Amid Rash of Vandalism, New York Art World Grapples with Divide on Israel-Hamas War

Galleries and museums have been tagged all over town. Everyone is wondering: Who is responsible, and what comes next?

The pro-Palestinian group Within Our Lifetime marches across the Brooklyn Bridge calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel's war in Gaza, December 9, 2023.(Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

On a blisteringly cold Thursday night in January, a cluster of galleries in Manhattan’s Chinatown held their first big openings of the year. Inside the tiny storefronts were messy abstract paintings, dreamy gay porn scenes, and metal sculptures evoking agricultural tools. The galleries were mobbed by visitors accessorized with fur coats, tiny dogs, and even full-face leather masks. The streets were alive with energy, crowded like a block party.

You would never have guessed that just a few hours earlier, gallery owners were scrambling to powerwash signs and spray-painted tags that appeared overnight on their doors, windows, and sidewalks with some of the following phrases:

“Don’t Sell Art to Zionists”
“Zionism is Terrorism”
“Blood on Your Hands”
“Gentrifying Chinatown / Colonizing Palestine / We Condemn Your Art Galleries”

The galleries did not file police reports, and the clean-up job could have been the end of it, with few aware of what had happened. But two days later, photographs of the postered galleries appeared on the Instagram account of Writers Against War On Gaza (WAWOG). The post explained what had occurred: “Coordinated by an autonomous group of Palestinian and POC actionists, the messaging campaign targeted Chinatown art galleries that, despite the ongoing genocide of Palestinians, continue to work with Zionists.” (The post was later updated with a disclaimer: WAWOG members did not conceive or organize the action.)

It was neither the first nor last case of activists targeting art venues in New York—where Jewish dealers, collectors, and philanthropists play a major role—to criticize Israel’s military action in Gaza. The war is continuing to send toxic waves throughout the art world, which remains deeply fractured by the deadly events.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters infiltrated the Museum of Modern Art, waving black flags emblazoned with slogans like “Free Palestine From the River to the Sea”—a contested phrase historically associated with calls for the destruction of Israel—and demanding the removal of prominent Jewish board members, such as Ronald S. Lauder, Leon Black, and Larry Fink. Another rally was held outside of the Brooklyn Museum.

The public actions and vandalism come amid a growing wave of anti-Jewish hate crimes in New York. From October through January, 198 such incidents were reported, up from 100 during the same time in 2022, according to the city. (Antisemitism dwarfs hate against every other ethnic group in the city; 18 anti-Black and 15 anti-Muslim incidents were reported during the same period). Social media plays a role in stoking divisions, but aggression is increasingly spilling into real life.

In December, acts of criminal mischief were reported at the Lévy Gorvy Dayan gallery and the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side, according to the New York City Police Department. Last month, protesters struck on a weekly basis. Chinatown was followed by Chelsea, where anti-Zionist posters appeared on the David Zwirner gallery and Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea, according to ARTnews. The following week, pro-Palestinian supporters defaced the facade of Pace’s West 25th Street headquarters with red paint and graffiti.

Since no individuals or groups have claimed responsibility for the acts, fingers are being pointed all over the place: at one gallery owner’s ex-girlfriend, prominent activist-artists, and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Some have compared the incidents to Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. Others say they should be protected as free speech. Everyone wants to know: Who is behind them?

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‘Let Them Say Their Piece’

Although multiple Chinatown galleries were hit—including 56 Henry, Fierman, Lyles and King, King’s Leap, Maxwell Graham, Essex Street, and No Gallery—a spokesperson for the NYPD said that no reports were filed.

“We are open to other perspectives down here,” said Ellie Rines, the owner of 56 Henry gallery. “Let them say their piece. I don’t want to silence anyone.”

Rines said she didn’t know who was involved and it was difficult to glean any clues from the grainy footage captured by a security camera.

She remains puzzled as to why the galleries on the street were targeted. One guess: “Henry Street is just a bunch of storefronts. There are a lot of windows,” she said. “It’s a good canvas.”

Others sounded more alarmed.

Doreen Remen, a co-founder of the Art Production Fund, said that tagging galleries with anti-Zionist posters and graffiti “is pure vandalism.”

“It’s being permitted under this umbrella of free speech or creative expression, which it isn’t,” Remen said. “It’s just hate speech and intimidation. And these kinds of taggings have happened before. They are straight from Hitler’s Germany.”

Like everyone else I’ve interviewed, Remen didn’t know who was behind these acts.

“It’s all conjecture,” she said. “People are talking and trying to figure it out, but I don’t want to waste my time on it.”

‘We Look Forward to Better Days’

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The Lévy Gorvy Dayan gallery became an early target, after its owners wrote an open letter in response to the controversial one that ran in Artforum criticizing Israel’s actions without initially mentioning Hamas’s October 7 attack. (The magazine’s editor, David Velasco, was subsequently dismissed; its publishers said that the letter had been published in a manner that was “not consistent with Artforum‘s editorial process.”)

On December 6, when much of the art world was at Art Basel Miami Beach, a three-foot-tall poster (“We were wrong,” it read, in a fake apology) was attached to its front door, according to the police, which characterized it as “criminal mischief.”

In January, the gallery became the subject of another campaign. WAWOG posted on Instagram images of posters depicting Lévy Gorvy Dayan’s three principals on a subway platform as well as on the facade of Zwirner in Chelsea. The group demanded the art community cut ties with the “Zionist gallerists.”

“When Artforum came out with that letter, we felt saddened that it made a conscious decision of omitting the mention of October 7,” Dominique Lévy said last week. “We tried to answer back with love and sympathy for all parties. We hoped this would be a simple call to a peaceful way of thinking. That’s all. How this got put out of control and out of context we don’t understand and we don’t know.”

Despite these events, it’s business as usual at the uptown gallery, with no additional security measures—or fear, according to Lévy.

“We just look forward to better days,” she said.

Another target of vandalism in the neighborhood appears to have decided not to discuss the incident with the press. Unknown individuals glued posters to the side of the Neue Galerie on December 23, according to a police report for criminal mischief. The museum’s founder, collector Ronald S. Lauder, is president of the World Jewish Congress, and ended his donations to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, after accusing it of not doing enough to combat antisemitism.

The news came out earlier this month in Page Six, which published a photograph shared by WAWOG of the museum’s facade smeared with red paint.

When reached for comment, the museum’s director, Renée Price, demurred.

“We are in the midst of our ‘Klimt Landscapes’ installation, and I’m not able to offer a comment,” she said in an email.

‘The Scariest Experience in My Life’

As the war in the Middle East enters its fifth month, the divide in the cultural sphere only seems to be growing more acute. As activists have threatened more disruptions from their Instagram accounts, some targeted by vandalism are allocating resources to figuring out who was responsible and lobbying the authorities to take action.

“I don’t think anyone would put up with it if it was any other minority group,” Remen said. “It’s kind of shocking.”

The actions have already disrupted businesses. MoMA shuttered after 800 protesters poured into its atrium on Saturday afternoon, according to Hyperallergic.  

Pace temporarily closed its main space (with three exhibitions on view) after discovering that its exterior walls were marred with red paint and slogans including “Free Gaza” and “Intifada.” It’s anyone’s guess why activists targeted Pace. Is it because it’s Jewish-owned? Or because Israeli artist Michal Rovner, who is represented by Pace, recently installed a massive video in Times Square, calling for the safe return of the hostages held by Hamas? 

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“The vandalism was extensive enough to necessitate the gallery’s closure while we complete clean-up efforts,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Some worry that these acts of vandalism could presage physical confrontations or even violence.

Several people told me about a little-publicized protest in front of fashion designer Donna Karan’s Urban Zen store in the West Village on December 17, as Karan held a private event with three speakers, including the mother of Naama Levy, one of the hostages who remains in captivity. The goal was to raise awareness about the conflict’s history from a pro-Israel perspective in fashion and art circles, according to an attendee.

Somehow, information about the event leaked, leading at least one activist to post on Instagram: “Donna Karan is hosting a fundraiser for the IDF tonight at her West Village shop. Are we going to let these assholes fund a genocide without shame?” (The story was viewed, captured, and shared with me by a follower.)

What followed next, according to an eyewitness who asked not to be named because Karan requested a cone of silence, involved an angry mob screaming and kicking the doors of the shop and an escape by the guests in police vans.

“They were on top of us,” the person said. “It was the scariest experience I’ve had in my entire life.”

Calls to Urban Zen were not returned. A spokesperson for the NYPD did not respond to an email seeking to confirm the events, but said that graffiti was reported at the location. It read: “No $ for genocide.”

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