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Staffers Demand SFMOMA Break Silence on Palestine

SAN FRANCISCO — At 10am today, April 24, staff at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) released an open letter signed by nearly 100 current and former workers urging the institution’s leaders to issue a statement on Israel’s war on Palestine, where the death toll has surpassed 34,000.

In the six months since fighting erupted in Gaza, SFMOMA has remained publicly silent on the issue, say staffers across multiple departments, who describe a climate of “isolation and fear.” 

The letter, signed by over 13% of the museum’s roughly 350 workers and growing, was sent to all 52 members of the board of trustees on the day of SFMOMA’s annual Art Bash gala and fundraiser, which typically draws upwards of 1,000 RSVPs. In their statement, employees urge the museum to join San Francisco officials’ calls for a ceasefire and commit to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). 

The missive comes on the heels of similar demands levied by workers at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in February and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March as well as locally by artists at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, among others.

“The feeling is: We’re ready,” one worker and signatory, who asked to remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic. Since the bombardment of Gaza, she said, “people have been pulling the internal levers available to them, trying to raise concern from the museum — and that just hasn’t been effective.” 

Starting last November, a group of around 15 employees calling themselves SFMOMA Workers for Palestinian Liberation has gathered every other week to discuss how they could push the museum to join the calls for a ceasefire as the death toll climbs in Gaza and famine sets in. 

Vanessa Varela, an author of the letter and coordinator of SFMOMA’s educational programming, told Hyperallergic that some educators she knows decided to not take their students to YBCA after the organization refused to take a stance on Gaza when artists spray-painted their own work in a gesture of support for Palestine in February. Local educators who bring students to SFMOMA for summer camps and after-school programs approached her to ask about the museum’s stance on the issue, particularly concerned about their students of color. 

She responded to them over text: “My greatest concern has been in hosting students in our space while leadership is clearly defending genocide.”

Hyperallergic has contacted SFMOMA’s press office for comment.

SFMOMA doesn’t shy away from political statements in other areas. On the museum’s website, educators can download lesson plans like “How To Create Your Own Social Justice Poster.” In person, the museum regularly features art that engages social concerns, including murals by Diego Rivera and the work of former Black Panther Emory Douglas.

And on March 4, 2022, one week after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the museum issued a statement across its social media platforms that read: “At SFMOMA, our hearts and thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. #StandWithUkraine.”

But “when it comes to [the war on Palestine],” said Varela, “it’s like we’re not even allowed to acknowledge it’s happening in real time.”

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