Tania Bruguera, Hito Steyerl and Other Leading Art World Figures Demand MoMA Divest From Private Prisons

In further news: Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke win Nobel prizes in literature; ‘censored’ Aichi Triennale reopened

MoMA, 2019, exterior view, New York . Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York

MoMA, 2019, exterior view, New York. Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art, New York

Leading art world figures have written an open letter to The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and trustee Larry Fink, condemning their alleged financial ties to the private prison system. The letter, published on New Sanctuary Coalition, states that MoMA uses financial services company Fidelity Investments, which owns stocks in private prison companies, to oversee its pension fund. Earlier this year, a campaign was launched against Larry Fink, a MoMA board member and CEO of BlackRock. The letter states Fink is the second largest shareholder of prison companies, GEO Group and Core Civic. More than 220 artists, academics and curators – including artists Tania Bruguera, Mika Rottenberg, Hito Steyerl – have signed the open letter, which demands that MoMA and Fink divest from prison companies. ‘We denounce MoMA’s connections to mass incarceration, global dispossession and climate catastrophe, and demand that MoMA’s Board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, divest from prison companies, the war machine and the destruction of the global environment,’ the letter reads.

The Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and the Austrian writer Peter Handke have been awarded the Nobel prize in literature for 2018 and 2019 respectively. Tokarczuk, whose novel Flights (2007/translated 2017) won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, was commended by the Nobel committee’s Anders Olsson for her work’s ‘wit and cunning’, and Handke’s work was described as ‘influential’ and with ‘linguistic ingenuity’. Handke is however a controversial figure; in 2006 he spoke at the funeral of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milošević and his Nobel win has prompted outcry, with the Kosovan ambassador to the US, Vlora Çitaku describing the decision as ‘scandalous’ and ‘preposterous’. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has also condemned the decision to award the prize to Handke.

Writing in frieze in 2018, Cal Revely-Calder discussed Tokarczuk’s Flights in a profile of small UK publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions: ‘Jacques Testard [pubisher at Fitzcarraldo Editions] went looking for a Polish writer in the wake of the Brexit vote; he’d been disenfranchised himself, as a French national, but when he saw the news of physical attacks on Polish migrants, he immediately thought that ‘we needed more Polish voices, and an insight into Polish culture in Britain’.

The Nobel prize in literature has been hit with a series of high-profile controversies in the past two years. The prize was suspended in 2018 due to ‘reduced public confidence’ in the award following a sexual assault scandal involving Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of the academy member Katarina Frostenson. Following accusations of rape against Arnault, Frostenson and six other members of the academy quit their positions on the board. Arnault, who has also been accused of leaking the names of Nobel winners, is now serving a prison sentence for rape.

The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) has selected a proposal by artist Vinnie Bagwell to replace a statue of J. Marion Sims, a gynaecologist who conducted experimental surgery on enslaved women without anaesthesia in the 19th century. Bagwell’s proposed bronze, titled Victory Beyond Sims (2019), will depict a winged figure. The decision has, however, sparked dispute. When announcing the news, the DCA revealed that artist Simone Leigh withdrew her proposal after it was selected by a vote of 4 to 3 by a panel of seven judges. ARTnews reported that the DCA said Leigh withdrew her work ‘in recognition of the community’s preference for Bagwell’s proposal.’

A controversial section of the 2019 Aichi Triennale has reopened, after critics and artists denounced the closure as censorship. The exhibition had sparked controversy for including a statue of a ‘comfort woman’, a term used to describe women who were forced into sex by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII. The statue, by husband and wife artist duo Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung was featured alongside other work in an exhibition titled ‘After ‘Freedom of Expression’, but was closed three days after it opened after its organizers received a series of threats and complaints. However, critics decried the closure as censorship, rather than a security issue. The exhibition will now reopen and run until 14 October, with increased security and a limit on the number of visitors.

In further news: The Whitney Biennial has named Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley as its 2019 curators – the pair are both current members of the Whitney’s curatorial staff; The Stirling Prize has been awarded to a social housing scheme for the first time – Goldsmith Street in Norwich; and three Desert X board members – Ed Ruscha, Yael Lipschutz, and Tristan Milanovich – have resigned after the contemporary art biennial announced its collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

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