Sixteen climate activists were arrested after attempting to protest overnight at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City tonight, September 15, according to advocacy groups Climate Defenders and New York Communities for Change (NYCC). The activists were among approximately 50 demonstrators who staged actions at the museum earlier in the day to condemn MoMA’s ties to private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), which has invested heavily in fossil fuel projects. Henry Kravis, co-founder of KKR, is the husband of MoMA Board Chair Marie-Josée Kravis; the couple has donated tens of millions of dollars to the museum, which named its fourth-floor performance space after them. MoMA closed its lobby for over two hours after activists blocked the institution’s ticketed entrances.
Alicé Nascimento of NYCC told Hyperallergic that the group arrived around 3:20pm and refused to leave, demanding that MoMA Director Glenn Lowry meet with Wet’suwet’en First Nation leaders. As in the June protest, participants of today’s action hailed from a range of climate activism groups including Extinction Rebellion, the Climate Organizing Hub, and Honor the Earth. It also included members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in Canada, whose territory has been threatened by the construction of the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, which is partially funded by KKR.
The New York City Police Department confirmed in an email to Hyperallergic that 16 protesters were taken into custody for trespassing at approximately 9:35pm. The Museum of Modern Art has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Beginning at 1:15pm today, a group of around 50 protesters gathered outside of MoMA’s 53rd Street entrance, chanting “KKR, shame on you, we deserve a future too” and “Hey, ho, Coastal Gas has got to go!” It’s the second climate action at MoMA in recent months — in early June, a group of activists crashed the museum’s annual benefit gala, also demanding Kravis’s resignation.
Two Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs delivered speeches, both alleging that KKR “kills water, kills wildlife, and kills our way of life.” At the end of their speeches, the two chiefs walked toward the museum and handed a letter to a security guard demanding Kravis’s resignation. They left in a black Escalade parked at the curb.
“People in this building are responsible for the climate chaos,” Gina Peltier, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who flew in from Michigan, told Hyperallergic. She is an organizer for Honor the Earth and explained the Coast Gaslink pipeline’s effect on water quality. “We’re hoping that holding this rally today will gather people’s attention to the tragedy that’s unfolding in front of our eyes.”
In response to Hyperallergic‘s inquiry, a spokesperson for KKR sent the following statement: “We are committed to investing in a sustainable energy transition, one that supports a shift to a clean energy future while recognizing the ongoing importance of supplying the conventional energy needed for well-being, security and economic growth around the world today.”
The protesters disbanded before 2pm but reassembled later, around 3:20pm, inside the museum lobby. They sat in a line to block the entrances, leading chants of “Hey MoMA, get off it, put the planet over profit” and “Henry Kravis is a climate criminal.” The blockade continued with a drumming performance and louder chanting — “Drop KKR, MoMA, drop KKR!” yelled the activists.
On MoMA’s second level, a group of protesters dropped a banner with the same slogan. Nearby on the ground floor, others staged a “die-in” while Refik Anadol’s AI installation “Unsupervised” (2023) played behind them, draping the room in an eerie orange light.
Within 25 minutes, the museum had closed access to the lobby. The activists continued undeterred. Security officers filed visitors down an escalator to a second exit. The protesters sat only feet away from the bottom of the escalator as confused museum patrons descended. In an especially telling interaction, a visitor asked a guard whether Kravis was a “fossil guy.” “Well, he owns a lot of companies,” the security officer responded. The blockade continued until the museum closed at 5:30pm, with a smaller group remaining on premises where the 16 activists were eventually arrested later in the evening.
Last night, a climate protest at CitiBank ended with the arrests of at least 24 people. This and the MoMA demonstration are part of a string of climate actions in New York that started at BlackRock on Wednesday, September 13 in advance of Climate Week in the city. According to a press release, the demonstrations have culminated in a total of 46 arrests at all three institutions.
“Instead of meeting with Indigenous leaders, MoMA leadership decided to [have] 16 activists arrested and shut down their own museum,” Climate Organizing Hub Director Jonathan Westin told Hyperallergic. “This is such a failure of leadership by MoMA, to not even engage with their own role in perpetuating the climate crisis.”
Marie-Josée Kravis succeeded disgraced financier Leon Black as MoMA’s board chair in 2021. In a statement published on Hyperallergic, hundreds of artists called for Black’s removal over his financial links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Black, who was accused of sexually assaulting a teenager in Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse in a federal lawsuit filed this July, remains a MoMA trustee.
Editor’s note 9/15/23 10:55pm EDT: This article has been updated with new information regarding the arrest of 16 activists.
Edtor’s note 9/16/23 11:26am EDT: This article has been updated with comment from NYPD.