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An Embattled YBCA to Reopen Amid Censorship Accusations, CEO’s Resignation

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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)

After closing its galleries for a month, following a Feb. 15 protest where artists modified their own artworks with pro-Palestinian messages, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) made the unexpected announcement Wednesday night that it will reopen its Bay Area Now 9 exhibition with the altered artworks intact — accompanied by disclaimers that they represent the artists’ views, not YBCA’s — starting Friday, March 15.

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“We invite members of our community to join us in engaging with the exhibition, considering the significance of the alterations and participating in thoughtful reflection and discourse,” reads the statement from the embattled art center’s board of directors.

YBCA, which receives city funding, has faced accusations of censorship from artists, its own staff and San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who last week called for an April hearing about the prolonged closure.

Interim CEO Sarah Fenske Bahat resigned on March 3 as a result of the fallout, citing “antisemitic backlash” in a letter to the board of directors. The board has not yet hired a new chief executive. (Bahat and Board Chair Renuka Kher did not accept KQED’s request for an interview.)

At the Feb. 15 protest, activists unfurled a Palestinian flag from a balcony overlooking the main gallery and made speeches while eight artists modified their own works in the Bay Area Now 9 exhibit, painting and draping signs with messages like “Ceasefire Now!” and “Viva Palestina.”

an overhead view of a museum gallery full of artworks, with a Palestinian flag hanging to the right
Demonstrators calling for a ceasefire in Gaza alter art during protest at the show Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The protest occurred in response to YBCA preventing artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo from including the phrase “Free Palestine” in a museum marquee above Branfman-Verissimo’s outdoor mural; YBCA also rejected Jeff Cheung’s design for an outdoor piece that exclusively used the colors of the Palestinian flag (in the final work, a small grouping of red, green and black figures appear in a rainbow-colored display).

The eight protesting artists — who now call themselves Bay Area Artists Against Genocide, or B.A.A.A.G. — have presented a list of demands for YBCA. It includes a call to join the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which aims to prevent international institutions from collaborating with Israeli institutions as part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The artists also called for a removal of “Zionist board members and funders.” In several subsequent statements, Fenske Bahat and YBCA’s board called the artists’ demands hateful and divisive — a charge the artists have denied.

“We’re fighting for the right to speak against genocide because we believe in love,” said artist Paz G. “That’s what this is about.”

A sculpture of a boat is covered in a drape of white and red, with notecards surrounding on the wooden floor below
Art by champoy is altered 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)

YBCA’s reopening announcement drew mixed emotions from B.A.A.A.G. artists, who want YBCA’s board to create an advisory committee of artists so that the institution’s policies can better reflect the community. B.A.A.A.G. artists also say they were in talks about meeting with Fenske Bahat before she resigned, and that they have not yet met with the board.

“While we are excited, in a way, for the community to see the show … we are also wanting to make sure that we continue to pressure and hold YBCA accountable for the other demands that we have on our list,” said Branfman-Verissimo.

Artist Sholeh Asgary took issue with YBCA’s reopening statement, which refers to “the Israel–Hamas war.” Asgary and other artists and activists refer to Israel’s military offensive in Gaza — which has killed over 30,000 Palestinians and displaced 2.2 million more, many of whom are women and children, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health — not as a war, but as a genocide. “Our cultural narrative is very important right now and always has been,” she said.

Demonstrators 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)

Before YBCA resumes its regular Wednesday–Sunday hours starting March 15, B.A.A.A.G. artists have invited the public to a March 14 event outside of YBCA from 5:30–8:30 p.m. Artists will screen print event-goers’ tote bags and T-shirts with designs by Cheung and Branfman-Verissimo, and project short films by Palestinian filmmakers onto the building in a program curated by Asgary and Dena Al-Adeeb. Films include Mona Hatoum’s So Much I Want to Say and Jackie Reem Salloum’s Planet of the Arabs.

“We’re taking back the outside of YBCA in an attempt to create a space for connection and care,” Paz G said. “We’re providing something that YBCA can’t do.”

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