Last week, 37 artists involved in MoMA PS1’s “Theater of Operations: The Gulf War 1991-2011” sent an open letter to the exhibition’s curators, Ruba Katrib and Peter Eleey. The letter echoed what has become a refrain for the Museum of Modern Art’s sister institution in recent months: that MoMA divest from two board members with potentially problematic sources of funding that could tie the museum to what the signers called “the suffering of others.”
The museum has not yet responded to the letter, which was addressed to the trustees of both museums and the directors of MoMA and PS1, Glenn Lowry and Kate Fowle, respectively. The signatories include almost half the show’s participants, among them Michael Rakowitz, Rasheed Araeen, Dia Al-Azzawi, Mohammed Al Shammarey, Martha Rosler, Mona Hatoum, Hiwa K, Laura Poitras, and the Guerrilla Girls.
“We appreciate the visibility this exhibition gives to the Iraq wars and to the work of Iraqi artists; however, we also wish to make visible MoMA’s connection to funds generated from companies and corporations that directly profit from these wars,” the letter reads, in part. “We call on PS1 to stand by its stated mission and, together with MoMA, take a truly radical position by divesting from any trustees and sources of funding that profit from the suffering of others.”
Even before it opened, “Theater of Operations” was mired in controversy. In October, several Iraqi artists included in the show were barred from entering the United States by President Donald Trump’s travel ban. On the exhibition’s press preview day, British artist Phil Collins unexpectedly withdrew from the exhibition in protest of MoMA’s alleged investments in private prisons and ICE detention centers through its board member, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock. A week later, Rakowitz met with curators and requested that PS1 pause his video work, RETURN (2004–), and post his letter condemning the museum’s ties to “toxic philanthropy.” Museum leadership reportedly wanted to keep the exhibition intact and refused his request three times. Last weekend, the Chicago-based artist traveled to Queens in order to alter the work himself and post his statement. (The museum pressed play on the video soon after, and the statement was removed.)
“I did not receive their permission, but it is my right as the artist and the work may not be altered without my permission,” Rakowitz told ARTnews in an email. “Removal of the statement or presenting the video unpaused would be damaging the work…. This is a destructive act.”
The group letter was a collective effort among the exhibition’s participants, who began discussing the possibility of a statement after Collins withdrew and increased their momentum after the museum denied Rakowitz’s requests. It incorporates the positions of both artists, focusing specifically on two board members: trustee Larry Fink, whose company, BlackRock, is invested in GEO Group and Core Civic, which operate private prisons, and board chairman Leon Black, whose equity firm Apollo Global Management owns the military security group Constellis Holdings. In 2010 Constellis was formed after a group of investors acquired and restructured assets from the firm Blackwater, which was banned from operating in Iraq after its staff were charged with war crimes. Six years later, Apollo acquired Constellis.
Representatives for Fink and Black have not commented directly on calls for their removal from MoMA’s board. Responding to an earlier request for comment about BlackRock’s investment in private prisons, a company spokesman told ARTnews that its index funds “have democratized investing and broadened access to financial markets for millions of savers around the world.”
Though PS1 is affiliated with MoMA, the two institutions maintain separate boards, and Fink is not named as a trustee at PS1 on MoMA’s website. Black is listed on that webpage as an ex-officio leader of PS1’s board.
“We support these artists’ right to make their voices heard,” a spokesperson for MoMA PS1 said. A representative for MoMA did not respond to a request for comment.
The letter is reprinted in full below.
An open letter to the directors and trustees of MoMA PS1 and MoMA
On November 3, 2019, the exhibition “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011” opened at MoMA PS1, bringing together artwork made by artists around the world in response to the Gulf wars, with a particular focus on Iraqi artists—many of whom worked in the midst of the continuous trauma of siege, sanctions, and occupation. On the eve of the opening of the exhibition, Phil Collins announced the withdrawal of his work baghdad screentests from the show in support of the MoMA/BlackRock Divest Campaign.
We, the undersigned participants in “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011,” echo this call and support Collins in the hope that his action will “contribute to the global momentum to protest inequity, occupation, labour extraction and disenfranchisement, and to see, together, better days.”
We also broaden this call by drawing attention to the Chairman of MoMA’s Board of Trustees, Leon Black, and his relationship to Constellis Holdings. Black is co-founder of the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, which in 2016 acquired Constellis, the rebranded private security firm Blackwater, notorious for its role in the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre, when Blackwater guards killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians and injured many more.
The war in Iraq did not end in 2011: it is ongoing. In recent months there have been countrywide protests against foreign interference and entrenched corruption ushered in through the US-led invasion and occupation. Security forces have killed more than 400 peaceful protestors since they took to the streets in October 2019. But this war has been invisible and far from the attention and concerns of most Americans. We appreciate the visibility this exhibition gives to the Iraq wars and to the work of Iraqi artists; however, we also wish to make visible MoMA’s connection to funds generated from companies and corporations that directly profit from these wars.
PS1 has a proud history as the first non-profit arts center in the US devoted solely to contemporary art, and it has a stated commitment to showcasing the most radical art, ideas and issues of our time. Yet almost twenty years ago the center became an affiliate to MoMA and, while we recognize that PS1 has a Board of Directors separate from MoMA’s, Leon Black serves on the PS1 board in an ex officio capacity. We agree with Collins when he states that “museums and cultural spaces, their collections, exhibitions and programs, should not be aligned with or funded by investments in mass incarceration, war profiteering, ecological catastrophe, debt ownership, devastation, oppression and the pain of others.”
We call on PS1 to stand by its stated mission and, together with MoMA, take a truly radical position by divesting from any trustees and sources of funding that profit from the suffering of others. MoMA has just rebuilt itself and opened a newly renovated and expanded museum with a more global and inclusive curatorial narrative; surely it must also be capable of rebuilding its board and envisioning new ethical standards and best practices when it comes to sourcing philanthropic support.
Sadik Kwaish Alfraji
Koutaiba Al Janabi
The Estate of Rafa Nasiri
Mohammed Al Shammarey