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‘Toxic philanthropy’ versus ‘egalitarian principles’: artists, art workers and activists call for Leon Black’s removal as MoMA board chairman

‘Toxic philanthropy’ versus ‘egalitarian principles’: artists, art workers and activists call for Leon Black’s removal as MoMA board chairman


‘Toxic philanthropy’ versus ‘egalitarian principles’: artists, art workers and activists call for Leon Black’s removal as MoMA board chairman

Leon Black, the billionaire board chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, in 2015
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Ratcheting up the pressure for his resignation, an array of over 150 artists, art workers and collectives have called for the removal of Leon Black as board chairman of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) after months of controversy over the billionaire’s payments to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and other financial ties. “We, as artists and art workers, support the removal of Leon Black from the board of MoMA for reasons that have already been stated by many others,” their petition reads. “However, this should be considered the bare minimum. Beyond his removal, we must think seriously about a collective exit from art’s imbrication in toxic philanthropy and structures of oppression, so that we don’t have to have the same conversations over and over, one board member at a time.”The pressure has unfolded against a backdrop of intermittent protests over the ties of American museum board trustees to companies that critics consider broadly unethical. In 2019, for example, Warren B. Kanders resigned as vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art after months of protests over his company’s sale of tear gas canisters thought to have been used on asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Artists and activists have also demanded that the MoMA trustee Larry Fink divest himself from holdings in companies that operate private prisons.“This thinking can only catalyse action once we state plainly: We do not need this money,” the artists’ statement says. “Museums and other arts institutions must pursue alternative models, cooperative structures, Land Back initiatives, reparations and additional ideas” that “align with the egalitarian principles that drew us to art in the first place.” The petition, whose existence was first reported by Hyperallergic, was signed by such artists as Nan Goldin, Xaviera Simmons and Michael Rakowitz as well as the Guerrilla Girls.MoMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Black has served as its board chairman since 2018.Last week Black announced that he would resign by July as chief executive of Apollo Global Management after an inquiry by the private equity firm found that Black had paid Epstein $158m over five years in exchange for financial advice and had lent him more than $30m, of which only $10m was paid back. Black said he would retain his post as Apollo’s chairman.Black’s payments to Epstein ended in 2017, the firm’s report found–nine years after his 2008 guilty plea in Florida to a prostitution charge involving a teenager but before his arrest in July 2019 on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges arising from the alleged exploitation of dozens of minor girls. Epstein killed himself in a New York jail cell a month after his arrest.The report found no evidence that Black had taken part in any of Epstein’s criminal pursuits.Artists seeking Black’s departure as MoMA’s chairman have also previously pointed to Apollo’s financial backing of Constellis, formerly Blackwater, a security services firm whose contractors were convicted in the 2007 killings of unarmed civilians in Iraq and the wounding of others.The New York Times reported last week that Black seemed to have no immediate intention of stepping down despite demands by art world figures that he do so. In a brief email sent to MoMA trustees on 25 January sharing the news that he would resign as Apollo’s chief executive, the newspaper said he signed off by saying “I look forward to seeing you at our February board meeting.”Hyperallergic meanwhile reported that it had received other missives from art world figures and groups urging MoMA to consider Black’s presence on its board, including statements from the artist Hito Steyerl and the activist groups MoMA Divest and Decolonize This Place.“Nothing short of a major reconstitution of the board, a change of directors, a public reckoning and a reimagining of the institutional and curatorial mission of the museum is acceptable,” it quoted MoMA Divest as saying.

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