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Supporters of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York arriving at the institution’s annual Party in the Garden benefit gala on Tuesday night were greeted by a 20ft-tall oil well looming over West 53rd Street. Hanging high on the structure was a reproduction of a painting of a gas station engulfed in flames by the American artist Ed Ruscha—one of the gala’s honourees—overlaid with the text “MOMA DROP KRAVIS” in the artist’s favoured font.

The faux oil well was a prop for a group of around 15 climate protestors stationed outside one the museum’s main entrances, who called for the removal of board chair Marie-Josée Kravis because of her and her husband Henry Kravis’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. They chanted slogans including “Henry Kravis, you can’t hide, we charge you with ecocide” and “We deserve clean air, not another billionaire” as gala attendees arrived.

NYPD officers and private security wait to usher Party in the Garden gala attendees into the Museum of Modern Art while climate protestors rally outside the museum

Henry Kravis, whose net worth is around $7.8bn according to Forbes, is a co-founder, co-chair and co-chief executive of KKR, one of the world’s five largest private equity firms. Its investment portfolio includes companies in the oil and gas sectors in the US, Canada, the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Marie-Josée has served on MoMA’s board since 1994 and, prior to succeeding Leon Black as chair in 2021, had been board president from 2005 to 2018. The couple’s contributions to the museum have included a 1948 Henri Matisse painting valued at $25m, the Jasper Johns sculpture Painted Bronze (1960) and many other works. A gallery for performance and installation art named after the couple—the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio—was inaugurated when MoMA’s most recent expansion opened in 2019.

By pure chance, the protest gained an acrid air of poignancy due to smoke from massive Canadian wildfires, which drifted over New York throughout the day on Tuesday. As a result, around the time of the protest, New York had the worst air quality of any major city in the world and a rating of “unhealthy” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s US Air Quality Index.

“If you look around, the reason for this protest is clear: the smog from wildfires in Canada is here, those wildfires are made worse by climate change and we have about six years to act on climate,” says Roni Zahavi-Brunner, a member of Reclaim Our Tomorrow—which co-organised the protest along with other activist groups including Private Inequity, New York Communities for Change and Climate Defenders Action. “The art and culture sector should be leading progress on climate. The museum has a sustainability statement on its website, it features artists who are making work about climate change and yet it is giving cover to people like the Kravises.”

Spokespeople for MoMA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Protestors brandish signs and chant slogans at attendees of the Museum of Modern Art’s Party in the Garden gala on 6 June 2023

After gala attendees had arrived and the event was underway in the museum’s sculpture garden, the protestors relocated (oil well in tow) to a space on West 54th Street where they would be visible and audible to donors. Their large “MoMA Drop Kravis” banner pressed up against the fence, they chanted, “Henry Kravis, climate criminal!” Eventually, workers inside the gala moved freestanding partitions so that revellers could not see the protestors. As the number of New York Police Department officers monitoring the situation slowly grew to around 20, the protest wound down.

The protest at MoMA came as museums face intensifying scrutiny to cut ties with individuals and companies associated with the fossil fuel industry and climate change. Just last week, it was revealed that the British Museum and BP’s controversial sponsorship agreement will end after 27 years; the British Museum had been criticised and targeted by protests for more than a decade over its perceived complicity in BP efforts to “artwash” its reputation through cultural sponsorship.

The Party in the Garden, MoMA’s biggest annual fundraising soirée, has become a popular target for protest in recent years. In 2018, unionised staff at the museum picketed during the event in protest of low wages. And last year, when the gala’s honourees included Starbucks board chair Mellody Hobson, Starbucks workers rallied outside the gala over her alleged complicity in union-busting efforts at the café chain.

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