Crowds Gather to Protest Warsaw’s Leading Contemporary Art Museum, Which Just Mounted an Anti-‘Cancel Culture’ Art Show

Police vans were lined up early Friday evening outside Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art, as protestors gathered to demonstrate against the cultural institution’s decision to proceed with an exhibition that critics say platforms antisemitic, racist, and Islamophobic messages under the guise of freedom of expression.

Exhibition organizers claim the show, which is titled “Political Art” and features many controversial and political artists, is designed to confront “cancel culture” on the political left. It is the second exhibition since Piotr Bernatowicz was controversially appointed as the museum’s director by Poland’s populist conservative ruling Law and Justice party in 2019.

Since the party came to power in 2015, Law and Justice government officials have corralled many of the country’s leading cultural institutions, including museums and theatres, into its conservative ideological orbit.

Kristian von Hornsleth, Head (2019). Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

Kristian von Hornsleth, Head (2019). Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

The exhibition at Ujazdowski Castle is quickly proving to be a major flashpoint in Poland’s highly divisive culture wars. On the night of the opening, the institution braced for large protests by groups including Poland’s anti-fascist league and various LGBTQ+ and Jewish organizers. Photos posted to social media hours before the opening on August 27 showed at least six police vans parked outside the institution.

The newest exhibition under Bernatowicz’s stewardship includes works by nearly 30 artists, one of whom is the controversial Swedish artist Dan Park, who was arrested in 2009 for a stunt that saw him placing swastikas and boxes labeled “Zyklon B”—the gas used in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust—in front of a Jewish community center in Malmo.

Park’s contribution to the show is a poster that depicts the convicted Norwegian criminal Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people, mostly children, in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Norway. Alongside Park’s work is a piece by Danish artist Uwe Max Jensen consisting of a large flag constructed from several smaller LGBT rainbow flags that the artist has fashioned into the shape of a swastika.

One of the most controversial works in the show is by Kristian von Hornsleth from Denmark, who made a work depicting Ugandan villagers who were given pigs and goats in exchange for changing their last names to his own, a move the Ugandan government condemned as racist and disrespectful. The “Political Art” show includes photos of several of the villagers holding up their changed IDs. Midnight Publishing Group News reached out to all three artists, but did not hear back by publishing time.

Von Hornsleth told the Associated Press earlier this week that he believes his work is a celebration of free speech. “Even if this show was right-wing and crazy, it should be allowed because it’s art. But it’s not [right-wing and crazy]—it’s really about creating a space in which anybody can disagree about anything.”

Some of the works appear to straddle left-wing political movements. The work of Hong Kong-Chinese photographer Tam Hoi Ying, for example, included in the exhibition, shows numerous human rights abuses in Hong Kong.

Tam Hoi Ying's <i>Being Disappeared 1. Human rights defender: Liu Xiaobo, Case: Co-authoring. Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms in China, Crime: Incitement to subvert state power, Punishment: 11-year sentence</i> (2016). Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

Tam Hoi Ying’s Being Disappeared 1. Human rights defender: Liu Xiaobo, Case: Co-authoring. Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms in China, Crime: Incitement to subvert state power, Punishment: 11-year sentence (2016). Courtesy Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art.

Co-curator Jon Eirik Lundberg, a Norwegian who oversees the Laesoe Kunsthal gallery in Denmark, agreed with von Hornsleth’s statement. “If you don’t have free speech, you don’t have political freedom. If you don’t have political freedom, you don’t have any protection,” he told the Associated Press. “The best way to protect any minority is to make sure there is freedom of speech.”

Many in Poland claim that the exhibition platforms problematic views that hark back to dangerous ideas emulating during the country’s Nazi occupation. A Ujazdowski Castle employee who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals told Midnight Publishing Group News: “Under the guise of freedom of expression and bizarrely understood pluralism, Bernatowicz is admitting into the institution people associated with the neo-Nazi movement, at the same time canceling and stigmatizing projects inconsistent with his worldview.”

The cancelled programming includes a Miet Warlop show that was originally scheduled for earlier this year, as well as the museum’s participation in an anti-fascist program, both of which were axed by Bernatowicz, allegedly due to budget shortfalls.

One anti-fascist network in Poland, the Anti-Fascist Year, accused the curators of using democratic principles “to convey and justify right-wing hate speech.” In a statement, the group said that the art in the show only “strengthens the electoral prospects of authoritarian parties everywhere.”

Bernatowicz doubled down on his commitment to the exhibition, stating his belief that despite the controversial nature of the works, the call to censor them is worse. In a letter published on the institution’s website in response to concerns raised Warsaw’s Jewish community, Bernatowicz wrote that calls to censor the exhibition are misguided, coming “from the well-educated circles and elites that, rather than engaging in dialogue with artistic attitudes that seem surprising or offensive, prefer to expunge them from the public sphere.”

A statement posted to Instagram by the worker’s union at the cultural institution decried what it sees as hate speech. “We express our opposition to the people who promote hatred in the walls of our institution […] This should not happen, especially in a country as severely experienced by Nazism as Poland.” 

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MoMA Survived Ten Weeks of Protest. But Inside the Museum, Some Employees Are Feeling the Strain

They stood outside, chanting a desire to “burn this fucking empire down.” They blocked the museum’s main entrance, leaving confused tourists to amble through some alternate corridor of the institution. They hosted teach-ins that covered everything from American racism to the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. They unloaded boxes of plantains and spilled a container of red-dyed water because they believed trustees were “washing their hands with the blood of our people.”

But after ten weeks of protest, the dozens of activists who sought to dismantle the hierarchies controlling the Museum of Modern Art found themselves pushing against an immovable force. One month after the campaign’s end, the museum appeared outwardly unaffected by the demonstrations. Behind the scenes, however, the combination of the external pressure and shrinking staff has left signs of strain at one of the country’s most prominent institutions, according to several employees. 


The Strike MoMA Campaign, which ended on June 11 with a final march through Midtown, involved a number of activist organizations that called themselves the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings. The coalition formed in response to news that the billionaire Leon Black would leave his position as the museum’s chairman after widespread pressure from artists and activists over his ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. (Black remains on the board.)

Activists rally at the Museum of Modern Art. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Activists rally at the Museum of Modern Art. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Demonstrations were primarily led by members of Decolonize This Place, an organization that had led a nine-week protest campaign at the Whitney Museum which ended with the resignation of the vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, who activists said was not fit to serve as a trustee because his company, Safariland, sold law enforcement and military supplies, including tear gas.

No such concessions were given at MoMA, where Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, described the protesters as forces intending to “destroy” the beloved institution in an April email to staff.

“Do we have a lot more work to do? For sure,” he wrote at the time. “Can we be an even better institution? For sure. Is the protesters’ call to destroy MoMA the solution? I don’t see that helping anyone.” 

The conflict reached its boiling point on April 30, when the museum said it was forced to shut its doors after protesters attempted to force their way inside without abiding by health and safety rules. “The protesters chose not to act safely or peacefully,” a MoMA spokesperson told Midnight Publishing Group News after the confrontation. “The museum will always act to protect the health and safety of our staff and visitors.”

According to the spokesperson, two guards were injured by protesters. One protester said that she was punched by a guard when trying to access the museum through an alternate entrance. 

Police and Strike MoMA protesters. Photo: Zachary Small

Police and Strike MoMA protesters. Photo: Zachary Small

The museum later announced that five activists would be permanently banned from the institution. Dozens of police officers and several unmarked police cars started appearing at the protests. During another demonstration in May, which centered on the plight of Palestinians, a protester was tackled by police and arrested near the museum.

Some employees would come to the museum windows and look across 53rd Street on Friday afternoons, watching as activists congregated in the nearby plaza to raise their “Strike MoMA” flag. And when the protesters were initially locked out of the museum in April, at least two staffers walked out of the museum in frustration. 

It was a rare show of dissent within an institution that has largely avoided controversy or rank-breaking in a year when staff at large museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim have publicly confronted leadership on subjects like equity and diversity. 


Although the protests have ended, the mood inside MoMA remains tense, according to several staff members. The pressure from external forces coincided with an unprecedented moment of strain within the institution. Last summer, Lowry said in a video conference that his institution had reduced staff by nearly 160 employees and slashed $45 million from its overall budget.

MoMA has also experienced significant departures through the COVID-19 pandemic beyond what has been previously reported on its termination of contracts with 85 freelance educators. There have been buyouts and early retirement packages offered, and all three senior deputy directors have left the museum, with Ramona Bannayan, senior deputy director of exhibitions and collections, leaving in May.

A Strike MoMA action outside the museum. Photo: Zachary Small

A Strike MoMA action outside the museum. Photo: Zachary Small

A MoMA spokesperson did not respond to several requests for comment for this story, although a source close to the museum board said that a communications executive had informed trustees of this article before its publication.

Low morale and widespread feelings of burnout in what has become a middle-heavy organization have left some employees questioning the decisions of MoMA leadership, according to five staff members, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. 

Several employees said that the museum’s communications strategies inside and outside of its walls had become a source of division. “There isn’t space to talk about anything,” one said. “Our staff meetings involve questions that are all vetted beforehand.”

Another staff member estimated that nearly half the museum supported the protesters’ goals while the other half objected to them. But the fact that the museum had initially told staffers in a meeting that demonstrators would be allowed inside the building, only to lock the doors, stoked feelings of distrust among the employees who spoke with Midnight Publishing Group News.

“From the outset, there was a lot of anxiety from senior leadership and trustees that a majority of staffers might stage a walkout in solidarity with Strike MoMA,” said one employee. “So the museum decided to hide behind its security officers… putting staff, who are predominantly people of color, in harm’s way” when protesters arrived at the front doors. 

So many security guards had accepted early retirement packages that the department was excluded from a later buyout program, staffers said. Some employees speculated that the museum’s decision to reduce its security detail during the pandemic resulted in a situation where personnel were overextended and understaffed for the protests.

Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)

Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)

“It’s bad enough that we don’t have any shows lined up for the special exhibition space, it’s that we don’t even have the manpower to put them up,” said another employee. “Art handlers aren’t allowed overtime anymore and people in temporary positions have been termed out. The museum isn’t currently trying to fill those positions.” 


During the final protest in June, many demonstrators interviewed by Midnight Publishing Group News said that Strike MoMA symbolized a beginning—not the end—of a larger movement aiming to hold cultural institutions accountable. Their actions, some hoped, would also expose the inequalities within the museum system—but they also served to illustrate just how large a gap remains between their goals and methods and those of traditional museum leaders. 

“The abolition of slavery should be followed by the abolition of the museum, where plunder continues to be cultivated as private property,” said Ariella Azoulay, a professor at Brown University who spoke to activists during an online component of the protests.

“A practice of repair,” Azoulay said, echoing what some employees inside the museum told Midnight Publishing Group News, “should take over the infrastructure of the Museum of Modern Art and become its guiding principle.”

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Canadian Protesters Toppled Statues of Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II to Protest the Commonwealth’s Treatment of Indigenous Peoples

As Canadians celebrated yesterday’s anniversary of the nation’s confederation, protesters in orange shirts marched to the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg and toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. The statues are seen by some as symbols of colonizing forces, and chants of “bring her down” spread throughout the group,

The protesters’ orange shirts commemorated the Indigenous children who were sent to notoriously vicious residential schools where abuse and even death were common. At least 150,000 children were forcibly taken from their families over the course of a century as part of an attempt by the government to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society. Ongoing revelations of their unmarked graves have been roiling the nation.

Protesters covered the base of both statues with red handprints, and a red paint-splattered sheet covered Victoria’s head, as people tied ropes around her neck in order to bring down the monument. One man was arrested, though it is unclear what connection he had with the protesters. The activist group Idle No More led calls on social media for #CancelCanadaDay, and spread other hashtags including #NoPrideInGenocide, #BringOurChildrenHome, and #SearchEverySchool. 

In Victoria, which is Lək̓ʷəŋən Territory, a statue of Captain James Cook was dismantled and thrown into Victoria’s Inner Harbour and more red handprints were painted on the empty pedestal. Cheers erupted as the bronze figure fell onto the street, and red wooden dresses were placed around the statue to represent murdered and missing Indigenous women.

“The city of Victoria should remove all monuments that celebrate settler colonialism,” one Instagram user wrote in a caption to the video, “NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE.” 

Last month, protesters in Toronto felled a statue of Egerton Ryerson, a figure who is considered the architect of the residential school system. 


The protests come on the heels of the Lower Kootenay Band’s announcement that the remains of another 182 children had been found in unmarked graves. 

That comes after news in May that the remains of more than 200 children were found on the grounds of a former residential school in unmarked graves. The discovery at Kamloops Indian residential school, which was the largest school of its kind in Canada, prompted outrage among citizens, especially those within the Indigenous community. At the time, Prime Minister Justin Troudeau called it a “tragedy” that “kids were taken from their families, returned damaged, or not returned at all.” 

In June, Vancouver-based artist Tamara Bell installed 215 pairs of shoes on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery to represent the children discovered in May, and community members placed flowers, messages, and stuffed animals alongside the grim display.

In a statement on Canada Day, Trudeau said that “the horrific findings of the remains of hundreds of children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have rightly pressed us to reflect on our country’s historic failures, and the injustices that still exist for Indigenous peoples and many others in Canada.” He added: “We as Canadians must be honest with ourselves about our past.”

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From Sotheby’s ‘CryptoPunk’ Coup to an Anti-Picasso Protest: The Best and Worst of the Art World This Week

Venice Biennale Announces a Theme – The so-called “art world Olympics” will be titled “The Milk of Dreams,” inspired by Leonora Carrington’s surrealism.

Stuart Weitzman Sells a Trove – In 10 minutes, Sotheby’s netted $32 million for five stamps and one coin consigned by the famous shoe designer.

CryptoPunk Makes a Killing – NFTs aren’t dead yet, considering one of the rare digital characters known as CryptoPunks sold for a staggering $11.75 million at Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” auction.

Mario at the Museum  A former Nintendo factory will house a museum dedicated to the video game company’s illustrious history.

Sotheby’s Doubles Down on Decentraland – The world’s oldest auction house has opened up a virtual location in the metaverse, banking on winning more crypto-clients.

The Next Gen Hockney – Beloved painter Hilary Pecis discusses her ascent from almost quitting art altogether to becoming the toast of the gallery world.

All In the Family – The sisters and stepmother of the late, great Jean-Michel Basquiat are organizing an exhibition of never-before-seen work.

The Met Returns Benin Bronzes – In a game-changing move toward restitution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is returning two of the looted artworks to Nigeria.

All That Glitters – Peek at the newly renovated Hall of Gems in the American Museum of Natural History in all its glory.

Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Basilica – Israeli archaeologists discovered a 2,000-year-old Roman basilica built by Herod the Great.

Detroit Institute of Arts Draws Ire – An artwork commissioned by the DIA for the local police department is under fire from community members.

Art Students Protest Picasso – A Spanish professor and her students staged a silent protest against Picasso’s mistreatment of women.

Gallery Salaries, Decoded It turns out that many art dealers and gallery assistants make barely enough money to stay afloat, according to a new survey and report by Midnight Publishing Group News, discussed this week on the Art Angle.

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Six Detroit Institute of Arts Board Members Have Resigned in Protest of Embattled Director Salvador Salort-Pons

Detroit Institute of Arts director Salvador Salort-Pons has come under fire again, as six museum board members have resigned in protest of his leadership.

At a meeting on Friday, the majority of the museum’s executive board voted to stay the course with a “performance plan” evaluating Salort-Pons that was put in place last month, reports the Detroit News.

“Some members disagreed and decided to resign,” board chairman Eugene Gargaro Jr. wrote in a statement provided to Midnight Publishing Group News.

Anne Fredericks, Mary Ann Gorlin, Julie Rothstein, Suzanne Shank, Carol Walters, and Celeste Watkins-Hayes all resigned from the 54-member board, along with Marc Schwartz, one of 32 emeritus board members. A seventh board member also resigned for unrelated reasons.

Gargaro thanked the departing board members for their service and said he was “sorry that these resignations have occurred. I wish that they all would have remained and continued to work with us to help the DIA reach its full potential,” Gargaro said. He added that the board plans to “solve serious internal concerns facing the museum” through “frequent monitoring and reporting on progress.”

The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA. Courtesy Wikicommons.

The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan. Courtesy Wikicommons.

Concerns about Salort-Pons first surfaced in July, when he was accused of ethics violations, nepotism, and fostering a hostile work environment.

An anonymous collective of current and former museum employees known as DIA Staff Action lodged several complaints against the director, and the nonprofit group Whistleblower Aid alleged a conflict of interest in Salort-Pons’s decision to exhibit his father-in-law’s El Greco painting at the museum (which could have increased its value).

In October, the law firm Crowell and Moring found that Salort-Pons had not committed an ethics violation with regard to the El Greco, but the museum did not release the full report.

Earlier this month, a leaked audio recording of a senior staff meeting revealed other, less flattering findings about Salort-Pons that were apparently included in the report. Staffers, for instance, had described him as “erratic, autocratic, condescending, intolerant of dissent, and lacking in clear and effective communication.” Of particular concern was his treatment of women and employees of color.

“I am proud these board members have stood behind the women who have brought forward credible allegations of retaliation, sexism, cultural insensitivity, and a leadership culture that is misaligned with the mission and goals of the DIA,” Wayne County executive Warren Evans told the Detroit News. “Grievances aired by women employees of the DIA must be taken seriously by the museum’s executive leadership and its governing board.”

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