Artists in PS1 Gulf War show urge museum to sever ties with toxic philanthropy

After Michael Rakowitz paused his video, 37 artists have signed an open letter condemning investments by MoMA board members Larry Fink and Leon Black into private prisons, weapons manufacturing and defense firms

Michael Rakowitz in front of his video installation RETURN (2004–) at MoMA PS1. Photo: Jillian Steinhauer

Dozens of artists involved in MoMA PS1’s group show Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 are protesting the museum’s ties to “toxic philanthropy” and in an open letter are urging the museum to “divest” from its board members Larry Fink and Leon Black.

Fink, the CEO of investment firm BlackRock, has been condemned by activists for his company’s ties to private prisons and weapons manufacturing, while Leon Black’s equity firm, Apollo Global Management, owns the military security group Constellis, the private defence company that acquired and restructured the firm Blackwater, which was banned from operating in Iraq after charges that its staff committed war crimes there.

First, in an act of protest, the artist Michael Rakowitz paused his video RETURN (2004-ongoing) and placed a statement on the wall next to the piece outlining the concerns activists have. Fink’s company BlackRock and its subsidiaries, for example, is the largest shareholder the prison corporations GEO Group and Core Civic, which “have been responsible for approximately 70% of all immigration detentions,” Rakowitz’s statement reads, and “are part of a racist, carceral system which has made the US the largest jailer in the world”. Rakowitz also calls out Black’s firm Constellis Holdings, which took over Blackwater, a private military firm “infamous for its role in the Nisour Square Massacre, during which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more”. Rakowitz asked that the board members divest from these companies, or that MoMA divest itself from Fink and Black, or that PS1 divest from MoMA, so that he could restart the video. “PS1 is a home for art and I respect all that has been done here by artists since the 1970s when it first opened. I would hate to depart.”

His statement ended: “PS: This statement constitutes an essential part of my ongoing artwork RETURN and cannot be removed.” After Rakowitz left the museum, however, museum officials restarted his video and removed his statement, which the artist has said “damages” his work.

Following this, 37 artists involved in the show, including Rakowitz, Martha Rosler, Mona Hatoum, Guerilla Girls, Laura Poitras, John Kessler and others, signed an open letter asking the museum to divest from the board members. “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,” the letter reads. “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.” Though the letter explicitly calls out Black but does not name Fink, the signatory artists mention that they “agree with” and “support” Phil Collins, the UK artist who unexpectedly withdrew his work from the show in solidarity with those protesting Fink.

“Artists are continuing to demand moral and ethical governance on the part of art institutions, as these institutions have continued to insist on their transformational role in culture and society,” the artist Martha Rosler says in an email. “Once again, as we have periodically, we are reminding institutions that we are effectively your primary workforce, your reason to exist. We assert the right to demand that you relinquish any claim to leadership if your financial support derives in large measure from elites unperturbed by the means by which their profits are generated. Many sources of money are questionable, to be sure, but in relation to this show in particular, private prisons and defense contracting are particularly galling and indefensible.”

MoMA PS1 has not yet responded to The Art Newspaper’s request for comment, but a museum spokeswoman told Artnet that “we support these artists’ right to make their voices heard”.