Art under attack as top New York gallery urged to cut ties to rich donors

One of America’s most prestigious museums, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), faces calls to turn its back on private philanthropy amid a fresh debate about how the art world is funded.

On Friday a protest walking tour turned into a confrontation at MoMA, with one of the 50-strong group claiming she was assaulted by the museum’s security staff.

“Strike MoMA” protesters, organised by a group called the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings, want to eliminate private philanthropy at the museum and create a social justice-oriented interpretation of modern art.

The group envisages a “post-MoMA future” under which, it says, “something else can emerge, something under the control of workers, communities and artists rather than billionaires.”

From an initial gift of eight prints and one drawing in 1929, MoMA’s inventory now contains nearly 200,000 works –including Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – and masterpieces that collectively make up an unparalleled collection of modernist treasures.

A place on the museum’s board has long been one of New York’s social crowns – and many of the names represent art scholarship, dynastic fortune and success in business. But they are in some cases controversial. Leon Black, the financier with ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, recently decided to step down as board chair. He remains a trustee.

Last week organisers of Strike MoMA wrote to museum director Glenn Lowry, calling the institution “a system of power and wealth that harms people”. On Friday a strike placard declared: “This is a de-occupation of privately-owned public space.” Amin Husain, a demonstration organiser, told the crowd. “We want to take over these institutions. They do not belong to the oligarchs.”

In a recent email to the staff, Lowry said that the museum “respects the right to protest”, but added, “I do not agree that dismantling MoMA, or any museum, serves the best interests of the public.”

The museum said in a statement following the confrontation that by trying to “force their entry, en masse, into the museum” protesters had shown “complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of our staff and visitors”.

The protests frame a series of questions about the role of big institutions. US museums, unlike their European counterparts, come with little state support and rely on patronage.

But after losses from a year of lockdown and rolling social justice protests, many are at a crossroads and looking to sell works to keep staff employed and re-engineer collections to reflect diversity in art and in some cases to fund social outreach programmes.

But according to private dealers who spoke to the 观察者 on condition of anonymity, the MoMA protesters may risk more than they stand to gain.

“If you want to be anti-capitalist and anti-money that’s fine, but American museums have always been based on individual charity rather than state funding. If you want museums like that you need to go to Germany or France,” said one.

“If they don’t like MoMA, a flagship of museums in the world and one based on personal wealth, they could just keep out of it.”

Previous art institution demonstrations have been organised against the Metropolitan Museum of Art over Sackler Trust funding and the Whitney Museum of American Art over former trustee Warren Kanders’s law enforcement supply contracts.

The protests come as MoMA and other institutions attempt to transfer funding from acquisitions to social outreach programs and education. “It’s ironic really that they’re being kicked in the balls by some from the very people they’re trying to help,” the dealer added.

Another adviser-dealer said they knew of a potential MoMA trustee who had decided against joining for fear that they’d be criticised over their financial portfolio. 同时, they noted, MoMA was more resilient than other museums, including the Whitney.

Sifting through good and bad patrons can be a subjective undertaking – the latest protest came on the day many were commemorating 伊莱·布罗德(Eli Broad), a housing developer who helped reshape the cultural landscape of Los Angeles through support of the arts.

同时, the second dealer noted, “there’s no shortage of billionaires who want to climb the greasy pole and join the board of MoMA. Leon Black has left and Marie-Josee Kravis (husband of investment manager and Trump supporter Henry Kravis) has stepped in. And no one cares about that.”