Tue, Oct 29, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Billionaires rule the American art world

Protesters want billionaires with blood on their hands to stop being donors and resign from museum boards, but that is not enough — we need publicly controlled museums

By Jessa Crispin  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

This week, protesters blocked the entry of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, recently reopened after a massive expansion project. They were calling for the removal of Steven Tananbaum from MoMA’s board, because his firm GoldenTree Asset Management owns US$2.5 billion in debt from Puerto Rico.

With their banners reading #CANCELTHEDEBT, they filled the lobby until the police came and the arrests began.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is because these protests followed other protests in front of MoMA only a few days before, against the involvement of trustee Larry Fink and the museum’s investments in private prisons.

You could also be thinking about the same kind of protests that recently took over the Whitney Museum for their association with Warren Kanders and his company Safariland, which produces “defense technologies” like the tear gas that was used against migrants at the US-Mexico border and protesters in Puerto Rico.

Or, you might be thinking of the protests that flooded the Guggenheim Museum with protesters led by legendary artist Nan Goldin for their association with the Sacklers, who founded Purdue Pharmaceuticals, who are responsible for the opioid crisis through their aggressive pushing of — and fraudulent claims about — the drug oxycodone.

These protests seem noble, but they are ideologically inconsistent. If the idea is to cleanse the art world of its ties to money created through suffering and oppression, then why stop with these singular figures?

The boards of each museum are still cluttered with billionaires who made their fortunes through defense contracts, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.

As Whitney Curry Wimbish documented for The Baffler, sitting next to Kanders on the Whitney board are men and women who created weapons used on Palestinians, sold military equipment to Pakistan and built drones. (Kanders did ultimately resign, but the other billionaires remain.)

These protests are often led by artists and curators, and there are some very good reasons why they do not call for the museums to remove all of the billionaires from their board or to divest entirely from unethical investments.

Some artists — the type who are selected for inclusion at MoMA or the Whitney Biennial or at least believe they might in the future have the opportunity to be — benefit greatly from their access to billionaire trustees and collectors, and while they might gain some cultural capital from showing off their social consciousness by singling out specific problematic individuals, they probably do not want to risk alienating all of the moneyed class.

Take the Whitney Biennial protests that began with an open letter from artists and critics Hannah Black, Ciar Finlayson and Tobi Haslett, asking the artists included in the exhibition of new work to withdraw their art in protest of Kanders’ refusal to resign from the museum’s board.

The open letter came months after the Biennial had begun, meaning the artists who were included had already benefited greatly from having their work be displayed on their prestigious walls and being written about in the promotional materials and the press surrounding the biannual event.

When some of the artists did withdraw following the protest, they got a second round of press, congratulating them on being so committed to their ideals. Indeed yes, they probably are, but it worked out well for them to benefit financially and in publicity both coming and going.

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