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In an email to staff yesterday, May 3, the Museum of Modern Art’s director Glenn Lowry described a “harrowing day at the Museum” last Friday, when members of the Strike MoMA campaign attempted to protest inside the museum’s building. Lowry’s email, obtained by Hyperallergic, comes as part of an ongoing battle of narratives between the two sides over the nature of the protests against the museum in the past four weeks, including contrasting accounts of the events of last Friday, which culminated in a confrontation between the protesters and the museum’s security staff.

A group of over 50 protesters arrived at MoMA’s doors around 4:15pm on Friday, April 30, at the end of a walking tour through Midtown Manhattan titled “Ruins of Modernity.” The action marked the fourth of “Ten Weeks of Art, Action, and Conversation” announced in April by a coalition of activist groups named the “International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings”. The group advocates for a “post-MoMA future,” envisioning an end to the museum’s dependency on controversial billionaire trustees.

MoMA security personnel blocked the entrance to protesters

The activists, who had alerted Lowry of their plans to protest inside the museum a week earlier, were denied entry to the building by MoMA security officers who had locked up the doors and blocked the entrance with their bodies. After a short altercation with some of the security personnel, the protesters relocated to a plaza across from the museum on West 53rd Street, where they have held their previous protests.

“As we confirmed to the press before the activists arrived onsite, we anticipated a peaceful protest, and we were prepared to respect and accommodate their activity so long as they respected New York State’s and City’s COVID-19 requirements of masking, social-distancing, and temperature screening,” Lowry wrote in his email to staff.

Lowry, who had previously accused the protesters of plotting to “destroy MoMA”, continued:

When our frontline colleagues asked the protesters to all wear masks and enter safely, they outright refused. They repeatedly threatened to ‘walk through’ MoMA staff and force their way in, while they verbally and physically assaulted our security officers. Following our established safety protocols, it was decided to close the Museum doors because the protesters chose not to act safely or peacefully.  

During the protest, a group of four activists attempted to enter the museum via its staff entrance. One of them, a former educator at MoMA, told Hyperallergic that she was struck in the face by a male guard several times and knocked to the floor. Several eyewitnesses who spoke to Hyperallergic directly after the incident confirmed the former worker’s account. However, Lowry denied that any protester was attacked, writing: “Any physical contact that occurred on Friday was the result of protesters’ actions. At no time did a security officer attack a protester. Neither the Museum, nor the security officers, caused or deserved the violent choices made by protesters on Friday.”

The protesters briefly blocked traffic outside the museum

In a statement last week, the museum also claimed that two of its security officers were “seriously injured” and required on-site medical attention. A third officer was led to a hospital, the museum added. A spokesperson for the museum declined to provide Hyperallergic with details on the reported injures or which hospital the guard was allegedly taken to, writing in a statement:

We stand by the accounts of our security officers and frontline staff and the facts of the statement we shared with press following the deeply distressing events caused by protesters at the Museum last Friday. The injured security officers have received medical care and are thankfully recovering. They have our full support.

A camera crew from Freedom News TV that was present at the museum recorded some of the interaction between protesters and security guards at the staff entrance. The video shows a verbal exchange between the two sides while the protesters were being escorted out of the museum: “You assaulted her,” one of the protesters is heard saying to the officers; “You hit like a bitch,” another told an officer. The guards are also seen containing one of their colleagues, who came in close physical contact with the activists. The cameraperson who recorded the confrontation told Hyperallergic that he hadn’t witnessed any guards being hurt.

In his all-staff email, Lowry portrayed the protest as a traumatic experience, saying, “The violence by the protestors left everyone who witnessed it in shock. There is no condition under which we will allow anyone’s health or safety to be put at risk. We will always do everything possible to keep everyone safe.”

In a statement to Hyperallergic today, members of Strike MoMA denied Lowry’s allegations, saying that the museum “constructed a false narrative of the day, attributing violence to our movement in order to distract from the actual violence of the billionaires who own and control the museum.”

“This is more than a PR crisis for the museum. It amounts to a counter-insurgency campaign, with psychological operations at its core. Outright distortions, lies, fabrications. Emotional manipulation. Gaslighting. Fearmongering,” the group’s statement said.

“Every word and action that emanates from the museum leadership should be understood as part of a class war being waged from above: their endgame is to prop up the interlocking directorate of power, wealth, and authority that Lowry is sworn to protect,” the activists continued, calling Lowry a “gaslighter-in-chief.”

“We will not stand for Lowry’s Lies,” the group added. “Against his attempts to silence and terrify staff, we are now determining ways to support MoMA workers emotionally and materially who are ready to cross the threshold of fear […] Our solidarity with workers and staff remains unconditional.” 

Read Lowry’s email to staff on May 3, 2021 reproduced in full here:

Dear all,

I have an update to share with you about the events caused by the protesters at the Museum on Friday. First, and most importantly, I want to let you know that the two security officers who were injured by the protesters’ attacks and required immediate medical treatment have received care and are recovering.

You may have seen press reports over the weekend of protesters’ allegations that the Museum refused to allow them to enter and provoked the violence which occurred, and that one of them was attacked by a security officer. 

As we confirmed to the press before the activists arrived onsite, we anticipated a peaceful protest, and we were prepared to respect and accommodate their activity so long as they respected New York State’s and City’s COVID-19 requirements of masking, social-distancing, and temperature screening. 

When our frontline colleagues asked the protesters to all wear masks and enter safely, they outright refused. They repeatedly threatened to “walk through” MoMA staff and force their way in, while they verbally and physically assaulted our security officers. Following our established safety protocols, it was decided to close the Museum doors because the protesters chose not to act safely or peacefully.  

Despite the closure of the Museum, a splinter group of protesters breached the staff entrance at 11 W 53rd Street, repeatedly assaulted security officers there, and trespassed by forcing entry into the Museum. 

Our security officers acted with professionalism in the face of unwarranted harassment and assault. Any physical contact that occurred on Friday was the result of protesters’ actions. At no time did a security officer attack a protester. Neither the Museum, nor the security officers, caused or deserved the violent choices made by protesters on Friday. 

We owe our security colleagues an enormous debt of gratitude for protecting us, our visitors, and the Museum on Friday afternoon with dignity and restraint, despite the horrible pressure they were under and the abuse they faced. They have earned and deserve our respect and support. 

Friday was a harrowing day at the Museum. The violence by the protestors left everyone who witnessed it in shock. There is no condition under which we will allow anyone’s health or safety to be put at risk. We will always do everything possible to keep everyone safe.

Glenn

Glenn D. Lowry
The David Rockefeller Director

Read Strike MoMA’s response, reproduced in full:

Glenn Lowry: Gaslighter-in-Chief of MoMA

Following our action at MoMA last Friday, we are hearing from workers inside the museum that David Rockefeller Director Glenn Lowry and the MoMA regime are creating an environment of fear, intimidation, and confusion among the staff. We let Lowry know a week in advance that we would be assembling inside the museum, and stated our expectation that we be allowed to enter without incident. Contrary to the museum’s account, we were not offered safe passage, and in fact were met with physical force by security in front of the museum. We will be releasing video to this effect. The regime has constructed a false narrative of the day, attributing violence to our movement in order to distract from the actual violence of the billionaires who own and control the museum. This is more than a PR crisis for the museum. It amounts to a counter-insurgency campaign, with psychological operations at its core. Outright distortions, lies, fabrications. Emotional manipulation. Gaslighting. Fearmongering. 

Every word and action that emanates from the museum leadership should be understood as part of a class war being waged from above: their endgame is to prop up the interlocking directorate of power, wealth, and authority that Lowry is sworn to protect. This includes newly elected board president Marie-José Kravis. She is Chair Emerita at the right-wing Economic Club of New York, and a donor and friend to Donald Trump.

Kravis exemplifies the ruling class interests which Lowry serves. He lives rent-free in a luxury apartment in Museum Tower next to MoMA given to him by the museum board, supplementing his two million dollar salary. He is their agent and class ally. His words are their words. Imagine them spoken by Kravis, Leon Black, Larry Fink, or even the billionaire whose name his directorship is literally named after: David Rockefeller. Lowry is no more a friend of workers than Rockefeller or, for the matter, Trump. 

Lowry is the gaslighter-in-chief of MoMA. He appeals to the virtues of free speech on one hand. On the other, he creates a siege mentality at the museum, sows fear and division among the staff, and demonizes dissidents. Glenn the Gaslighter is not to be trusted. We will not stand for Lowry’s Lies. Against his attempts to silence and terrify staff, we are now determining ways to support MoMA workers emotionally and materially who are ready to cross the threshold of fear. Platforms are available to speak out against the current counter-insurgency campaign and the bigger goals it serves in protecting the power of the board at the expense of workers, artists, and communities. Stay tuned for further direct communications on our social media, and as always, we will be holding space every Friday at 4 PM at the plaza across from MoMA, as well as online. Our solidarity with workers and staff remains unconditional. 

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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...

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