Vijay Masharani on Strike MoMA’s “Ruins of Modernity” Tour
I COUNT EIGHT NYPD SQUAD CARS in front of the Time Warner Center and another van by the Trump Hotel. It’s April 30, and two concentric circles of metal barricades lashed together with zip ties—erected during last summer’s rebellion and removed this past March—are back, surrounding the Columbus Monument. I’m half an hour early and the sky looks ready to open up into what my phone assures me will be a brief, light squall. I huddle outside a temporarily shuttered Maison Keyser to keep dry and skim the Strike MoMA Framework and Terms for Struggle, on the lookout for others attending the group’s tour.
Strike MoMA emerged after artists and activists demanded private equity magnate Leon Black leave the museum’s board due to his ties to the late billionaire pedophile human trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Some of the organizations that made these calls, such as MoMA Divest, the Arts Union (who authored a statement signed by some 150 artists and arts workers), and Decolonize This Place, further noted that to see Black as distinctly objectionable is to miss the forest for the trees, as other board members have accrued their fortunes on the backs of the racialized poor through predatory lending, mass incarceration, and resource extraction. The museum burnishes their reputations while hoarding wealth in its $1.2 billion endowment. The appropriate response, then, is not to focus on individuals but to confront the institution in its entirety.
I catch curator Joseph Lubitz and soon we’re joined by Sunny Iyer from Wendy’s Subway and Ian Epps from Art Handlers’ Alliance. We walk to Central Park South, where a group is unfurling hand-painted banners. One reads “UNDER THE MUSEUM / UNDER THE UNIVERSITY / UNDER THE CITY | THE LAND”—a reference to May ’68—while another asserts “CLIP THE LOCKS, BETRAY EMPIRE,” a request seemingly addressed to building security. While the lobby is normally open to the public, in advance of our visit director Glenn Lowry instructed staff to check tickets outside of the museum due to “risk of gun violence.” Shellyne Rodriguez, an artist and activist affiliated with the activist group Take Back the Bronx, distributes a two-color risograph pamphlet headlined “The RUINS of MODERNITY TOUR: From the CITY to the MUSEUM” that folds out into an annotated map of the surrounding area marked with the logos of companies affiliated with MoMA board members, some of their residential addresses, and information about another trustee with Epstein ties, Glenn Dubin.
A ragtag crowd of about forty-five has assembled at the base of the park. DTP’s Amin Husain beckons us closer for some remarks issued in a vaguely pedagogical tone: This is not a protest. This gathering is for us to learn what’s happening in the city, and where power is concentrated within it. Rodriguez follows with a provocation: What does an anti-imperialist political program look like for those living in the heart of a global empire? Sandra Grande of the Red Nation issues a land acknowledgement and directs our attention to the recently published Indigenous climate justice platform the Red Deal. The speakers offer some practical tips for avoiding arrest—stay tight around corners, that sort of thing—and then we’re off, marshaled by three cops on mopeds.
We plot a meandering course to the museum and make a couple of impromptu stops along the way, first to express our disgust at the vacant buildings around Fifty-Second and Broadway and the capitalist superfluity that they signify, and then again to note the privately owned public space of 6½ Ave. Chants tend to get swallowed up by city noise, so instead someone brought a booming speaker mounted on a hand truck; I Shazam my four favorite tracks, which are augmented by a live trumpet player and someone with a kick drum mounted on their chest.
When we arrive at MoMA, it’s clear security won’t let us demonstrate in the lobby. At times with considerable pathos, protestors reason with the guards on the basis of shared ethnic/class identifications. “Glenn doesn’t pay you enough for this!” someone implores, while Husain speaks to one of the guards in Arabic. Hancy, a member of the Kiskeya Solidarity Committee, appeals to one man through their mutual Dominican heritage, invoking how “[Dominican] people have a long history of struggle.” Later, I learn that two employees working in visitor services walked off during the standoff and that Rodriguez, who was employed by the museum until it laid off its education staff at the start of the pandemic, entered the building through the staff entrance only to be hit in the face by a security guard.
The confrontation doesn’t last longer than fifteen minutes, after which we begin the “deoccupation,” hoisting a banner that reads “POST-MOMA FUTURE” across from the museum. Off to the side, I spot O.K. Fox and Sarah Crowe of the Art & Labor podcast interviewing artist William Powhida. The crowd grows to about eighty people, all seated in the plaza and listening to an unplanned speaker series offering a taxonomy of the institutional rot and labor militancy that characterize the university and the museum today. DTP’s Marz Saffore expresses solidarity with MOVE’s campaign against the University of Pennsylvania, recently revealed to have been storing the remains of Black children killed in a 1985 police bombing. Andre from Comité Boricua en la Diáspora introduces himself as a Puerto Rican refugee and accuses board member Stephen Tananbaum of exacerbating and exploiting the territory’s debt crisis. NYU sociologist Andrew Ross updates us on the ongoing Graduate Students Organizing Committee strike and the group’s commitment to leverage their labor power to end the NYPD’s presence on campus.
The next day, I wake up to a leaked email from Lowry, addressed to the staff-wide internal listserv, in which he alleges that dozens of us banded together to enter the museum by force, shouted racial slurs, and attacked the security staff to the point that one guard had to be hospitalized and two required on-site medical attention. Multiple attendees’ video footage of the event proves otherwise. Lowry’s message is largely consistent with the institutional response thus far, which has been to paint Strike MoMA as insurrectionary nihilists while gesturing toward a deliberately vague notion of the museum-as-public-good. But now, misrepresentation has escalated into the kind of brazen lies people with power tell when they’re seeking a mandate for even more extreme forms of suppression.