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YBCA Gallery Remains Closed; Pro-Palestinian Artists Claim Censorship

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A woman in a denim jacket waves a Palestinian flag outside a museum building at night
Demonstrators calling for a ceasefire in Gaza protest at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After a Feb. 15 protest in which artists altered their own exhibited works with pro-Palestinian messages at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, YBCA’s galleries remain closed with no reopening date in sight.

The eight protesting artists along with 15 current museum employees decried YBCA’s actions as censorship in two Feb. 26 open letters, and the artists have called for a boycott of the museum.

YBCA Updates

At the demonstration, artists draped banners and painted over their own work in the museum’s Bay Area Now 9 (BAN 9) exhibition. As they modified their pieces, Palestinian, Arab and Jewish community organizers gave speeches calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and accused YBCA of censoring pro-Palestinian messages.

“I refuse to be told that I cannot speak to the Palestinian struggle or genocide in my public programming, as I believe that Palestinian liberation means liberation for all,” said artist and protest co-organizer Paz G, in an interview on Monday. Paz G spray painted their ceramic sculpture with the words “Viva Palestina — Free Palestine” during the protest.

“Saying no to genocide does not feel radical to me, and it doesn’t feel problematic, and it doesn’t feel divisive,” Paz G added.

A sign covers art by Courtney Desiree Morris during a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Fellow organizer Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, who currently has an outdoor installation on YBCA’s Third Street wall, also expressed disappointment at the museum’s decision. “So much of this action was not only to call for the museum to call for a ceasefire and to acknowledge this genocide and to end censorship, but also to demand that the museum commit to the lifelong work of standing with the Palestinian people,” Branfman-Verissimo said.

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On Feb. 24, YBCA CEO Sara Fenske Bahat emailed the eight protesting artists to indicate that their works would be de-installed on Monday, Feb. 26, and that she would be available for “curatorial conversations” one-on-one beforehand, according to an email reviewed by KQED. The artists requested more time in order to coordinate a meeting with Fenske Bahat as a collective.

Though Fenske Bahat declined an interview request, she emailed KQED a statement through a spokesperson: “We are eager to meet with [the artists] to have a meaningful conversation and hear how they would like to present their works. … All of the artworks remain in the gallery as they were, as we were hoping to have a conversation with the artists before moving forward. We don’t yet have a firm date for the reopening of the galleries.”

On Feb. 21, YBCA published its first public statement about the protest, underscoring the institution’s refusal to take a public stance on Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, the death toll of which is expected to rise above 30,000 this week. “If YBCA has refrained from lending its voice to any side, it has been so that our many stakeholders can hold theirs,” the statement read.

YBCA’s statement also referred to the artists’ protest tactics as “polarizing” and “disruptive,” and asserted that ignoring the protest would set a “dangerous precedent”: “We risk descending into a world where cooperative curation and community building is governed by chaos, and the public is left wondering if visits to view artists’ works will be marred by disruption.”

Paz G and Branfman-Verissimo characterized YBCA’s statement as a distraction.

“It’s a tactic used for political repression to paint us as these violent, dangerous protesters and not speak to the meat of the issue, which is that there is a genocide happening in Palestine,” Paz G said.

Demonstators chant during a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The BAN 9 artists’ accusations of censorship go back to an incident from December 2023, when YBCA prevented Branfman-Verissimo from including the words “Free Palestine” on its outdoor marquee. The museum had previously used that display space for protest slogans in support of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Woman Life Freedom. Fellow BAN 9 artist Jeff Cheung also accused the museum of preventing him from using the colors of the Palestinian flag in an outdoor mural, which Fenske Bahat denied.

Now, the protesting artists say that YBCA’s removal of the modified artworks amounts to further censorship. Fenske Bahat did not address questions from KQED about why the institution views the pro-Palestinian movement differently from other social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, which the museum endorsed with an official statement on its website in 2020.

“They are out of touch with the community they claim to represent and serve,” Paz G said, noting that the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond have adopted resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, and that tens of thousands of Bay Area protesters have mobilized around the issue. Paz G and Branfman-Verissimo said over 2,200 people have emailed YBCA supporting the artist protest through a form that the artists set up.

A sign over a wool rug reads "No More Blood Money - Ceasefire Now!"
A sign covers art by Tracy Ren during a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

During the Feb. 15 demonstration, protesters passed out flyers with demands, two of which called for YBCA to join the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), and to “remove all Zionist funders and board members,” without naming specific people.

“Such language is neither productive nor tolerable,” reads the YBCA statement in response, which also refers to protest demands as amounting to a call for “illegal, identity-based discrimination.”

Protest organizers denied this charge, and pointed out that Zionism is a political ideology, not a religion or ethnicity. “This is a tactic that is being used against people fighting for a ceasefire and to end the genocide in Palestine. … We’re being essentially painted as anti-Semitic,” Paz G said.

“There have been hundreds of organizations nationwide that have stood with PACBI,” said Branfman-Verissimo, who is Jewish. Activists from Jewish Voice for Peace also joined the Feb. 15 demonstration among Palestinian groups such as the U.S. Palestinian Community Network.

Paz G and Branfman-Verissimo said the eight artists hope to meet with YBCA leadership this week. In addition to protest demands, they will ask YBCA to create an artist advisory board so that it can better serve public interests. Until then, they are asking the public not to support the institution.

“[It’s] a way for YBCA to move forward and to show the Bay area that they stand with us, that they care,” Paz G said.

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