In Surprise Action, Activists Decry Whitney Museum’s Ties to Israeli Military

Pro-Palestine activists staged a demonstration during the Whitney’s “Free Friday Night” event on Friday, May 3. (all photos Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The fifth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City became the site of an audiovisual demonstration by an anonymous group of pro-Palestine arts and culture workers yesterday evening, May 3. During the Whitney’s “Free Friday Night” event, which offers pay-what you-wish admission between 7pm and 10pm, around 100 activists distributed custom-printed imitation brochures using the museum’s stylized branding to draw attention to its funders and sponsors and their ties to “genocide and dispossession,” including companies linked to Israel’s ongoing attacks on Palestine.

The action began subtly, as multiple members of the group began casually coursing through the fifth floor galleries, secretly equipped with portable speakers playing a sound composition of airplanes dropping bombs overhead and people screaming. Both museum staff and visitors appeared puzzled, unable to trace the source of the sound; one museum attendant was overheard suggesting to a visitor that the sound was coming from helicopters overhead. 

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Activists distributed custom-printed imitation brochures using the museum’s stylized branding.

Some of the video works in the Whitney Biennial currently on view were overlaid with footage from Gaza.

Minutes later, several video works in the Whitney Biennial currently on view were projected over with footage of families in Gaza before Hamas’s October 7 attack and during the subsequent Israeli military response, which has lasted over 200 days.

Museum staff and technicians were able to replace the original video works, but other film nooks were still overtaken with the collected footage from Gaza. 

Various members of the action also held up printed press releases that read “WHITNEY GENOCIDE” and began distributing the mock pamphlets emulating the museum’s own floor guides to the visitors who remained in the galleries. Organizers unfurled enormous banners from the sixth-floor terrace with the words “WHITNEY GENOCIDE NOW ON VIEW,” visible to passersby outside the museum, alluding to the advertising throughout the city for the Whitney Biennial.

Back inside the museum, museum staff remained calm but harried as they tried to make sense of what was happening. One gallery attendant began pointing out organizers who had speakers in their bags to other staff members and followed them around, but nobody was escorted out.

After approximately 20 minutes of audio intervention and pamphlet distribution, the group began chanting “Free, free Palestine!” while assembling in front of the Biennial wall text to the left of the elevators, where an organizer began addressing the crowd.

Citing information from the press release and pamphlet, the organizer highlighted the Whitney Museum’s corporate sponsor Hyundai Motors and museum board member and billionaire Nancy Carrington Crown, whose family owns 10% of the arms manufacturer General Dynamics, underscoring both companies’ connections to the Israeli military’s brutalization and displacement of Palestinians.

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The protesters drew attention to the Whitney’s funders and sponsors and their ties to “genocide and dispossession.”
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Activists chanted in the first-floor lobby and outside the entrance to the museum.

The organizer went down the list of museum donors and board members connected to Israel, inviting the crowd to chant “shame” after each one. 

The crowd began to chant “Free Free Palestine!” again and descended the museum stairs while holding up the “WHITNEY GENOCIDE” flyers. Visitors from the third-floor galleries gathered around the windows in front of the stairs to witness the action as the crowd funneled into the museum lobby and then outdoors.

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NYPD officers outside the Whitney entrance

Members of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) Community Affairs Bureau were onsite in the lobby, and several NYPD officers were awaiting the demonstrators outside. The group continued to collect outside the museum, chanting “shut it down” repeatedly before collectively saying “we will be back again,” and then dissolving. 

The action lasted between 8:45pm and approximately 9:20pm, going on for less than 45 minutes before terminating peacefully. In a statement to Hyperallergic, museum spokesperson Angela Montefinise noted that “the group left [the museum] peacefully.”

No arrests were made and no one was escorted from the premises. 

In an interview with Hyperallergic, an organizer who requested anonymity said that the group had chosen this week to conduct the demonstration in order to send out the message that institutions are “complicit in genocide” to a broader audience of out-of-town visitors currently in New York City to attend the art fairs. 

“The Whitney including this many Indigenous artists in the Biennial feels like a slap in the face while the museum is directly complicit in a genocide against Indigenous people,” the organizer continued. “It rings hollow and honestly feels like tokenization for the Whitney to put on a show like this during the most widely live-streamed genocide the world has ever seen.”

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The action took place during the Whitney’s Free Friday Night event, when the museum is open until 10pm.
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The activists staged projections and sound interventions throughout the museum.

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