Michael Rakowitz wants to pause his video work at MoMA PS1 as a protest against museum’s ties to ‘toxic philanthropy’

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MoMA PS1 Image via Wikimedia Commons

Days before Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 opened at MoMA PS1, the museums curators were scrambling to deal with several crises. A group of Iraqi artists involved in the show were barred entry from theUS because of President Donald Trumps travel ban. The UK artist Phil Collins unexpectedly withdrew his work from the exhibition in protest of MoMAs alleged investments in private prisons and ICE detention centres, informing the press about his decision before he told the museum. Shortly thereafter, the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz made a request of his own: “Press the pause button on my video, Return, so that we can discuss some recent events.”

But chief curator Peter Eleey and curator Ruba Katrib asked Rakowitz for a discussion before he made any decisions, the artist says, and he agreed to meet. On 3 November, he sat down with the curators and MoMA PS1s new director, Kate Fowle, alongside other participants in the exhibition. Rakowitzs position was that the museum had an obligation to heed Collins request for MoMAs divestment from board members like Larry Fink, the CEO of the hedge fund Blackrock, and its chairman Leon Black, whose equity firm Apollo Global Management owns the military security group Constellis. (The private defence company acquired and restructured the firm Blackwater, which was banned from operating in Iraq after charges that its staff committed war crimes there.)

And if the Manhattan museum would not oblige, Rakowitz said, then the Queens affiliate PS1 must divest from its parent institution. According to the artist, the curators stressed that the museums have two distinct boards and that Theater of Operations was not the right venue for such a protest. But the artist was disappointed when the conversation turned to Collins. “How they described Phil was totally inappropriate,” Rakowitz says. “They tried to make it seem like he was being opportunistic because he was already doing an exhibition about prison abolition in Montreal.”

MoMA PS1 responded to The Art Newspapers request for comment: “From the inception of this exhibition in 2017, weve been fully committed to open communication with artists around the presentation of their work and how to amplify the crucial topics this exhibition explores. MoMA PS1 is committed to addressing timely issues, and respects the rights of all artists to decide when and where to show their work. With the presentation of Theater of Operations, we remain focused on the global effects of the Gulf wars in Iraq—particularly in the context of the current political turmoil there.”

Earlier this year, Rakowitz made headlines when he decided to pull out of the 2019 Whitney Biennial ahead of the exhibition in protest of the museums vice-chairman Warren Kanders, who owns Safariland, a manufacturer of security gear including tear gas canisters. Months after that decision, eight participating artists announced their intention to withdraw their work from the biennial, and Kanders resigned from his post. This time around, Rakowitz has chosen to stay in the exhibition to support the more than 30 Iraqi and Kuwaiti artists, many of whom are being shown in the US for the first time. “It is not the artists who need to depart,” he writes in the protest statement he wanted to post at MoMA PS1, “it is museums dysfunctional and abusive relationship to toxic philanthropy that should go away.”

After his initial meeting with curatorial staff, MoMA PS1 reached out to say that they would be willing to host an event about museum ethics. Rakowitz conferred with activists and exhibition participants, and found the institutions response lacking. “This is about more than a single issue. Its about more than one or two bad trustees,” he says. “If theres going to be a meeting about museum ethics, then [the curator] Nikki Columbus has to be there, too.”

Last year, Columbus filed a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, asserting that MoMA PS1 discriminated against her when the museum allegedly terminated her job application after managers found out Read More – Source