The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has issued an apology to the British Ghanaian artist Heather Agyepong after she was ejected from an installation hosted in the museum and intended specifically as a safe and restful environment for Black visitors.
In a statement to The Art Newspaper, a MoMA spokesperson pledged the museum will do more to “protect the experiences of Black visitors and visitors from Indigenous communities and communities of colour” in response to the altercation—and will now “explore” bespoke staff training.
On 25 March, Agyepong posted a video on Twitter in which she claimed she was asked to leave an exhibit after her interaction with another visitor led that person to complain to museum employees that Agyepong was “aggressive”.
Agyepong and a friend were visiting Black Power Naps (until 14 May), an installation by artists Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa to provide a restful space for Black visitors to the museum. In her telling, Agyepong engaged a white visitor in conversation after the woman was heard laughing loudly in the installation. Agyepong recounted that she told the visitor: “I think the space is centred around Black people.” The woman, according to Agyepong, responded by shouting that the artist was acting aggressively before making a complaint to the museum’s employees, who subsequently asked Agyepong and her friend to leave.
“Basically they told me: You can never rest!” Agyepong added in a tweet, referring to the museum.
In a statement to The Art Newspaper shared on 30 March, Agyepong said:
"To go through what happened was pretty heart-breaking. After I shared my experience [on Twitter], it got even worse as other people sent me their own troubling incidents at MoMa. The museum reached out to me offering another pass to visit and a lunch. They also told me that they would put more signs up and further training for staff. This feels like words instead of action."
Agyepong said she asked the museum to issue a public apology, rather than a private one. "I asked for a public apology, not just for me but all those affected, and some concrete action," she says. "I asked for genuine policy change to ensure all visitors would be protected, especially those of colour."
Agyepong calls on MoMa to follow the lead of other museums who have instigated anti-racism training among staff members. "So many institutions are making the choice to take real active measures to ensure new policies are put in place to eradicate any form of discrimination and hold their hands up when they get things wrong," she says. "I do hope MoMa makes the right choice."
Asked about the incident, Black Power Naps co-creator Navild Acosta said the artists' attempts "to create direct action, racial sensitivity trainings, outreach and social media campaigns" around the project "were not resourced" by MoMA.
"We insisted as soon as we were first contacted that this piece needed a serious commitment to anti-racism and that not doing so could warrant violence to our community, and we have been insisting ever since," Acosta said. "It is only now that they are recognising how urgent this is and willing to remunerate this labour. It’s been an uphill battle. In January, we ourselves were told to be quiet in our own installation by a white visitor."
In a statement to The Art Newspaper, a MoMA spokesperson said the museum plans to add more staff to the installation and will “explore” further procedural changes, including additional signage and staff training, in consultation with the organisers of Black Power Naps.
“We reached out to Heather Agyepong and apologised,” the spokesperson says. “We are committed to presenting programs that move race equity values forward and we acknowledge there will be challenges to work through and learn from as we support and invite artists and audiences to engage on these important issues.”
Agyepong, who was born and is based in London, is considered a leading photographer of her generation. In 2021, she was awarded both the Photo London x Nikon Emerging Photographer Award and the Photographers Gallery New Talent Award, and has been nominated for The Prix Pictet on several occasions. Her work is held in the collections of London’s Autograph ABP and the Hyman Collection, as well as the Centre National des Arts Plastiques in Paris and the New Orleans Museum of Art. An exhibition of her series Wish You Were Here(2020) is currently on show at the newly inaugurated Centre for British Photography in London.