Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz has requested that MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, New York, pause his video work, Return, which is currently on display in the museum’s exhibition “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011,” in protest of board member Larry Fink’s ties to private prisons and Leon Black’s connections to arms. The move follows a series of actions targeting Fink, who is the chair and CEO of the investment firm Blackrock which is one of the largest shareholders of prison companies Core Civic and GEO Group, that unfolded at the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art in October.
Days before the exhibition, which addresses the legacy of American military engagements in Iraq over the last thirty years, opened on November 3, British artist Phil Collins asked the institution to remove his work, Baghdad screentests, 2002, from the show. “The times we live in are not business as usual,” Collins wrote in a statement. “Museums and cultural spaces, their collections, exhibitions, and programs, should not be aligned with or funded by investments in mass incarceration, war profiteering, ecological catastrophe, debt ownership, devastation, oppression, and the pain of others.”
According to the Art Newspaper, before Rakowitz made his request, he sat down with MoMA PS1 director, Kate Fowle, chief curator Peter Eleey, and curator Ruba Katrib to discuss his position. The museum representatives allegedly informed the artist that the institution was not the right platform to protest Fink and Black, whose equity firm Apollo Global Management owns the military security group Constellos, since the museum has a separate board then MoMA. Constellos was founded in 1997 as Blackwater USA, which provided security to American officials in Iraq, but was banned from the country in 2007 after a shooting it was involved in, in Baghdad, left eight Iraqis dead.
The artist said he does not want to remove his video from the show, but is now suggesting that MoMA PS1 divest from its parent institution. “I am humbled to be presenting alongside so many artists I admire from my mother’s ancestral home, from which her family was forced to depart in the 1940s. To have such crucial work presented here is momentous. Indeed, it is not the artists who need to depart, it is museums’ dysfunctional and abusive relationship to toxic philanthropy that should go away.” Earlier this year, Rakowitz had also pulled a work from the Whitney Biennial over the Whitney Museum’s refusal to dismiss Warren B. Kanders, the owner of the defense manufacturer Safariland, from its board.
In a statement, MoMA PS1 said that it would comply with Rakowitz’s request: “From the inception of this exhibition in 2017, we’ve 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.”