MoMA PS1 on the closing day of Theater of Operations, provided Hyperallergic with a separate statement that addresses Black’s other business dealings, which include ownership of Constellis (formerly Blackwater), a private military company that operated in Iraq.

“Recent confirmations of MoMA Board of Trustees Chair Leon Black’s deep financial and personal connections to Jeffrey Epstein underline the problems that MoMA and other major museum boards face and have failed to reckon with in any meaningful way,” MoMA Divest’s statement reads. “We note that Leon Black’s corruption extends far as his ‘investment’ firm is also the owner of Constellis, formerly known as Blackwater, a private military firm which was banned from operating in Iraq after its staff were charged with war crimes (when MoMA Divest peacefully protested this last year in solidarity with exhibiting artist Ali Yass, PS1 responded by calling NYPD). Those war criminals were part of the recent spate of pardons by Trump.” 

The group continues with criticism of other billionaires on MoMA’s board:

Leon Black is not an anomaly. Five MoMA board members — [Steven] Tananbaum, [Glenn] Dubin, [Steven] Cohen, [Leon] Black, [Larry] Fink — have been identified and targeted by different groups over the last year for their ties to war, racist prison and border enforcement systems, vulture fund exploitation, gentrification and displacement of the poor, extractivism and environmental degradation, and patriarchal forms of violence. Board members also have ties and donate to the NYPD Police Foundation.

In short, the rot is at the core of the institution, which includes PS1. MoMA/PS1 directors and administrators have quietly taken the dirty money in the name of art and made empty curatorial gestures towards political issues.

“Nothing short of a major reconstitution of the board, a change of directors, a public reckoning, and a reimagining of the institutional and curatorial mission of the museum is acceptable,” the group adds.

Protesters at a demonstration led by Decolonize This Place at the Whitney Museum on May 18, 2019 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/ Hyperallergic)

In a statement titled “Fuck MoMA. An Open Call to Action,” activist group Decolonize This Place writes: “We are tired of the same shit making news over and over. It has become a banal routine. One place after another. Another institution, another oligarch artwashing their death-dealing profits, with womxn bearing the brunt of it all. This is not a PR crisis, or just a matter of toxic philanthropy. MoMA is a frontline of gendered and racialized class war, and we all have a responsibility to act.” 

The group previously led months-long protests against the Whitney Museum’s vice-chair Warren Kanders regarding his ownership of a tear gas manufacturer. In the face of public pressure, Kanders resigned from his post on the Whitney board in the summer of 2019, and his company has since announced it will exit the tear gas trade.

“Letters, pleas, and backroom deals are not enough,” DTP continues. “After the removal of Kanders from the Whitney, after the George Floyd rebellion, after the open declaration of war by Fascists seeking to salvage white heteropatriarchal rule, we must do and demand more.”

“Board members are not the problem,” The activists add. “They only make the problem visible. MoMA in its entirety is the problem. Perhaps it’s time to abolish MoMA.”

Protesters outside of MoMA in February, 2017 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

In a separate statement sent to Hyperallergic, artist Hito Steyerl wrote: “Let’s face it: by commissioning an art lubricated 2bio USD tax avoidance scheme from suspected pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, chairman of the board Leon Black created a major reputational disaster for MoMA.”

Responding to Dechert LLP’s report, which clears Black of any wrongdoing, Steyerl wrote: “The description of [Black’s] activities positively sounds like a caricature of QAnon´s most delusional fairy tales about elite cabals — except that the NYT vouches for its facticity. The result: at present parts of MoMA’s board come across like an unhinged and depraved version of Marie Antoinette’s feudal court.”

Steyerl continued with thoughts about the wider implications of MoMA’s continued silence, writing:

The message sent by the museum is devastating. Apparently, it seems to care less about its reputational damage than Black’s own company which forced him to leave its post as CEO. This is a panicked and shortsighted reaction to say the least.

The damage created not only for MoMA but for the art world in general will most probably impact societies’ views on art for years to come. There are tragic historical precedents. Similar — if invented — stories were used by 20es and early 30es right-wingers in Germany to pit parts of the population not only against modern art but more importantly also against different minorities, with well known and disastrous consequences. The sad truth is: contemporary reactionaries will equally attempt to implicate the whole art world into Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes by association – if institutional accountability keeps failing, or is missing altogether.

What’s more: the rightwing reaction will be a special blowback for those minority artists, whose work the museum had just begun to finally rescue from structural institutional neglect. At this point though these bodies of work sadly look as if they were being instrumentalized by the museum as cosmetic distractions to divert from its spectacular failure in protecting its own dignity.

This impotence risks contaminating not only the work of artists, but the art world as a whole. In a time when people worldwide are suffering economically, mentally, and physically, pursuits like art assisted tax avoidance start appearing for what they are: excesses of entitlement and privilege, undermining important services like Medicare, depriving health workers of desperately needed resources to keep people alive.

MoMA unfortunately doesn’t seem to care.

MoMA has not responded to Hyperallergic’ multiple requests for comment.

* * *

Collective Statement Signed by 157 artists, curators, and art workers

We, as artists and art workers, support the removal of Leon Black from the board of MoMA for reasons that have already been stated by many others. However, this should be considered the bare minimum. Beyond his removal, we must think seriously about a collective exit from art’s imbrication in toxic philanthropy and structures of oppression, so that we don’t have to have the same conversations over and over, one board member at a time. This thinking can only catalyze action once we state plainly: We do not need this money. Museums and other arts institutions must pursue alternative models, cooperative structures, Land Back initiatives, reparations, and additional ideas that constitute an abolitionist approach toward the arts and arts patronage, so that they align with the egalitarian principles that drew us to art in the first place.

Aaron Hughes

Aaron Landsman

Abou Farman

Ahmed Isamaldin 

Ahmad Salameh

Ajay Kurian

Alan Ruiz

Alberto Garcia Rodriguez

Alex Paik

Alex Zandi

Alexa Punnamkuzhyil 

Ali Eyal

Ali Yass

Amanda Matles, Pratt Institute

Aminah Ibrahim 

Ana Ratner 

Anna Sew Hoy

Andrea Fraser

Andreas Amble

Andrew Ranville

Andrew Weiner, NYU

Ánima Correa

Anna Harsanyi

Ann Holder

Art and Labor Podcast

Art Handlers Alliance

Artists For Workers

Aru Apaza

Axe Binondo

Azikiwe Mohammed

Baseera Khan

Betty Roytburd

Blakey Bessire

Brett Wallace

Caitlin Cahill

Carlos Rosales-Silva

Chelsea Birenberg

Christina Chan

Christina Martinelli 

Claire Mirocha

Clarinda Mac Low

Clark Filio

Claudia Hart

Collective Çukurcuma (Mine Kaplangı & Naz Cuguoğlu)

Dachil Sado

Dana Kopel

Danielle Dean

David Borgonjon

David Kramer 

Denisse Andrade, Pratt Institute

Devin Kenny

Diwali Hasskan

Edi Friedlander

Emily Johnson

Emily Shanahan

Eric Golo Stone

Erin Murphy

Eriola Pira

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung

Francesca Altamura

Frank J. Stockton 

Franklyn Cain

Gee Wesley 

Gordon Hall

Greg Lindquist

Guerrilla Girls

Halieadorable211

Hallie McNeill 

HOUSING Gallery

Hussein Adil

Ian Epps

Irkalla

Isabelle Brourman

Jake Davidson

Jared Brown 

Jason Simon

Jeffrey Grunthaner

Jennifer M. Williams

Jenny Dubnau

Jessica Wilson

Jesus Benavente

Jihan El Tahri

Jo Shane

Johanne Swanson

Johnson Study Group

Jonathan González

Jorge Rojas

Joseph Lubitz

Josephine Heston 

Julia Kwon 

Juliana Cerqueira Leite

Kai Matsumiya

Kat Zhao

Katherine Aungier

Katie Giritlian 

Katie Grace McGowan, Detroit, MI.
Katy Bea

KJ Freeman

Kristan Kennedy

Lawrence Sanchez

lexi welch

Lia Gangitano, PARTICIPANT INC

Lilly Hern-Fondation

Lincoln Tobier, Los Angeles

Lissa Regnier

Liz Glynn

Lluis Alexandre Casanovas Blanco

Lorelei Ramirez

Lucas Baisch

Manolis D. Lemos

Marnie Briggs 

María Verónica San Martín

Max Warsh

Megan Elevado

 

Michael Rakowitz

Michelle Rosenberg

Mikeeh Zwirner (Institute of Museums Against All Fucked Up Social Systems)

Mimi Bai

Minahil Khan

Mira Dayal

Moyra Davey

Nan Goldin

Nataša Prljević

Nia Nottage

Nicole Eisenman

Nick Wylie, Public Media Institute

Nikiesha Hamilton 

Nikki Columbus

Noah Fischer

Paddy Johnson

Patrick Carlin Mohundro

Paul John 

Paul McAdory

Peter Rostovsky, artist, writer, educator.

Phil Collins

Rachel Valinsky

Ramón Miranda Beltrán

Rebecca Naegele

Rena Anakwe

Rindon Johnson

Rory Murphy 

Ryan Oskin

Ryan Scullin

Sam Korman

Sara Grace Powell

Sara Magenheimer

Sari Weisenberg

Shanjana Mahmud

Sherko Abbas 

Sophia Friedman-Pappas

Stephanie Acosta

Stephen Sewell

Sunny Iyer

Taehee Whang (Hyperlink Press)

Teresa Ross Tellechea

the Dismantle NOMA collective

Todd Ayoung, Pratt Institute
Todd Gray

V. M. McEwen

Valerie Chang

Vanessa Thill

Vijay Masharani

Wes Larios

William Powhida

Winslow Smith

Xavier Danto

Xaviera Simmons

Zazu Swistel

Editor’s note 2/12/2021 11:57am EST: This list of signatories has been updated since its original publication.

MoMA Divest

Recent confirmations of MoMA Board of Trustees Chair Leon Black’s deep financial and personal connections to Jeffrey Epstein underline the problems that MoMA and other major museum boards face and have failed to reckon with in any meaningful way. We note that Leon Black’s corruption extends far as his “investment” firm is also the owner of Constellis, formerly known as Blackwater, a private military firm which was banned from operating in Iraq after its staff were charged with war crimes (when MoMA Divest peacefully protested this last year in solidarity with exhibiting artist Ali Yass, PS1 responded by calling NYPD). Those war criminals were part of the recent spate of pardons by Trump. 

Leon Black is not an anomaly. Five MoMA board members – Tananbaum, Dubin, Cohen, Black, Fink – have been identified and targetted by different groups over the last year for their ties to war, racist prison and border enforcement systems, vulture fund exploitation, gentrification and displacement of the poor, extractivism and environmental degradation, and patriarchal forms of violence. Board members also have ties and donate to the NYPD Police Foundation. In short, the rot is at the core of the institution, which includes PS1. MoMA/PS1 directors and administrators have quietly taken the dirty money in the name of art and made empty curatorial gestures towards political issues. MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry has said that Leon Black “continue[s] this tradition of visionary leadership with their passion for modern and contemporary art, strategic planning and financial expertise, and deep understanding of the Museum and its mission.”  MoMA’s mission, then, must be artwashing; but it can no longer clean the fact that war and prison profiteering, child prostitution, and various forms of structural racism are part of the structure of MoMA/PS1. For a civic institution with civic responsibilities this is unacceptable. Nothing short of a major reconstitution of the board, a change of directors, a public reckoning, and a reimagining of the institutional and curatorial mission of the museum is acceptable. We also reiterate previous demands that MoMA/PS1 issue a public statement regarding their position on proceeds and donations that come as a result of violence from these issues, and start a transparent public investigation into any and all funds linked to these matters, including those in the various pension funds used by the institution; and that MoMA/PS1 begin a community-based process of reinvestment, redistribution, land restoration, and reparations in affected communities.

MoMA Divest Coalition

Decolonize This Place

Fuck MoMA: An Open Call To Action

We are tired of the same shit making news over and over. It has become a banal routine. One place after another. Another institution, another oligarch artwashing their death-dealing profits, with womxn bearing the brunt of it all. This is not a PR crisis, or just a matter of toxic philanthropy. MoMA is a frontline of gendered and racialized class war, and we all have a responsibility to act. 

Letters, pleas, and backroom deals are not enough. After the removal of Kanders from the Whitney, after the George Floyd rebellion, after the open declaration of war by Fascists seeking to salvage white heteropatriarchal rule, we must do and demand more. Board members are not the problem. They only make the problem visible. MoMA in its entirety is the problem. Perhaps it’s time to abolish MoMA.

MoMA was founded with the oil wealth of the Rockefellers. Since then, the museum has been a clearing house for capital, a showcase for domination, and an ecocidal machine. It has diversified in content, but in practice it has been an enemy of the poor and the marginalized, the fired and the furloughed, the displaced and the dispossessed, the detained and the deported, the dying and the dead. After the recent uprisings, MoMA and other cultural institutions are scrambling to proclaim their commitment to justice, diversity, and equity. How can an institution claim such values with predatory billionaires controlling it? Even visionary exhibitions like Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration cannot escape this contradiction.

Various campaigns and actions have said this in recent years: MoMA is anti-Womxn, anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-Migrant, anti-Worker. Not simply because MoMA has failed to be truly inclusive in its collection or programming or staffing. But because MoMA, as an institution harboring the likes of Leon Black and Larry Fink, is complicit in oppression globally, from the burning of the Amazon to migrant detention camps to gentrification and mass displacement, to the exploitation of womxn and children. If left unchallenged, MoMA will continue to pose a danger to humanity and the planet at large.

So what would it mean to abolish MoMA, and who will undertake this task? Such an effort requires us all. A stakeholder-led decolonization process could be a way forward to deal with this fuckery. Absent such an initiative, we encourage self-organized action so that MoMA will see the writing on the wall. Here is a Decolonial Operations Manual for people who wish to act autonomously. We remind the general public that the MoMA building is open every day of the week from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm. 

Decolonize This Place

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an...