Urban Plaza is a largely unremarkable public corridor connecting West 52nd and 53rd Streets in New York City’s Manhattan neighborhood, across from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). But today, April 15 — for the second week in a row — it was the site of an extraordinary activation as part of “Strike MoMA,” a 10-week campaign of actions and conversations meant to reimagine the museum’s role in society.
Held every Friday from 4 to 6pm until June 11, these “pop-up de-occupations” are organized by a new coalition of activists known as the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF). Today’s action, attended by around 30 people, included a performance by Brooklyn-based poet Jive Poetic, which he originally intended to present during a MoMA-organized online event, “Evening In: Nuyorican Poetry Night.” When the museum asked him to disclose the text of the poem in advance of the reading, he withdrew his participation, the poet says.
“Why did they need a copy of my poem 48 hours before the show? What is it they’re really asking me for?” Poetic told Hyperallergic. “They don’t trust me in this space. They think I’m going to do or say something that’s going to threaten something they’re trying to protect, and I don’t know if that’s the place for me to be in.”
MoMA has not yet replied to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
Instead, Poetic recited two poems during today’s “Strike MoMA” demonstration, under a spatter of cold rain, to an audience of artists, activists, and members of different cultural communities. Like many of his works, they were emotive and profound, directly and boldly addressing the scourge of violence against people of color.
“I felt like they wanted to filter what I was saying, but I still wanted to perform the poems, so I figured I’d come and say them here now,” Poetic said.
In many ways, Poetic’s experience with MoMA reflects the ethos at the core of IIAAF’s mobilizations: the importance of creating alternative spaces for art and artists to thrive. IIAAF came together to challenge MoMA and other museums’ dependence on private philanthropy, especially unethical sources of funding that jar with their stated public missions. In recent months, MoMA trustee Leon Black in particular has come under increased scrutiny for his financial ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein as well as his ownership of a security firm responsible for the murder of unarmed civilians in Iraq. Though he stepped down as chairman last month, Black remains on the museum’s board.
“This is the condition of modernity that we find at Modernism Central: death-dealing oligarchs using art as an instrument of accumulation and shield for their violence,” IIAAF says in its founding manifesto.
The coalition envisions instead a “post-MoMA future that prioritizes workers and communities.” But in an all-staff email leaked to Hyperallergic last week, MoMA director Glenn Lowry distorted the group’s goal, describing it as “‘disassembling’ MoMA and all museums so they no longer exist.”
Poetic’s performance at today’s action was followed by presentations by other working groups involved in the campaign, including Artists for Post MoMA Future. The activists also hosted a training in direct action and a short workshop on Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or “tapping,” a self-healing method for trauma. Free refreshments were offered to all attendees.
Eileen Weitzman, an artist, lawyer, and political activist, said she was motivated by the potential for real change in the way institutions are structured. Instead of museums led by wealthy trustees, she told Hyperallergic, she’d like to see boards made up of artists and citizens who can lend a different perspective.
“I’m here because I support the group and because I think it would be great if MoMA and other museums actually were decolonized, if they didn’t work from such a white supremacist framework,” Weitzman said. “It’s more than time to change things.”