“MoMA has the blood of Dominicans on their hands,” said Sandy Plácido, addressing a crowd of about 60 gathered across from the Museum of Modern Art on Friday, May 7 for the fifth week of “Strike MoMA” protests against toxic philanthropy at the museum.
Critics of MoMA’s sources of funding often target board members Leon Black, questioned for his financial ties to Jeffrey Epstein; or Larry Fink, denounced as a private prison profiteer. But Plácido, a Dominican Studies scholar and professor of history at the City University of New York (CUNY), was there on Friday to shine a light on a rarely invoked name: Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, MoMA trustee and founder of its Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America.
Her husband, Gustavo Cisneros, sits on the international advisory of Barrick Gold Corporation, which has been accused of poisoning and displacing hundreds of people through its Pueblo Viejo gold mine outside the capital city of Santo Domingo.
“The sinister logic of a husband who advises a global corporation creating havoc through its mining initiatives all over the world, and specifically the Third World, and a wife who then turns around, collects abstract geometric art from Latin America, and sets up a foundation to ‘help people,’ is what brings us here today,” Plácido continued.
“If you want to help, tell your husband to get Barrick out of the DR and from all communities that are suffering because of violent and environmentally dangerous mining processes,” she added.
Earlier, activists passed out flyers and posters to all attendees, including a large-scale, richly-colored print designed by artist Kyle Goen featuring an upside-down MoMA overlaid with the diverse goals of the movement: Black liberation, Indigenous sovereignty, de-gentrification. The gesture of offering a free screenprinted art work to the public was partly to draw attention to the museum’s role in the art market and its hoarding of luxury and looted objects. Andrew Ross, a New York University professor, delivered a speech that touched on the power of these printed materials — freely distributed, yet high-quality — to complicate definitions of so-called “fine” art.
“Fine art is just one part of the art system. There’s folk art, there’s craft art, and there’s protest art and propaganda. That’s not considered worthy of preservation [by museums] for the most part,” he said. “There’s a lesson here about how the powerful elite treats art and its value and functionality.” He also commented on the way in which wealthy institutions call on police power, citing the “high security facade” of MoMA and its surrounding buildings.
Activists then unfurled bright pink banners that read “This is Class War” and “MoMA Workers: Together We Win” and walked across the street to the 53rd Street entrance of the museum. Last week, plans to protest inside MoMA ended in a tense confrontation between protesters and security guards, who blocked their entry and closed the building to the public. The aftermath was marked by conflicting narratives: one demonstrator said she was punched by a guard at a side entrance, a claim confirmed by three eyewitnesses; MoMA said two of its guards were injured. In a leaked email to staff, director Glenn Lowry accused the protesters of not acting “safely or peacefully,” though the museum has declined to provide evidence or further details about the alleged altercations.
Today, the group lingered only momentarily at the museum’s doors to acknowledge the previous week’s incidents and express solidarity with MoMA’s staff. A speaker denounced “Lowry’s attempts to silence and terrify staff,” accusing the director of misdirecting violence to the movement in an attempt to distract from “the violence of the billionaires who control the museum.”
The activists then marched down 53rd street to Museum Tower, the “white glove” condominium next to MoMA where Lowry resides rent-free in a $6 million apartment owned by the museum. Residents of the building enjoy exclusive perks, including perpetual benefactor membership to MoMA. A nearby skyscraper on the same block, 53 West 53, includes over 52,000 square feet of exhibition space for the institution. “We’re talking about all the interlocking interests between real estate, finance, and art speculation,” Ross told the crowd.
The fifth week of action culminated in a series of teach-ins back at Urban Plaza, including a speech by representatives from Cops Off Campus working to dismantle heavy policing in New York City’s CUNY schools; a collective quilting workshop with artist Joyce Matos; and the presentation on the Cisneros’s mining interests by Plácido and her colleague, Manny Roa.
The revelations around Cisneros come in the wake of leadership shifts at MoMA, which recently announced the election of Marie-Josée Kravis as Chair to replace the disgraced financier Leon Black. But members of the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings — the coalition of activists leading “Strike MoMA” — called Kravis’s appointment “a game of musical chairs,” pointing to her politically conservative ties.
“We’re in the city as Dominican migrants. Half of them working in there are probably Dominican and putting up with this bullshit, the hours, and the low pay,” Plácido said, pointing to the various buildings on 53rd street. “Meanwhile, they’re trying to send that little bit of money to the DR just so that their families can be poisoned.”
MoMA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.