Bringing Abolition to the Museum
Artist-activist Shellyne Rodriguez speaks with Billy Anania about museum labor practices and how Strike MoMA imagines a future of art for the people.
June 17, 2021
Jun 17, 2021
19 Min read time
Artist-activist Shellyne Rodriguez speaks with Billy Anania about museum labor practices and how Strike MoMA imagines a future of art for the people.
Since early April, artists and workers have occupied the public square across from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. Under the name Strike MoMA, they are protesting the financial entanglements of the museum’s wealthy patrons as well as the institution’s labor practices, including the furloughing of many employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on the momentum of the past year’s social justice movements, Strike MoMA has pushed back on half measures offered to placate protesters. Organizers claim that only a radical readjustment will resolve their concerns about the museum’s ties to policing and crony capitalism. The coalition recently garnered support from artist groups such as Guerrilla Girls and Decolonize This Place, as well as activist-intellectuals including Angela Davis, Fred Moten, Sandy Grande, and Gayatri Spivak. Demonstrations were propelled into national news again in recent weeks when activists clashed with museum security guards, despite director Glenn Lowry’s assurance that MoMA would respect peaceful actions.
“I envisioned myself as a rank-and-file worker who was demystifying the museum. My approach was to point out that these artworks and their creators are our allies, but this space is not.”
For Shellyne Rodriguez, an artist and writer based in the Bronx, this protest is a natural progression. As a community organizer, she helps call attention to the relationships between art, real estate, and gentrification. As an educator at MoMA for nearly a decade, she did work that was in many ways an extension of her activism: running programs for MoMA that mainly took place outside of the museum and connected under-resourced and incarcerated populations with art. When COVID-19 shut down museums across the United States, MoMA terminated contracts for Rodriguez and nearly a hundred other educators, leading to public scrutiny of their precarious employment. Critics questioned why some of the museum’s most crucial workers were contracted on a freelance basis and not even considered employees of the institution. In a recent conversation, Rodriguez and I connected the dots between these layoffs, the continued resistance to MoMA, and a growing institutional critique rooted in abolition.
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Billy Anania: What were your main responsibilities at MoMA, and why do you believe the educators were among the first to be permanently terminated?
Shellyne Rodriguez: I worked there for about eight years in the education department’s community and access programs, which connect schools and nonprofits with the museum’s art workshops. I helped out with the Alzheimer’s project, the Touch Tour for the visually impaired, the Primetime Initiative for senior citizens, and much more.
I also worked in community partnerships with Kerry Downey, who has written extensive critiques of community education in museums. These initiatives to bring arts education into the community are generally administered through contracts between the museum and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which is pretty problematic. NGOs do not really represent a community; they are an extension of the welfare state. They provide services that used to be public goods—picking up the pieces that the state has neglected or let go due to austerity—through the same kinds of questionable philanthropy as museums. But the communities they served really interested me and kept me there. I worked with Passages Academy, which is the education wing of the youth detention system in New York, including Crossroads and Horizon Juvenile Centers—basically jails for minors. I got to work with incarcerated kids, sex workers, undocumented children waiting to be reunited with their families, all in different locations. These programs were carved out long before I got there, and I inherited them.
Additionally, I started a whole new initiative in the museum called Night Studio. I’m a GED kid who sort of fell through the back door of art school and managed to get some degrees, but I really wanted to create something for folks who were no longer teenagers. There are always programs for teens to get them involved in the arts, but I was interested in collaborating with people in their mid-twenties and thirties who were just coming around to getting a high school–equivalency diploma, and who self-identified as artists but did not have any avenues to be supported in that. I started this program with the museum’s money, of course. It was intensive with lots of resources, and we taught them a great deal.
I envisioned myself as a rank-and-file worker who was demystifying the museum, but not necessarily trying to make people “of” the museum. My approach to education was pointing out that the collections are relics that artists originally made to say something, but which are now captured in this space. These works and their creators are our allies, but this space is not. I often used the museum for political education, because that is just my approach to teaching. In general, I tried to spend as little time there as possible. Art institutions try to pay in social capital, but I wasn’t interested in that.
“The museum used underpaid contract positions to make itself seem more committed to community initiatives than it in fact was.”
BA: Given that your employment by MoMA was so contingent, it seems bizarre that the museum expected you to be so heavily invested in the company culture. But it seems clear that the museum used these underpaid contract positions to make itself seem more committed to these initiatives than it in fact was.
SR: Oh, I was basically operating as a program director, but, in reality, I was a gig worker. When the museum laid us all off, I was pissed that I no longer had a job, but I wasn’t shocked. Of course education goes first; this is Neoliberalism 101. I have always seen the museum for what it is, and I did not expect some kind of benevolent action to occur. Glenn Lowry, the museum’s director, is basically a corporate CEO after all.
I was more offended the year before COVID-19 hit, when all the freelance educators were disinvited from the annual holiday party. Human resources reminded us that we were technically not museum employees, so we could no longer attend. I had been there for more than seven years, and others had been there for as many as thirty years. We were all appalled. Our immediate supervisors, who had no real power, said they would organize a dinner just for our department. I felt more insulted by this incident than anything else, but it was merely a liability issue for the museum. They wanted to avoid any circumstances in which they appeared to acknowledge we were actual employees of theirs. It was the most honest thing they ever did.
BA: It feels necessary to contextualize the educators within MoMA’s broader labor structure. Museums tend to keep their workers as separate as possible, and they often farm out front-facing positions to third parties (including to private security companies, temp agencies, and catering companies), all while poorly compensating these workers and offering them no potential for union representation. But there is also more than one union at the museum, with different ones for blue- and white-collar workers, right? This is a business model that has been broadly adopted by museums (and with clear parallels to the neoliberal university), with a professional class of administrators and curators, then laborers who execute much of the museum’s daily operations and work under precarious conditions.
“There is this mythology around museums that needs to be debunked. They are corporations like any other, except that their businesses accrete around a bonfire of fetishized art.”
SR: There is this mythology around museums that needs to be debunked. They are corporations like any other, except that their businesses accrete around a bonfire of fetishized art. I am not sure why we ever expected any better from a corporation. Of course they treat their workers terribly and carry out union-busting tactics.
Union workers only comprise a small percentage of employees at MoMA, but the fact that there are unions gives the public a false impression that the museum’s workers have a seat at the table. In reality, business decisions are all happening multiple tax brackets above the vast majority of both unionized and nonunionized workers. Security at MoMA is unionized, but that is a whole other dilemma. Management always wants to make sure the cops are comfortable.
BA: The directors and trustees are not really beholden to every department, and many white-collar workers may not even know some departments or positions even exist. That is a known tool of union-busting: a portion of employees are given recognition while everyone else is left scrambling, thereby disrupting worker unity. In one sense, you have a unified group of workers agitating for short-term solutions, but can unions also wind up extending the life of longer-term issues?
SR: Well, the problem is that unions cannot solve everything. If we clamor for more unionization in the museum, then what do those contracts look like? I am thinking about how many times public sector unions bailed out New York City. The pensions of teachers and multiple city workers get invested into the bonds that keep the doors of state and federal prisons open. It’s all intertwined. This is something that is addressed in Strike MoMA’s “Post-MoMA Futures” platform. We are not going to fix these big problems by unionizing; that would just get us more of the same. Where does the money come from? Where do the pensions go? Once unions are involved in upholding the structure, because their pensions are on the line, they can actually start working to uphold the very people and structures Strike MoMA is protesting. Yes to collective bargaining power, but the devil is also in the details.
“Once unions are involved, because their pensions are on the line, they can actually start working to uphold the very structures Strike MoMA is protesting. Yes to collective bargaining power, but the devil is also in the details.”
BA: Can we talk more about Strike MoMA? How have the last few months shifted the conversation around museum futures?
SR: One idea that fascinates me is interconnected struggle, or an “interlocking directorate.” This term is loosely defined as the networks of oligarchs, multinational corporations, and defense industry profiteers—the cluster formed by those holding executive positions at companies while sitting on museum and university boards.
Strike MoMA recently highlighted MoMA trustee Gustavo Cisneros, who pretty much embodies the Latin American art empire; there is no bigger name than that. He also happens to sit on the board of Barrick Gold Corporation, which is the world’s largest gold mining company. They have committed atrocities all across the world: bodies piled up in East Africa, natural reserves decimated, loads of problems in South America.
BA: In the last five years, Barrick Gold has come under fire for its backdoor deals with Tanzanian police—who subsequently murdered more than sixty villagers—as well as a controversial Chilean project shut down by that country’s environmental regulator, and cyanide spills in Argentina. Now there’s talk of another mine project and tailings dam in the Dominican Republic, despite organized opposition on the ground there.
SR: Yes, and New York City makes up a huge portion of the Dominican diaspora, so this is of great concern here, too. Cisneros’s company wants to build a dam on a river that more than 4 million people depend upon, including people living in the capital, Santo Domingo. Cow and rice farmers, along with other people in that region, are engaged in guerilla tactics to stop this, fighting against officials and police who are backing Barrick Gold. Cisneros is also building a sustainable luxury resort in the Dominican Republic while all this is going down.
Then we have James and Paula Crown. They funded the Crown Creativity Lab at MoMA, and even named one of its programs The People’s Studio. The Crowns own General Dynamics, which manufactures and sells the weapons used to carpet-bomb Gaza. They have been selling these same bombs to the Saudis, who have used them to ravage Yemen, and they sold battle tanks to the Colombian military forces that are now all over the streets raining hell on Colombians.
BA: Another MoMA board member, Steven Tananbaum of GoldenTree Asset Management, owns a significant portion of the sovereign debt of Puerto Rico. Tananbaum once boasted to Reuters about how forcing a restructuring of the commonwealth’s debt—in effect guaranteeing it remain poor—could turn a fantastic profit for investors. And he is not even the only MoMA trustee working with the hedge funds enforcing Puerto Rico’s debt. There’s also Leon Black, who recently stepped down for his associations with Jeffrey Epstein, as well as billionaire investors Daniel Och and Glenn Dubin. The global impact of this museum board alone feels insurmountable.
SR: These folks all work in solidarity together. They control their own domain, but they also wield significant power in our civic spaces where we go to work. And if they are working together, then we need to do the same. As someone who worked at MoMA for a long time, I can’t sit this out.
“These board members all work in solidarity. And if they are working together, then we need to do the same.”
BA: I read your 2018 essay in the New Inquiry, titled “How the Bronx Was Branded,” and thought it was one of the most succinct explanations of how art and real estate work together. You showed that at the heart of the Bronx’s redevelopment was a lofty public relations campaign that allowed artists, developers, and city officials to profit off the displacement of low-income families. How do museums contribute, and can you speak about the PR war they wage on the media and ordinary people?
SR: When I organize with Take Back the Bronx—a volunteer grassroots collective centered around community control—I try to bring in how art contributes to gentrification here. This is how I first connected with Decolonize This Place, because they were thinking about museums all over the world in similar ways. The Bronx is the poorest borough in New York, with two of the poorest congressional districts in the country. We have a huge Yemeni community and a lot of Palestinians, too. We have spent so much time bridging the gaps in our communities to enrich conversations and inspire people to feel empowered by the spirit of interconnected struggle.
Museums exist in a market, just like real estate, and we are all somewhat in denial because they happen to be tied to something we love. I would never deny the levels of spirituality and poetics we all experience through art; that is the reason I’m here. But we cannot conflate art with museums. They are not synonymous, nor are art and for-profit art galleries synonymous. We let these millionaires and billionaires convince us that their spaces are the only ones that legitimize art, and suddenly no other alternatives seem possible.
However, we are starting to see this all break down a little bit. While other museums were getting a lot of bad press for taking money from the Sacklers and oil companies and the like, the MoMA managed to stay off the radar for a long while. But recently there was an open letter signed by quite a few prominent scholars and artists denouncing the museum’s position on Palestine. It’s the beginning of a conscious shift. I think people still feel some sort of religious feelings toward MoMA, you know? That’s our mistake. There is significant power on that board that cannot be overlooked.
“We let millionaires convince us that their spaces are the only ones that legitimize art, and suddenly no alternative seems possible.”
BA: I think many of us have only recently had our eyes opened to the myriad ways that money laundering factors into museum leadership—how wealthy philanthropists can basically art-wash their wealth to uphold a positive reputation centered around humanity and creative expression.
SR: And this is part of a larger question: Are we, as artists and cultural workers, willing to engage with this problem? Are we willing to make it so the structures we have relied on, which hold these museums together, are rendered obsolete?
I remember during the first days of protests at the Whitney Museum in 2019—we were protesting Whitney vice chair Warren Kanders, who owns weapons manufacturer Safariland Group—when a well-known art critic stopped by. He sauntered over and started yelling at some of the young people putting up banners, saying they had no respect and that we need these philanthropists—and that we were not old enough to remember the Culture Wars. I think the argument he was trying to make was that the government can’t be counted on to fund museums, so we need to rely on the private sector. And of course the government routinely begs the private sector for help. Neoliberalism is the private sector governing, and this is just an extension.
People say, “How will we take care of art?” or “How will we take care of the museum?” To me, those are classist questions. How much of a museum collection is extracted? I am thinking of the MOVE bombing victim whose remains recently were revealed to be in the collection of the Penn Museum, and the price our communities pay because people want to keep the museum doors open. It’s a bait and switch, like bombing a city and building a school.
BA: Yes, it feels as though this corruption and exploitation are inevitable outcomes of institutions founded on colonialist practices.
SR: A hundred percent. I have gotten so much out of speaking with and reading Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, particularly her book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019). Ariella could be a battle rapper; she’s got bars. She makes an example of the camera shutter, the action that locks a historical moment into place and crystalizes its story. You will see photos in the newspaper of rappers like DJ Kool Herc and Swizz Beatz applauding a new hip-hop museum. That captured image of the museum, the crowds, and the applauding does not capture the periphery, which is the bulldozing of communities and gentrification occurring outside.
This is also how an imperialist project is born, and how art replaces humanity inside the museum. When the vitrine goes in, we go out. It’s rooted in a death; once they put the shell-top Adidas behind the glass, they don’t need the people anymore. They have the fossil, the souvenir, the head on a spike. That is the violence of modernity—as Arthur Schopenhauer used to say, that art “plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it.” The museum wrenches the object from the world and holds it up for us. What gets left behind is murder, extraction, pillaging, and colonialism.
“The museum wrenches the object from the world and holds it up for us. What gets left behind is murder, extraction, pillaging, and colonialism.”
BA: I feel particularly drawn to this quote of yours from that New Inquiry essay: “How would an artistic practice that aims to disrupt alienation appear in our hallways, elevators, and all the spaces we share in our communities?” Have you found an answer to this?
SR: When we reweave the social fabric, the middleman is clearly what needs to be abolished, and abolishing the mediator means we talk to each other again. And when we talk to each other again, we can break down the alienation. One thing I have always admired about immigrant communities is how tightly knit they are, because they have not yet experienced the alienation of the metropolis. In contrast, for Black and Puerto Rican communities that have been here since the 1950s, it is much more difficult. We have gone through too much, been broken apart and separated to an extreme degree. We are an expendable labor force that experienced the first wave of the neoliberal project, which is why we also make up so much of the prison.
Alienation affects everybody in the city, though, and makes us all exist in separate worlds with our shared grievances. This came up during the 2019–20 FTP protests, when protestors challenged the New York police in the subway. Everyone was mad in their heads, but nobody was vocalizing it. How do we continue to crack that? I think it might require dialing back before all the organizing work, before knocking on doors, before galvanizing around the problem—how do we see each other? It’s about locating that beginning point.
BA: In applying an abolitionist critique to museums, do we risk taking away from the contemporaneous prison/police movements? Or are they all interrelated?
SR: Abolition as a principle is not just about police. The museum is the police precinct, as Stefano Harney said in a recent talk, meaning these institutions are the well-funded gatekeepers of culture within a city of aesthetically minded people. They are involved in community policing, sending patrol cars in the form of curators and community outreach. We need to stop thinking about the police as the person in the blue uniform. That is just one pawn, not the whole picture. The police is the structure, and that structure takes many forms. Nonprofits and NGOs are police. We are talking about structures of power, and if we are undoing these structures, then that is abolition by definition.
Abolition as a principle is not just about police. The museum is the police precinct, meaning these institutions are the well-funded gatekeepers of culture.
How do we put this critique into practice and build toward these institutions being obsolete? This is why Strike MoMA is so categorically different from the Whitney Museum protests. Back then, it was about shining a light on one board member, to make an example of how one person touches all of our struggles. Warren Kanders’s weapons were in Ferguson, in Palestine, in Puerto Rico, and at the border. With Strike MoMA, there is something growing in the park right across the street from the museum. We have been so conditioned to have the state mediate our every move and conflict, from loud music complaints to applying for welfare. A mediator is present at all times. Pushing that middleman out is abolition in practice; struggling to eliminate the need for the mediator is abolition. We call them no-cop zones. We do not need the police if we can handle the disagreements ourselves. We just need to learn how to talk to each other, and how to undo systemic problems for ourselves.
We apply this same principle to the museum. No one needs to stay awake at night, stressed out and ruminating over what will happen to art and artists if we drive out all the toxic philanthropists—as if philanthropy isn’t toxic in and of itself. This is art we’re talking about, after all. The lack of imagination really kills me sometimes. This is supposed to be our space. What are we going to build next?
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June 17, 2021
19 Min read time