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Museums Face Pressure From Activists Over Dubious Financial Ties


The Museum of Modern Art in New York City reopened yesterday after some major renovations. There are new galleries, new performance spaces, new plans to exhibit more of its collection. So tourists and visitors lined up to see it. But there were also some protesters there. NPR's Rose Friedman was there, too, and she sent us this.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: The Museum of Modern Art has been closed since the beginning of the summer for an expansion that cost $450 million.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Put people over profit. MOMA, get off it. Put people over profit.

FRIEDMAN: The museum's finances are now the focus of a few different groups of protesters who've been showing up during the reopening events.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: You cannot accept this blood money...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: You cannot accept this blood money.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: ...That Steve Tananbaum has presented to you.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: That Steve Tananbaum has presented to you.

FRIEDMAN: The former speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito was one of seven people arrested.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: This is the New York City Police Department. You are unlawfully in the roadway and obstructing vehicular traffic.

FRIEDMAN: Mark-Viverito was there to call out a particular member of the museum's board of trustees, Steven Tananbaum. He's the founding partner of a firm that reportedly holds millions of dollars in Puerto Rican debt. Mark-Viverito claims he and other investors profit off that debt.

MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO: It's a vulture capitalism. It's aggressive. It's harmful. And it really is impacting the lives of Puerto Ricans.

FRIEDMAN: MOMA isn't the first museum to face pressure from activists. The Guggenheim in New York and the Tate in London have both distanced themselves from the Sackler family following protest over the family's role in opioid production. And earlier this year, a board member resigned from the Whitney Museum after public demonstrations over his role in arms manufacturing. NYU sociology professor Andrew Ross has been involved in some of these actions.

ANDREW ROSS: Well, museums, I think partly as a result of these campaigns, are in the process of really beginning to rethink their accountability to their public.

FRIEDMAN: The Museum of Modern Art and Steven Tananbaum's company, GoldenTree Asset Management, both declined to comment on the protests. But Stephan Jost, who directs the Art Gallery of Ontario, says demonstrations like these hurt museums.

STEPHAN JOST: It's ironic that the protests are going after places like the Whitney and MOMA because both organizations have done extraordinary jobs of broadening the conversation around culture and validating many different cultures and allowing kind of tough conversations to happen.

FRIEDMAN: Jost says that while protests get a lot of attention...

JOST: Getting somebody kicked off a board doesn't actually solve the problem for the people in Puerto Rico.

FRIEDMAN: He says it's important to remember that while many philanthropists have been complicated figures, some have made lasting cultural contributions.

JOST: When you look at Carnegie, who is unbelievable in changing literacy in the United States, you know, this guy was not a saint. If you look at Ford, the basis of the Ford Foundation, you know, not exactly a nice guy. I mean, his history of anti-Semitism is well-documented. Does the Ford Foundation do great work? Absolutely. Is the money kind of problematic? Yep. Sure is.

FRIEDMAN: But to the activists outside MOMA, the reopening wasn't the moment to talk about those contributions.



FRIEDMAN: Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rose Friedman is an Associate Editor for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She edits radio pieces on a range of subjects, including books, pop culture, fine arts, theater, obituaries and the occasional Harry Potter-check-in. She is also co-creator of NPR's annual Book Concierge and the podcast recommendation site In addition, Rose has edited commentaries for the network, as well as regular features like This Week's Must Read on All Things Considered.
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