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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Why the Ten Percent Activists of the Art Industry Need to Work Together Towards Shared Sustainability Goals

In 2019, when the artist Gary Hume was having a show in New York, he asked his gallery, Matthew Marks, to ship his work from London by sea rather than fly it by air. He also asked the environmentalist Danny Chivers to write a report on the journey. Hume wanted to know what impact shipping his work would have on the journey’s carbon emissions.

It took 13 days for his work to arrive by boat to New York from London, 12 and a half days longer than the usual plane ride. Chivers’s report, published in partnership with logistics company Cadogan Tate, revealed that the carbon footprint created by moving the artworks by sea was 96 percent lower than if they’d been flown by plane, creating 24 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas savings.

Was it worth it? Significantly. It also saved a good deal of money. As a gallerist who moves a significant amount of art around the world in a normal year, I was intrigued.

British Airways planes parked at Gatwick Airport as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images.

British Airways planes parked at Gatwick Airport. Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images.

“I can’t claim to be an environmental activist,” Hume said when I rang him. “I’m more like ten percent activist. But I think there are lots of us who are ten percent activists, and if you put a lot of ten percents together it begins to add up.”

This resonated deeply, because I felt like I was also a ten percent activist, and for the first time I realized how unhelpful it was to ignore the potential of that ten percent. Then, in Danny Chivers’s book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change, I read his number one tip on what each of us can do to help with climate change.

“Build a movement,” Chivers writes. “We need as many people as possible to get involved, clued up and active. Think about what you can do to spread the word. Could you arrange a meeting or event at your workplace or in your community?”

A meeting or event? The art world specializes in these. Suddenly, doing something seemed eminently possible. I knew I wasn’t alone in this. The directors of Frieze, Matthew Slotover and Victoria Siddall, had long since commissioned a green report and were working hard to lower the art fair’s environmental impact, as was Kate MacGarry at her gallery, and others too. Greg Hilty, Sadie Coles, and Peter Chater were all keen to discuss what we might do if we worked together as a community and industry to lower our carbon emissions, and the idea of a climate coalition for the commercial art world was born.

Michael Pinsky's Pollution Pods. Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images.

Michael Pinsky’s Pollution Pods. Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images.

Shared Industry Standards

Public institutions in the art world were already making strides in this area, many of them working with Julie’s Bicycle, a charity set up to help and advise the creative industries on taking action regarding climate change. Indeed, the main public body responsible for allocating funding for institutions in England, Arts Council, demands that our institutions meet specific standards when it comes to their environmental impact. But in the commercial art world, we don’t have any industry specific standards in this area. We should. By coming together we can set standards and pledge to help each other meet them.

In the event of it, the COVID-19 crisis meant we couldn’t gather as a large group at all in 2020—at least not in the same physical space. But we could come together online, and not just for a single day, but for a few hours every week. This regular pooling of time, energy and resources meant that we became a group proper, not just in spirit but in fact.

Now, the Gallery Climate Coalition, which formally set up shop online in the autumn of last year, is a nonprofit coalition of galleries and art workers, artists and individuals, primarily from the commercial sector, but absolutely not restricted to this. Anyone can join and we hope many will. (And so far over 200 London-based and some international galleries, artists, individuals, and organizations have.)

Screenshot from the GCC's website.

Screenshot from the GCC’s website.

Our primary goal as a group is to understand what we are doing to the environment. How much carbon are our businesses putting into the atmosphere each year? We believe that by being specific and focusing on concrete realities, we can begin to wrestle with what often seems a huge, abstract, amorphous and unmanageable task. 

In fact, there is nothing mysterious about carbon emissions. You find out where they are—we learned that a carbon calculator is the best tool for this and then, thanks to the art and technology firm Artlogic, built our own, adapted to suit any gallery (it can also be used by individuals)—and are thus equipped for the task of lowering them. The calculator is straightforward and easy to use, and free if you are a member of the GCC (which you can join with a voluntary donation). We believe your carbon audit should be done annually, as essential and habitual as filing your tax returns.

Mostly of course, air travel (passenger and freight), and energy use are the biggest culprits in terms of carbon emissions. That is why Gary Hume’s example of insisting that his work be shipped by sea is such a good one. What Hume and Matthew Marks did was not just create a one-off carbon saving, but kick start bigger action leading to more significant change. Of course, it’s less convenient to use sea rather than air freight, but only because it’s not yet the norm. As a group we can create new norms, set new standards, think collectively about different deadlines, petition insurance companies, ensure safety standards, and so on.

Activists from Extinction Rebellion stage a die in demonstration at Tate Modern. Photo by Claire Doherty/In Pictures via Getty Images Images.

Activists from Extinction Rebellion stage a die in demonstration at Tate Modern. Photo by Claire Doherty/In Pictures via Getty Images Images.

A Call to Arms

This is just the beginning. The GCC’s members are a diverse group. Some of us are good at raising money, others at detailed research into better practice. Some of us will be ralliers, others work better behind the scenes. It doesn’t matter. The point is that together, we can do more. We can work both inwardly as an art community, sharing information, creating standards and holding each other to account; and, just as crucially, direct our energies outwardly, lobbying for wider change.

As individual art businesses, we are not primarily focused on environmental activism. It isn’t why we exist. But each of us lives and works in the environment. Each of us cares enough. Each of us can give—has to give—ten percent, at least, of our energy, time, and resources to environmental activism. Ten percent isn’t enough, of course, not on our own. But together, it can add up to real change.

Thomas Dane is a gallerist and a founding member of the Gallery Climate Coalition. If you are interested in hearing more about what the art industry can do to lower its carbon footprint, tune into an introduction to the GCC on Zoom on January 21 at 5 p.m. GMT (12 p.m. EST).

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