Protests Over Gaza Intensify at American Art Museums

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The event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in February was titled “Love Letter to SoMa,” after the San Francisco neighborhood that the contemporary art museum calls home.

But eight of the artists involved in it staged an intervention called “Love Letter to Gaza,” altering their own works, including by spray-painting “Viva Palestine” on one, and unfurling a banner that said “No More Blood Money — Ceasefire Now.” The artists’ demands included calls for the museum to boycott Israeli institutions and “remove all Zionist board members and funders.”

In the aftermath, the museum closed its galleries for a month and its interim chief executive, Sara Fenske Bahat, resigned.

“For me as an individual, the last weeks have been excruciating,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “Not just as a leader, but as a Jewish leader.” She wrote that the “vitriolic and antisemitic backlash directed at me personally” had made remaining intolerable. “I no longer feel safe in our own space, including due to the actions of some of our own employees,” she wrote.

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts event was among the most dramatic in a series of demonstrations about the Israel-Hamas war that have rocked the cultural sector in recent months with protests, withdrawals and other calls for boycotts.

In February, security officials temporarily closed the Museum of Modern Art in New York after hundreds of demonstrators occupied its atrium and distributed pamphlets accusing trustees with financial ties to Israeli companies of complicity in the war.

Last month, hundreds of protesters gathered on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and unfurled an artist quilt honoring Palestinians. As demonstrators sang and played instruments, other activists distributed pamphlets inside that labeled one trustee as a “Zionist” and another as a “war profiteer.” The group also praised a letter signed earlier that month by more than 150 staff members asking museum leaders to “take a stand in defense of Palestinians and the cultural heritage of Palestine.”

Dozens of speakers and performers pulled out of the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, last month to protest the event’s sponsorship by the U.S. Army and U.S. defense contractors in light of what activists characterized as their entanglement with Israel’s military.

In Europe, the Nobel Prize-winning author Annie Ernaux advocated a boycott against German state-funded institutions over the government of Germany’s support for Israel. Protesters have sought to keep Israeli representatives out of international events including the Venice Biennale and Eurovision 2024.

Those who support boycotting Israeli institutions see it as a nonviolent way to push for change, modeled on the fight against apartheid in South Africa. But there are many officials in the art world who see boycotts as incompatible with the spirit of artistic freedom and interchange.

“In the cultural arena, boycotting is counterproductive to getting to understanding, engagement and a brighter path,” said James S. Snyder, the director of the Jewish Museum in New York, which has also faced protests, in an interview.

Nonprofit executives said that commenting on the war — or even releasing a general statement lamenting the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians — can draw intense criticism and reduce revenue.

In New York, a 2016 executive order signed by Andrew Cuomo, the former governor, allows the state to withdraw funding from institutions that declare themselves part of the boycott against Israel. (There are similar measures or laws in 37 other states, according to Palestine Legal, an organization that tracks the issue.)

In San Francisco, the artists who staged the intervention asked the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to commit to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which describes Israeli academic and cultural institutions as “complicit in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law.”

Bahat, the outgoing director, said that the call for a boycott, which some employees signed, “asks us to ban artists based on their national origin.”

“This is not only illegal, and in violation of our lease agreement (let alone our mission), it is immoral for an organization that believes the arts are a pathway to bettering and connecting individuals and society,” she wrote.

The museum’s galleries reopened to the public in mid-March with the altered artworks and the references to Palestinian liberation intact. But the show carries a number of caveats, including a content warning and a message in bold letters: “The opinions expressed by each artist are their own, and are not those of YBCA.”

Renuka Kher, the museum’s chairwoman, said in a statement that the museum had worked to reopen its galleries “as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible.” She said that the board was looking for a new interim chief executive and continuing its search for a new permanent leader, which she said had been already underway.



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