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The director of the Museum of Modern Art, Glenn Lowry, emailed staff at the New York museum yesterday to present his thoughts on the recent Strike MoMA protests. In the missive, which was leaked to Hyperallergic, Lowry falsely claims that Strike MoMA is advocating for “‘disassembling’ MoMA and all museums so they no longer exist.” This level of understanding of the issues is quite embarrassing for Lowry, who has a Ph.D., so we have to assume it is deliberately misleading.

Lowry’s letter demonstrates some concern at the museum about controlling the narrative. It reminds me of how some centrist and right-wing pundits and politicians would falsely claim the “Defund the Police” meant that no police would exist, when that is only one of many opinions as to what that term may mean to the activists advocating for it.

Lowry’s attempt to alter the narrative also recalls the museum’s attempt to spin the removal of Leon Black as chair of the museum board as some big news, when in fact he continues to serve on the board. (Never mind that his son is also on the board of MoMA PS1.)

The propagandistic spin doesn’t stop there. It’s quite incredible to think a MoMA director could, with a straight face claim, “We can all be proud of the Museum’s long history of making space for voices to be heard.” That’s just laughable, considering the museum continues to whitewash art history, cobbling together non-Western and non-white histories atop the same old art history that lionizes those from colonial states (France, UK, USA, Russia, and Japan, for example). The institution also continues to favor market-friendly art over non-market art (just tour the galleries), not to mention how they marginalized folk art after it was more prominently showcased in the early years of the museum. The list is long. It’s quite ridiculous to claim that the museum should be proud of its history.

He also falsely claims only 20 protesters were in attendance. As someone who was there, I can tell you that isn’t the case. I also asked Hakim Bishara, the Hyperallergic reporter there, who stands by his claim of 50 in our article reported last week. I reviewed my own photographs and can also verify Lowry’s number is not accurate, appearing that he, and possibly the security director he mentions, is trying to downplay the event.

Lowry also goes on to write, “I am proud that we have been able to keep all staff of the Museum employed.” This statement is quite misleading. As we reported last year, all contracts with the education department were terminated at the beginning of the pandemic shutdown. To make this claim, Lowry is relying on the fact that those contractual employees were not full- or part-time staff, but considering more and more museum jobs are contractual, this is again misleading. MoMA’s termination of education contracts is in direct contrast to other major art institutions, like the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which didn’t lay off any staff members (full-time, part-time, or contractual). Rather than patting himself on the back, perhaps Lowry should take a closer look at why a museum with an endowment of $1.2 billion thought educators who make $115 for a 60–75 minute class should be the first to go when those classes, for instance, would’ve been ideal for online learning. In contrast to MoMA, the Asian Art Museum’s endowment is only $56 million.

Lowry is relying on the manipulation of facts and fear-mongering to bypass the main thrust of the protests. Just like “Defund the Police” and other contemporary protest slogans, the rhetoric is often aimed at shifting the Overton Window so that what once seemed impossible becomes politically possible. Unlike Lowry, I actually asked the protesters what they meant by the slogan, and everyone’s answer was quite different. Back in June, Vox asked seven scholars to explain the “Defund the Police” slogan and their responses are reminiscent of the responses I have heard from the Strike MoMA group to varying degrees. Law professor Christy Lopez’s take might be the most relevant here:

“Police abolition” and “defund the police” are not terms I came up with, and different people mean different things when they use those terms. But a shared objective among most defund proponents, which I also share, is that we need to reset public safety in order to eliminate our overreliance on law enforcement, discrimination, and avoidable harm in public safety, including unnecessary police killings.
…So yes, it will mean actually “defunding” the police to some extent. I doubt we’ll find we need to shift all law enforcement resources, as some are saying, but in some places, it could be quite a lot, and we may find that some law enforcement agencies are duplicative and don’t need to exist.

Isn’t it more reasonable to ask if the calls for change will lead to a reevaluation of the organization of the museum? Perhaps. Does the burgeoning movement suggest that there should be fewer resources spent on pampering donors and more on making contractual educators into full-time staff? Hopefully. Will it lead to an honest accounting of the looted and stolen items in its collection, including those sold or taken during wars, genocides, and revolutions? I certainly hope so.

I think Lowry’s decision to take this tact is quite telling after a year of conversations around Defund the Police. If he is unaware of the way the term was manipulated by the center and right, and used to blame progressives for a lack of more Democratic seats in November, then it is troubling as it suggests he’s not paying attention.

The same day Lowry’s email was sent to all staff, Strike MoMA physically circulated a statement to dozens of the workers on the museum staff, which they sent to me after I contacted them. The letter, as you can see, focuses on the blue collar staff at the institution. It reads, “So, for the next ten weeks, Strike MoMA will be in the building. We come to disrupt. We come to take up space. We know this might make your job harder in the coming weeks. Especially for security. We apologize in advance. We are not here to harm anyone or anything. We come to demand a new MoMA.” A new MoMA certainly doesn’t sound like a reality where MoMA doesn’t exist.

Despite Lowry’s own claim, Strike MoMA does not talk about destroying the museum, but about taking “care of art that isn’t linked to the monsters that destroy us.”

I have my own hesitation around the latest initiative by Strike MoMA, which I find centers academia more than previous actions, but I do not think they actually want to destroy the museum. In the past, I’ve advocated for decentralizing museums to be more like the community-based library system, and I’m not the only one to suggest new models for these art behemoths that continue to pretend they are about upholding quality rather than the money, power, tastes, and world views of billionaires and their courtiers.

* * *

Below are the letters by Lowry and Strike MoMA discussed above.

Read Lowry’s letter, reproduced in full (some sensitive information has been redacted using asterisks):

Dear all,

This weekend, we welcomed about 5,000 visitors to the Museum—a strong reminder that our fellow New Yorkers continue to seek out safe, inspiring, and joyful experiences in our galleries. The news on COVID-19 in New York remains optimistic: positivity and hospitalization rates have declined and nearly one in four New Yorkers is now vaccinated. Please remember that you can find details on vaccine appointment availability at sources like New York State’s Am I Eligible Website or TurboVax, we’ve set up computers in the Staff Caff you can use to book appointments, and you can work with your managers to take up to four hours of paid leave to accommodate each scheduled vaccine dose.

As you heard on Friday from ***** *******, a group of approximately 20 peaceful protesters gathered in the late afternoon in Union Plaza across the street from the Museum, for about 90 minutes. MoMA respects the right to protest, and I want to thank everyone in our security, visitor engagement, membership, and retail teams who worked so well together to respect the action taking place, while staying focused on protecting the health and safety of each other and our visitors, and keeping our Museum spaces peaceful and welcoming.

We can all be proud of the Museum’s long history of making space for voices to be heard. You may have read in the press that the group which gathered on Friday is calling for “disassembling” MoMA and all museums so they no longer exist, and I’d like to take a moment to speak to that. I do not agree that dismantling MoMA, or any museums, serves the best interests of the public. I believe we collectively provide an important public good that benefits millions of people, of all socio-economic backgrounds, races, and geographies. My focus is on ensuring that we, and as many cultural institutions as possible, survive the crisis of the pandemic and continue to serve future generations. I am proud that we have been able to keep all staff of the Museum employed. I am proud that we have an increasingly diverse staff and program. I am proud of our collaborative efforts to address issues of race, equity, and justice in all that we do. Do we have a lot more work to do? For sure. Can we be an even better institution? For sure. Is the protesters’ call to destroy MoMA the solution?

I don’t see that helping anyone. I look forward to working together, with all of you, to continue building a better MoMA for all.

Finally, as a reminder, these resources are always available to you:

  • Our employee assistance program, ***@************, is a free benefit to staff that can provide resources, referrals, and counseling for overall well-being. All calls are free and services are confidential. You can reach the service at 1-800-***-**** or online at ***********.com with the code: ****. CCA’s special focus for April webinars is Financial Planning and Security. You can find more details in the attached flyer.
  • Don’t forget the helpful IT Guidance and FAQs on the Staff Site. The IT helpdesk is open Monday-Friday between 9:00am-6:00pm at 212-***-****.
  • For the latest health updates and guidance on the COVID-19 situation:
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
    • NY State Department of Health: https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/home
    • NYC Health Department: nyc.gov/health/coronavirus
    • NY State Vaccine Eligibility: https://am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov/
    • TurboVax: https://www.turbovax.info/

Be safe and well,

Glenn

Read Strike MoMA‘s letter, reproduced in full:

To the Workers of MoMA:

Security, maintenance, wall painters, guest services, and restaurant staff. We write you this letter so that you hear directly from us, why we are here, what we came to do, to address how this affects you, and most importantly, to open up communication between us, so that we can support you as workers.

By now, you probably already heard that the board of trustees of MoMA who run this museum are all getting rich off of building the prisons that lock our people up, building the concentration camps that lock up our undocumented family and separate children from their mothers. You heard that there are board members who get rich selling guns, bombs, war planes, and surveillance technology to use against our people back home in the countries we come from the same way they sell weapons to the NYPD. Our people, who come from places like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Palestine, Ghana, Kashmir, Armenia, Somalia, Lebanon, Dominican Republic, Yemen, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, Syria & Somalia. You probably heard about the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have given to the NYPD who beat and arrest us. Who set up floodlights on our block and treat our neighborhoods like open air prisons while they invest in real estate to gentrify our hoods and put our neighbors in the shelter system and make our neighborhoods so expensive that the paycheck you cash from MoMA ain’t enough, and you probably thinking about doing Uber on the side. Because that’s what some of us think about having to do too! That one of their board members was involved in shady business with sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. That some of them were Trump campaign donors, that some of them are getting rich destroying the Amazon rainforest as if the planet isn’t already sick and dying. We could go on … but if you want to know more, we have a website: www.strikemoma.org Go check us out.

These board of trustees go out into the world and make money off the death and destruction we, and our people face, but then come sit on the board of this museum and get patted on the back for giving money to keep the museum open and to “take care of art.” Our response is…

1. What about taking care of people? They don’t give a shit about us. How they make their money proves it.

2. There are other ways to take care of art that isn’t linked to the monsters that destroy us.

So, for the next ten weeks, Strike MoMA will be in the building. We come to disrupt. We come to take up space. We know this might make your job harder in the coming weeks. Especially for security. We apologize in advance. We are not here to harm anyone or anything. We come to demand a new MoMA. We gotta fight back and this is the only place where we can touch these fools. So please bear with us. Work with us. No matter what they tell you, DO NOT LET THEM TURN YOU AGAINST US. Let us have this understanding between us. Most importantly, tell us how we can support you. Tell us the bullshit they are doing behind the scenes. Email us anonymously at strikemoma@protonmail.com

We look forward to a different future. But we ain’t waiting for it. We’re making it now. We hope you support our efforts.

Much Love & solidarity,

Strike MoMA

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.