A walking tour of Midtown Manhattan organized by activists of the “Strike MoMA” advocacy campaign culminated in a standoff between security personnel and protesters at the Museum of Modern Art in New York today, April 30. After protesters were denied entry to the museum, the confrontation escalated when a demonstrator and former MoMA worker said she was assaulted by one of the museum’s security staffers.
Over 50 people gathered at Columbus Square shortly after 3pm for a “Ruins of Modernity Tour.” The action was the fourth installment in a 10-week series known as “Strike MoMA,” led by a number of advocacy groups to protest private philanthropy at the museum and demand a more equitable institution.
Over the last four weeks, members of a coalition called the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF) have been organizing talks and actions in a plaza across from the museum to envision a “post-MoMA future.” In particular, the groups target the museum’s dependency on controversial billionaire donors like Leon Black, whose financial ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein led to his resignation as board chair (though he remains a trustee).
Accompanied by a loudspeaker and a marching band, the demonstrators made stops at the headquarters of BlackRock, an investment company owned by MoMA trustee Larry Fink, and “Billionaires’ Row,” a series of ultra-luxury residential skyscrapers, among other sites. They were escorted by a police force and blocked traffic at several intersections throughout Midtown.
The group planned to conclude the walk with a tour inside MoMA itself. But upon arriving to the museum, around 4:15pm, a number of security personnel guarding the locked doors blocked their entry, citing instructions by museum leadership to do so. Visitors unaffiliated with the protest waiting to be let in, even those who had purchased tickets ahead of time, were also denied entry.
IIAAF had announced plans to conduct a tour of the museum, and demanded free entry, in an email to Glenn Lowry last week. (Shortly after Strike MoMA began its campaign, the museum implemented a policy that limits access to its lobby and garden to ticket holders, citing the rise in gun violence in the country as the reason.)
The group did not receive a response. Two weeks earlier, in an email leaked to Hyperallergic, the director had told staff that “MoMA respects the right to protest.”
During the protest, four of the activists attempted to enter the museum via its nearby staff entrance a few doors down. One of them, who worked as an educator at MoMA for eight years, told Hyperallergic that she was struck in the face by a male guard several times until she fell to the floor. Several eyewitnesses who spoke to Hyperallergic confirmed the incident.
“Now, it’s personal,” said one of the protesters, who witnessed the attack.
In a statement to Hyperallergic, MoMA said the protesters showed “complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of our staff and visitors,” claiming that two of its security officers were seriously injured in the confrontation. The museum also added that the protesters “wilfully ignored Covid safety regulations.”
Members of Strike MoMA denied the museum’s allegations, telling Hyperallergic that they “ condemn MoMA leadership’s attempt to distort the nature of the confrontation at the museum.”
“Strike MoMA gave Glenn Lowry advance notice of our intention to stage a peaceful protest against the questionable ethics of its board members, and we clearly requested for guards to be non-confrontational,” the group said in an email to Hyperallergic. “In response, MoMA turned itself into an aggressive high-security fortress, typical of Midtown’s sanctuaries for ultra-luxury wealth, and consciously placed its own guards and protestors at risk. The supposed threat was a group of artist dissidents, acting in the spirit of creative revolt that the museum loves to celebrate on the walls of its galleries.”
At the entrance of the museum, the activists unfurled banners that read “Strike Modernity” and “Strike MoMA.” They proceeded to relocate to a small plaza across the street, where several group members gave speeches.
“Artists need to be present, heard, and included in these mausoleums, and bring life back into them,” said KC, an artist and student at Hunter College who attended the action. “These places have to be more in tune with community. They should be used not to divide, but instead to bridge the community.”
A plaque made by the group Artists for a Post-MoMA Future had been installed at the plaza. “This is not an artwork,” the plaque read. “This is a de-occupation of privately-owned public space. Right here, at this very moment, art workers, organizers, activists, thinkers, friends, lovers, and teachers are free to imagine an exit from the institution of MoMA and the systemic harm it perpetuates.”
“This was the first time we knocked on their door, but it won’t be the last,” a member of Strike MoMA declared toward the end of the action.
Update 5/1/21 2pm EDT: This article has been updated to include comments from MoMA and Strike MoMA.