The photo shows Protestants performing a
"In the lobby of the Guggenheim, Nan Goldin led a protest against the Sacklers, the major museum donors who own OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma" Photo: Elizabeth Bick for The New Yorker

En January 2020, the New York Museum of Modern Art – MoMA received a letter from 45 American war veterans demanding that the museum stop receiving funding from “toxic” sources. The signatories make up the so-called Veteran Art Movement, a collective that describes itself as a “decentralized network of veterans and military service members” that uses art to confront “a society facing endless war, militarism and dehumanization.” 

The sending of the letter is not by chance, as MoMA PS1 is currently presenting the large-scale collective exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 (Theatre of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011), whose purpose is to examine the legacies of US-led military involvement in Iraq over the past 30 years and its “indelible impact on contemporary culture and the work of artists around the world” . The elaboration of veterans message, however, goes beyond the thematic approach to the exhibition. It was sent in solidarity with another manifesto made public by about thirty exhibitors at the PS1 show, urging the museum to cut ties with controversial board members. 

In their letter, the war veterans – whose names appear alongside their time and place of service – explain that they take responsibility for their past actions and, as such, choose to be “in solidarity with Iraqi artists and all activists who call for to MoMA PS1 to 'take a truly radical stand, divesting itself of any curators and funding sources that profit from the suffering of others'”. As a way of legitimizing their protest, the signatories also present a kind of mea culpa: “We recognize our own role in creating the conditions for continued death and turmoil in Iraq and we continue to deal with this reality through our art, activism and life".

Their protests are primarily directed at Larry Fink, a member of the museum's board of directors, and Leon Black, a member of the MoMA advisory group. They are, respectively, linked to the BlackRock company, whose investments in private prison complexes “represent a domestic war against people of color and the poor,” according to the signatories; and Constellis Holdings, a private security company and defense contractor formerly known as Blackwater, which played a major role in the US-led war in Iraq, “profiting heavily from the coercive exploitation of Iraqis while operating under the aegis of the armed forces.” USA, using service members as disposable work and marketing materials”.

The claims come at a time of increasing scrutiny of the source of money from cultural institutions, and the controversies of such institutions are throwing them into the political discussions raging across the United States. The protests – successful or not – end up encouraging other movements that also demand a partition between institutions and certain donors or curators. For example, in late July 2019, Warren B. Kanders, vice president of the Whitney Museum, resigned his post after months of protests because of of your position in Safariland – one manufacturer of military and law enforcement equipment, including bulletproof vests, gun holsters, bomb-defusing robots, and tear gas. the protests intensified after reports that these tear gas grenades had been used against migrants at the US-Mexico border and elsewhere during demonstrations.. One of the most impactful movements in the wave of protests was the withdrawal of their works by eight artists who were to participate in the prestigious exhibition of the Whitney Museum Biennale.

No to opiate producers!

Before the Whitney case, however, the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums (MET), both in New York, announced that they would no longer accept donations from members of the Sackler family, associated with the Purdue Pharma, maker of the pain reliever OxyContin, after allegations that the company deliberately concealed its addictive potential. In recent years, the US has been experiencing a public health crisis thanks to the indiscriminate use of opiates (a family of drugs derived from the poppy, of which OxyContin is a part). In the country, opiate addiction came to cost 400 thousand lives between 1999 and 2017

We can highlight the role of photographer Nan Goldin and her group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) as precursors of the protests to Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family: for two years they have been leading a campaign to expose the company's role, with Goldin having become involved with the cause after being addicted to a drug of the type during the process of recovery from a hand injury in 2014. The PAIN itself is still a small group, its core has only 12 people, although the scope of its actions has been considerably wide. 

One of its first demonstrations was at the MET – whose wing that contains the Temple of Dendur is named after Sackler – on March 10, 2018, when Goldin and the other members of PAIN held a “die-in” and filled the fountain. of the temple with medicine bottles. After the MET came the protests at the Guggenheim in New York and at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where a retrospective of her work was negotiated with the photographer herself, which would be accepted only if the gallery rejected a donation of one million pounds from the Sackler Trust. . On March 19 of that year, a joint communiqué from the National Portrait Gallery and the Sackler Trust informed the joint agreement not to proceed with the donation at that time. That victory was echoed days later by the decision of the Tate group and the Guggenheim to do the same. 

the dilemma 

On another occasion, the photographer argued that institutions should “stop giving cultural legitimacy and social stature” to patrons like the Sackler family. The big dilemma is how to move this wasp nest without the whole situation turning into a “Catch 22” (a problem in which the very resolution generates new problems). If art has always depended on wealthy patrons, see Medicis, Frick and Morgan, the situation is exacerbated in the US, where museums receive paltry state funds, unlike in Europe (even if in decline). In his resignation letter, Warren B. Kanders writes that “the politicized and often toxic environment in which we find ourselves in all spheres of public discourse, including the arts community, puts the work of this council at great risk”; on the other hand, would it be better, then, to become deaf-mutes in a field of rye?

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