Warhol Museum Wall Text About “Middle East Conflict” Draws Criticism

An installation view of Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980) series of silk-screened prints on canvas (all images used with permission)

The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has drawn criticism for a wall text that characterized October 7 as “the start of the Middle East conflict” and failed to directly mention Occupied Palestine or Israel’s ongoing attacks on Gaza.

The label, which garnered attention on social media last week after an anonymous submission to the “Change the Museum” Instagram page, was installed weeks after Hamas’s attack on Israel and accompanied Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980). The series of 10 screenprints of Jewish historical figures, selected by Warhol’s gallerist Ronald Feldman, includes portraits of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

The controversy over the text comes amid news that the museum’s former Chief Curator Aaron Levi Garvey, who co-signed the label along with Director Patrick Moore, is no longer in the position after less than a year in the role, as reported by the Pittsburgh City Paper. Levi Garvey’s name has been removed from the Warhol Museum’s website, though the institution has not issued a public statement. Sources told Hyperallergic that Levi Garvey was terminated, but the claim could not be confirmed.

A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that it “doesn’t comment on the employment status of individuals.” Levi Garvey has not responded to requests for comment.

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The display text co-signed by Museum Director Patrick Moore and former Chief Curator Aaron Levi Garvey

In an interview with Hyperallergic, a current employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained that the display and labels for each individual print were installed only days before the museum’s exhibition Unseen: Permanent Collections Works went on view early last November. They specified that the wall label originally accompanied the display without Moore’s and Levi Garvey’s names, but was later amended to include them after several staff members complained that the statement appeared to speak for the museum at large.

The text connects Warhol’s portrait series to the fifth anniversary of the October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, which killed 11 members of the city’s Jewish community, and to “the global impact of the war in the Middle East,” before noting that Warhol’s Factory often brought unlikely parties together in a creative and safe space.

“We hope the same is true for our visitors even as they mourn the loss of Jewish lives at the start of the Middle East conflict and the humanitarian crisis affecting civilians on both sides of the war,” the text concluded, allegedly sparking discomfort among some museum staff members.

The employee, who provided photos of the display and wall text to Hyperallergic, called the text “very one-sided,” underscoring the line about mourning the Israeli deaths from what the text calls a “conflict,” with no mention of “information and guidance to mourn for over 28,000 Palestinians that have been killed.”

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The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

A second staff member, who also requested anonymity, wrote to Hyperallergic in an email that the text was “a broadly unpopular move, and people in all departments were making it known they weren’t okay with it and wanted the exhibit edited if not removed.”

“Our supervisors, the security supervisors, and our Union representatives all repeatedly told [museum] higher-ups that having this exhibit up could compromise the safety of both the staff and collection,” the worker continued. “Nothing was done.”

President of United Museum Workers (UMW) Jenise Brown directed Hyperallergic to the democratically voted-on local union statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza released last November, and expressed that UMW stood by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’s (AFL-CIO) February 8 statement regarding the situation in Palestine.

Both employees also called attention to the fact that the original description label for Warhol’s portrait of the former Israeli prime minister stated that Meir was born in “Kiev, Russia,” as it was a recycled label that hadn’t been reviewed since the series had last been exhibited. Meir’s label was revised last October with a birthplace of “present-day Ukraine.”

Last year, the museum faced scrutiny for its decision to work with the Saudi Arabian government and loan over a dozen works from its collections for the Fame: Andy Warhol in AlUla exhibition. The museum was accused of assisting the nation with “artwashing” its projected image as a newfound tourism and cultural heritage zone while its authoritarian regime engages in some of the harshest forms of human rights violations in contemporary history.

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