The New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was founded in 1929 to “challenge the conservative policies of traditional museums and establish an institution devoted exclusively to modern Art.“Yet since its inception, the museum has been marked by white supremacy and wealth inequality, often replicating the very practices its creators aimed to eradicate. Founded by three wealthy patrons of the arts, including a Rockefeller, the museum has often failed to live up to progressive standards. From collections filled with artifacts of colonialism to inflated executive salaries, the museum remains a space where existing global inequalities are reproduced.
This spring, members of the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF) group ran a campaign called MoMA Strike, which included 10 weeks of action aimed at exposing the institution’s historical and current racism and imperialism. The protests brought together a broad coalition of community members ranging from artists and activists to staff members. As the 10 weeks of action began in April and ended in June, the coalition remains committed to a long-term project to reimagine one of New York’s greatest arts institutions.
In recent years, MoMA has come under increasing criticism for receiving funds from donors whose sources of wealth are tainted with ties to industries such as weapons manufacturing, fossil fuels or pharmaceuticals. The MoMA strike itself was also catalyzed in part by the relationship of recent office chair Leon Black to Jeffrey Epstein.
MoMA’s funders are not just behind-the-scenes actors, as is the case with many institutions. In fact, the museum major donors are often board members whose wealth sustains entire collections, gallery wings and new buildings. As the Strike MoMA coalition writes on its website, “Their billions in assets hang on the wall, works of art turned into ornaments of repression and figures of extraction.” In return, these donors are seen as cultural benefactors serving the public through their generosity to the arts, often masking the nature of their wealth.
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The role of museums in rehabilitating the reputations of wealthy donors with dodgy incomes is no secret, but criticism of museums enabling these wealthy dodgers has steadily increased in recent years. In 2018, artist Nan Goldin led protests in several museums in New York and London against the Sackler family (the makers of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin). One of the protests was staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and called on the museum to stop accepting money from the Sackler family. In 2019, artists Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett write a statement for ArtForum lambasting the Whitney Museum for accepting large donations from then-board member Warren Kanders. Kanders’ company, Safariland, provides a variety of tactical supplies to police and military forces around the world, including tear gas that has been used against protesters across the globe, from Gaza to Ferguson.
Enter Strike MoMA. that of the coalition actions throughout the spring drew attention to different facets of oppression perpetuated by MoMA’s elite funders: gold mining in the Dominican Republic, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and more. From marches and banner drops to circles of music and dancing, protesters gathered to raise awareness of these issues, but coming together was also the point. As stated on the Strike MoMA’s website, “What matters is being engaged in the struggle and breaking the addiction complex that MoMA has created for art, ideologically and materially.” The 10 weeks of action provided an opportunity for individuals of disparate identities and regions to come together and build their capacity as a united front against elite museum culture.
This process of creating a concentrated base of people’s power dedicated to the arts – that does not rely on tainted gifts or powerful billionaires – is Strike MoMA’s larger project. The coalition aims to reclaim the museum as a site of art for and by the people; as their manifesto asks: “Why hit the MoMA? So that something else can emerge, something under the control of workers, communities and artists rather than billionaires. They ask all of us involved in the arts to consider whether these institutions are working for us, and if not, what we could rebuild in their place.