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SFMOMA Workers Urge the Museum to Support Palestinians in an Open Letter

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The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on March 26, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martinez for KQED)

On Wednesday morning, a group of workers at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) published an open letter to museum leadership, urging them to take a public stance in solidarity with Palestinians and join a boycott of Israeli institutions.

“We write as San Francisco Museum of Modern Art employees, in the absence of any statement from our institution’s leadership, to affirm our solidarity with the Palestinian people as they confront decades of violent oppression and apartheid and to condemn Israel’s devastating and ongoing siege of Gaza,” opens the letter addressed to Director Chris Bedford, the board of trustees and the executive committee.

The letter cites SFMOMA’s previous statements on diversity, equity and inclusion; in 2021, the museum published a statement that reads “museums and cultural organizations are not (and shout not be) neutral.” Arguing that SFMOMA leadership’s silence on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza undermines their stated values, the employees wrote, “We believe the museum is losing credibility and relevance as a result.”

The letter asks SFMOMA to adopt four commitments: give a platform to Palestinian voices in commissions, collaborations and exhibitions, and vow not to censor pro-Palestinian work; create space for internal dialogue; call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire; and join the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

PACBI is part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which calls for a boycott of Israeli institutions until its government ends its siege and occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, gives equal rights to ethnically Palestinian citizens of Israel and allows Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands. The SFMOMA workers’ letter underscores that PACBI is not a boycott of individuals based on their identity, and that the workers also stand against antisemitism.

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KQED spoke with an SFMOMA worker who contributed to the letter, who asked that their name be withheld out of retaliation concerns. “We have been seeing unprecedented levels of censorship and cancellation across the art world,” the employee said. “We’ve seen shows of Palestinian artists canceled. We’ve seen shows and talks and panels of those supporting Palestinian resistance canceled. This quashes the opportunity for public to hear a diversity of perspectives, and I think it’s the duty of cultural workers to question why that is happening and then push back against it.”

SFMOMA’s director of communications did not respond to KQED’s requests for comment as of publication time.

SFMOMA workers are joining an international wave of artists and arts workers protesting in solidarity with Palestinians. In New York, Museum of Modern Art workers sent a similar letter to their leadership in February, as did those at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum.

Earlier this month, a block away from SFMOMA at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, a group of pro-Palestinian Jewish artists pulled out of a group exhibition in protest after museum leaders declined to join PACBI and meet other demands. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, across the street from SFMOMA, has been embroiled in censorship accusations ever since the museum shut down for a month following a February pro-Palestinian demonstration, during which artists added protest messages to their exhibited works.

While most large arts institutions in the Bay Area and nationwide have been hesitant to make statements on the humanitarian crisis Gaza, several smaller organizations have vowed to join PACBI, including experimental music venue The Lab and art space Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, and drag festival Oaklash and art center Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland.

As of publication time, nearly 200 people have signed the SFMOMA workers’ letter, including artists, museum patrons and 50 current employees.

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