As the sky above Manhattan turned a murky yellow from smoke carried down from wildfires in Canada, climate protesters set up signs, banners, and a miniature oil rig outside the Museum of Modern Art on Thursday evening during its annual Party in the Garden, a major fundraising event for the museum.
Protesters with groups like Climate Organizing Hub, New York Communities for Change, and Reclaim Our Tomorrow came to call on MoMA to drop its board chair, Marie-Josée Kravis.
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Kravis is married to Henry Kravis, cofounder and co-executive chairman of KKR, one of the largest private equity firms in the world, and a major stakeholder in the Coastal GasLink Pipeline. Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis are major MoMA donors whose names appear on the walls of the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio, where performance- and time-based art is shown.
The protesters handed out fliers with a QR code leading to an open letter that demands that the museum sever all ties with the Kravises. MoMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“MoMA can’t claim to be a sustainable organization that wants to fight climate change but at the same time have a fossil fuel investor as the chair of the board, with their names on the walls,” said Jonathan Westin, an activist with the Climate Organizing Hub, as nervous looking partygoers passed by the small crowd of protesters stationed outside the MoMA entrance. “This is directly inspired by what Nan Goldin and other activists did to get to get rid of the Sackler name at the Met.”
Activist Roni Zahavi-Brunner explained that unlike publicly traded investment groups such as BlackRock, KKR is a private equity group, meaning it is not always beholden to public pressure or regulations. “There’s no one to keep them accountable,” Zahavi-Brunner said.
KKR’s involvement in the controversial Coastal GasLink Pipeline is another reason. Amnesty International reported that the Coastal GasLink Pipeline is in danger of violating human rights laws as they intimidate and harass peaceful protesters on and near the construction site of the pipeline, which has not yet been completed. Indigenous land defenders with the Wet’suwet’en tribe have attempted to block construction of the pipeline for years, claiming that the project violates their sovereign rights and threatens to pollute the land they live on.
One of the protesters rallied his fellow activists, making a connection between the state of the sky and the cause of their protest, saying, “we literally can’t breathe our air because people like Kravis are keeping the fossil fuel industry alive.”
Little more than a dozen protesters eventually marched around the block, where they set up outside the MoMA garden’s gate. MoMA security and police followed them, and by the end of the protest, nearly outnumbered them.
Once the protesters reached the garden gate, through which they could see the partygoers and hear the music, they began their chants again, shouting, “KKR, we see you, we deserve a future too,” “We need clean air, not another billionaire,” and “Henry Kravis you can’t hide, we charge you with ecocide.” Guests milled around, ignoring the protesters until MoMA staffers set up a screen on the other side of the gate.
Police asked protesters to stop using microphones and told them to move their DIY oil rig. They advised that “if you flip that over the gate, that’s attempted murder.” Westin responded, “We weren’t planning on doing that,” before shifting the rig over a few feet. Eventually, police told protesters they had one more warning before arrests would begin, which prompted them to quiet down and begin dispersing.
Activist Alice Hu noted that while police have been more aggressive in attempting to curb protests in the past few weeks, protesting at the museum felt safer than doing so in the lobby of KKR, where activists were quickly arrested.
According to the activists, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis were at the party, which this year honored artists Barbara Chase-Riboud, Marlene Hess, Ed Ruscha, and Darren Walker, and featured a performance by the band MUNA.
“Look, I personally love the MoMA, but with the climate crisis threatening the future of our planet, this important institution shouldn’t be giving them the license to operate socially,” said Hu. “If I was at a party with friends and a bunch of people I was trying to impress, and people outside started heckling me, I’d leave!”