Climate activists gathered outside New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) during its annual “Party in the Garden” fundraiser tonight, June 6, in protest of Board Chair Marie-Josée Kravis’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. Her husband, Henry Kravis, co-founded the Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) private equity firm, which has invested billions of dollars in oil and gas companies.
A group of around 15 activists called for Marie-Josée Kravis’s immediate removal, chanting “Hey MoMA, drop Kravis!” and “Hey MoMA, get off it; the people over profit!” Kravis has been a MoMA trustee since 1994 and became board chair in 2021, when she replaced embattled former chairman Leon Black. Tonight’s protesters represented advocacy organizations including Climate Organizing Hub, New York Communities for Change, Reclaim Our Tomorrow, Strong Economy for All, and Stop the Money Pipeline.
The activists noted that KKR also has a majority stake in the Canadian Coastal GasLink Pipeline that has spurred human rights concerns: At the project’s inception, the company was accused of disregarding the sovereignty of the Indigenous Wet’suwet’en Nation. (A spokesperson told Hyperallergic that Coastal GasLink “has agreements in place with all 20 elected Indigenous communities along the project corridor, including Wet’suwet’en communities” and that 17 nations signed onto a 10% equity agreement.)
Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis have given tens of millions of dollars to MoMA, and in 2019, the museum named its new performance space the “Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio.” The billionaire couple has also donated millions to conservative political causes. Henry Kravis gave $300,000 to the Republican National Committee (RNC) in 2016 and he and Marie-Josée both donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee in 2017. (Henry Kravis reportedly did not donate to the RNC or Trump in 2020.) Marie-Josée Kravis served as vice chair of the conservative think tank Hudson Institute, where she worked as executive director from 1976 to 1994.
The air was thick with smoke from the wildfires currently raging in Canada. As well-heeled guests entered the museum doors, activists held up a banner that read “MoMA, Drop Kravis” in front of a scaled-down oil rig featuring an image of Ed Ruscha’s “Burning Gas Station” (1968), a depiction of Standard Oil pumps going up in flames. Ruscha is among four honorees of this year’s gala. (The museum is also honoring artist Barbara Chase-Riboud, current MoMA vice chair and former banking executive Marlene Hess, and Ford Foundation president Darren Walker.)
“Henry Kravis, shame on you, we deserve a future too,” the group chanted during tonight’s protest. “We need clean air, not another billionaire.”
Pete Sikora, climate campaign director for New York Communities for Change, handed flyers to arriving guests. A QR code on the flyer led to an open letter and petition titled “MoMA: Drop Climate Criminal Kravis.”
“MoMA can’t claim to take the money and then not have any responsibility for what it’s enabling,” Sikora told Hyperallergic.
After around an hour at the museum’s main entrance, the activists moved to the back of the museum, where the guests had congregated in the courtyard. They continued their chants through the slatted gates. Museum staff placed a screen on the other side of the gate, obstructing the protesters’ view of the guests. A group of around 12 policemen gathered near the activists, who raised their makeshift “oil rig” above the height of the fence for the guests to see.
In addition to its Coastal GasLink investment, KKR is also deeply tied to fossil fuel projects on the Gulf Coast. The private equity giant funneled billions of dollars into Sempra, a company building a $13 billion facility for liquified natural gas (KKR will have a 25-49% stake in the project) and has billions of dollars in other fossil fuel companies as well.
“There’s lots of things they have said about trying to be sustainable,” said Climate Organizing Hub’s director Jonathan Westin. “But the proof is about where they’re putting their money.” Activists from Climate Organizing Hub and New York Communities for Change also protested outside KKR’s Manhattan headquarters in April.
Climate activists have taken a closer look at the private equity industry over the last year. As other large financial corporations have backed off from oil and gas investments, many private equity companies have dug in their heels. A September 2022 report by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project and Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund found that the 10 largest private equity companies (KKR among them) had 80% of their energy investments in fossil fuels.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a KKR spokesperson said that the company stands by the claims made in its sustainability report. “We are focused on investing in a sustainable energy transition that supports a shift to clean energy while recognizing the ongoing importance of supplying the conventional energy needed for well-being, security and economic growth,” the spokesperson said. “To achieve these goals, we invest in a diverse range of energy sources, including renewable energy and conventional energy.”
Tuesday night was not the first time activists have descended upon the Party in the Garden gala. At last year’s event, union organizers decried the museum’s decision to honor Starbucks chairwoman Mellody Hobson, whom they accused of union busting. In 2018, MoMA staff members rallied for a fair contract, and in 2015, workers protested the museum’s healthcare cuts.
Scrutiny of MoMA’s board members and sources of funding has ramped up over the past three years. In 2020, artists and activists launched the 10-week Strike MoMA campaign in protest of trustees’ unethical financial ties. At the top level, MoMA’s then-board chair Leon Black was connected to both military contractor Blackwater and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Black gave Epstein $158 million between 2012 and 2017 — after Epstein had pled guilty for soliciting prostitution from a minor in 2008.
“It doesn’t add up — the image of what museums portray themselves to be and the people’s names they’re putting on their wings,” Westin said. “Museums are promoting all these social justice things and promoting sustainability. At the same time, [MoMA’s] board chair and her husband’s company are putting millions into liquified natural gas.”
The Museum of Modern Art has not responded to Hyperallergic‘s immediate request for comment.