KAWS Exhibition Shut Down by Protestors, the Latest in a Spate of Political Demonstrations at Museums

Other political demonstrations at museums in New York, London, Berlin, and Florence have occured within days of one another.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators stage a protest at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Kinza Zafar.

A group of more than 75 pro-Palestine protestors processed through the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on Wednesday, Februrary 14, temporarily shutting down a KAWS exhibition. The protest followed recent criticism of the abrupt departure of the museum’s curator for Indigenous art, Wanda Nanibush, soon after Israel Museums and Arts, Canada (IMAAC) accused her of “hate speech” in October.

Nanibush had made statements in support of Palestine on social media but those posts have since been deleted. The AGO’s director Stephan Jost claimed that her departure was a “mutual decision.”

A mix of artists and art workers, the protestors entered the AGO on Wednesday evening at around 6:30 p.m. They occupied the exhibition space and sang chants in support of Palestine as well as resistance songs like “Strong Women’s Song,” and “Sawfa Nabqa Huna.” They held up signs that read “Free Palestine,” “Why did Wanda Go?,” and “#BoycottAGO.” At around 7:40 p.m., they asked security to let them leave.

“Supporters and some other AGO visitors were barricaded in the room and heavily surveilled by AGO staff but that didn’t break our spirit,” the protest organizers wrote on Instagram. They added that their intentions have already been set out in an open letter addressed to AGO’s staff, board of directors, and trustees, which has over 21,000 signatories.

A response to Nanibush’s departure, the letter stated: “Artists and cultural workers who have voiced solidarity with Palestine have faced draconian attempts at silencing, and the AGO’s silent removal of Nanibush following pressure from Israeli apologists implicates the Gallery in this troubling pattern. I call on the AGO to remember its institutional commitment to ‘dismantl[e] institutional discrimination, racism, and oppression’ and to foster an ‘inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible’ environment.”

The AGO did not respond to a request for comment.

Art institutions are increasingly becoming sites for political dissent. Similar pro-Palestine protests were staged at museums in New York, Berlin, and London the previous weekend. Climate activists taped images of a flooded Tuscan town over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, on Tuesday.  On Wednesday, another group led a demonstration at MoMA in New York, calling for the removal of board members with links to the fossil fuel industry.

Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Arts Council England came under fire this week after changes to its relationship framework policies cautioned that “overtly political or activist” statements made by individuals linked to cultural organizations could jeopardize funding agreements.

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