Fineberg Tenants Union demonstrates at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (photo by John Hutchings, courtesy Fineberg Tenant Union)

On Saturday, March 20, tenants of art collector and real estate investor Gerald Fineberg staged a pop-up exhibit and rally at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)/Boston to protest squalid conditions and evictions in properties owned and managed by the ICA board member’s firm. 

The Fineberg Tenants Union (FTU) demonstration drew more than 60 people to the leading Boston contemporary art museum. The pop-up exhibit Fineberg’s Cultural Legacy, installed on a temporary wall backdropped by the ICA facade, featured documentation of eviction notices and chronic neglect in Fineberg Companies properties in and around Boston. Tenants of the top ICA donor addressed the crowd in front of a sign reading “our rent doesn’t belong in an art gallery.”

Dan Albright, a tenant organizer, in a speech described Fineberg’s business model as charging maximum rents while performing minimal maintenance, resulting in costly rental units with unaddressed mold, broken appliances, exposed wires, and other severe maintenance issues. 

Fineberg “then turns around with a lavish private art collection to play benevolent art philanthropist,” Albright said. “This is a public museum that’s supposed to hold art and culture for the public’s enjoyment. It should not be a laundromat for capitalist profiteers’ reputations.”

Jen Dill, another Fineberg tenant, described her experience with flooding, a radiator spewing hot water, and a door that blew off its hinges. Dill and her roommates lost their jobs in the music industry due to the pandemic and found Fineberg Companies unwilling to defer or reduce rent. 

“It was around this time we joined the tenant union in hopes of joining fellow tenants to fight for fair rent, improved conditions, and better overall treatment,” Dill said. 

Fineberg is the “founder and guiding force of the Fineberg Companies,” the firm’s website reads. Tenant organizers say Fineberg owns 52 apartment buildings with a combined 1,200 units in the greater Boston area. In the past year, 140 tenants have joined the Fineberg Tenant Union. Affiliated with the Greater Boston Tenant Union (GBTU), the union formed at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic as tenants nationwide adapted labor organizing strategies to pressure landlords for rent reductions and other concessions amid historic unemployment. 

The union wants Fineberg’s firm to collectively bargain a company-wide agreement to reduce rent, improve conditions, and protect tenants from eviction. Otherwise, the union told Hyperallergic in a statement, FTU wants the ICA to cut ties with Fineberg and rename the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall. 

Fineberg’s Cultural Legacy is the most recent in an influx of museum protests challenging the contradictions between the high-ideals of art and the real-world maleffects of its funders,” reads the FTU statement, noting protests against former Whitney Museum trustee Warren Kanders. 

Ellen Tani, a former ICA curator, in 2019 described the Fineberg art wall as “an annunciation of where you are and who we are.” The art wall in the glass-enclosed lobby is dedicated to site-specific works by contemporary artists, recently featuring a mural by Chicago artist Nina Chanel Abney. 

Fineberg, whose company did not respond to a comment request, ranks among ARTnews’ top 200 art collectors. A 2010 profile in Boston Magazine toured the real-estate magnate’s 9,000 square-foot condominium at the Mandarin Oriental, decorated with works by blue-chip artists including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.

The ICA’s most recent annual report lists Fineberg as a board member. Fineberg and his wife Sandra are also listed as donors of more than $100,000 and members of the James Sachs Plaut Society, “established to honor ICA friends who have made an enduring commitment[.]”

In Albright’s view, the ICA undermines its commitment to social justice and “radical hospitality” — layed out in its strategic plan — by honoring the “slumlord of the board.” Organizers recently sent postcards to other ICA board members informing them about conditions in Fineberg properties. The ICA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. 

Postcard Fineberg Tenants Union sent ICA board members (image courtesy Fineberg Tenants Union)

As FTU spread across various Fineberg buildings, the organizers documented maintenance and mismanagement issues, compiling a list of 700 “violations,” and began publishing accounts and documentation of the tenants’ experiences on social media. The union also garnered support from local elected officials as it escalated calls for Fineberg’s firm to negotiate collectively.

FTU’s most recent proposal for a collective bargaining agreement between Fineberg Companies and its tenants includes a 17% rent reduction; back-rent cancellation and an eviction moratorium for tenants impacted by the pandemic; and prompt habitability repairs.

FTU and the Greater Boston Tenants Union distinguish themselves from traditional service- and policy-oriented nonprofit organizations. They are member-run and advocate directly, pressuring what GBTU calls the “property-owning (landlord) class” with a mass base of organized tenants.

“You’re not waiting on directions from the leader,” Albright said. “We have open meetings. We have bylaws. When there’s a major decision we make it democratically. … If enough of us are making these demands loudly enough, Fineberg Companies will have to come to the table.”

Correction: A former version of this article described Ellen Tani as an ICA curator, instead of a former curator at the museum. We regret the error which has been amended.

Sam Lefebvre (@Lefebvre_Sam) is a freelance writer in Oakland whose journalism and criticism have appeared in publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wire, Pitchfork, the Believer,...