Museums are colonial projects as much as nation-building ones. They are also the result of monocultural schemes of urban planning and gentrification. If the colonial art museum is filled with desacralized stolen objects as a measure of territorial and cultural conquest, then the modern art museum collects the contemporary arts as an accumulative measure of capitalist market value. In these ways and many more, museums reflect dominant political economies and their social relations, which makes them powerful sites for decolonial political contestation as well as emergent protest cultures that work to build counter-institutions. The ten weeks of art, action and conversation “Post-MoMa Futures” disentangle what we might call the museum industrial complex that embeds and expresses dominant market forces.

Within the global ecology that is New York City, and specifically within the colonized Lenapehoking Indigenous territories known as Manahatta, museums have been meaningful architectural sites of modern imperial world-making. For instance, MoMA’s self-narrated history does not exaggerate when it declares itself “the greatest museum of modern art in the world.” With more than 200,000 works of art and extensive film and photographic archives, some of which I’ve conducted research within, MoMA has one of the most significant global collections of modern art anywhere, both collecting and occluding other traditions of art making. Its location at the intersection of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue represents a power center within Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by the Rockefeller Center, BlackRock, the New York City Police Foundation, and the Golden Tree Assets management.[1] The Museum of Modern Art is therefore both a symbol of an urban and historical architectural power grid, and a nexus of hierarchical and accumulative relations of conquest.

Extractive art washing, as I define it here, is the recurrent capitalist practice that invests in art and art collections as a fungible commodity, normalizing colonial and modern relations of biodiverse resource theft.

Ruins of Modernity poster and map, April 30, 2021 (IIAAF)

This was true during the European Arts Renaissance funded by oversea war and colonial ventures as much as it has been during the rise of US imperialism and the building of major art and cultural institutions across the United States. The US is not exceptional, as Canada, Norway, and many other countries in the world depend upon the entangled web of oil and art.[2]

Given that they accrue, exhibit, and program in the long shadow of petroleum empires and their new frontiers: What are the submerged relations of colonial and modern extractivism in the museum collection? What below-the-surface carbon entanglements and other sources of primitive accumulation make the museum even possible? And, more generally, how does the museum strike offer a way to imagine a post-extractive future and a decolonized world otherwise?

 

Black Gold and Art’s Fungibility

The original US robber barons of the nineteenth century were oil men, some of whom later switched their investments into gold and minerals. These barons became known for their ruthless practices that gave rise to American industry based on extraction. Even as movements for divestment from petroleum are currently gaining momentum, the very foundation of Standard Oil, Chevron, and Exxon is built upon black gold that continues to undergird the carbon dependent global capitalist economy.[3] In this key way, petroleum monopolies and their wealth transfers have not been a sideline to the story of modernity, but its extractive protagonist.

In an oil dependent capitalist world, art and art collections are the extractive profits from fungible commodities; Powerful agents then grant authority over what Jaques Ranciere calls “the distribution of the sensible,” where aesthetic value is organized to elevate particular art work of critical acclaim.[4] In this distribution, non-fungible tokens are the latest abstract use of art as fodder for the vertical capitalist machine.[5]

The great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano rendered these capitalist relations visible in his discussion of the “resource burden” of Latin America and the Global South:

No other magnet attracts foreign capital as much as ‘black gold’ … Petroleum is the wealth most monopolized in the entire capitalist system.  There are no companies that enjoy the political power that the great petroleum corporations exercise on a universal scale.

Standard Oil and Shell lift up and dethrone kings and presidents; they finance palace conspiracies and coups d’état; and they dispose of innumerable generals and ministers; and in all regions and languages, they decide the course of war and peace… The natural wealth of Venezuela and other Latin American countries with petroleum in the subsoil, objects of assaults and organized plundering, has been converted into the principal instrument of their political servitude and social degradation. This is a long history of exploits and of curses, infamies, and defiance (Galeano, 2004:203-6; 1997:156-59).[6]

In the subsoil of museum possessions is a long history of exploits and plundering, where oil, hydroelectric damming, investments in the punishment industry, and militarization link the billionaire class to condemning resource rich regions of the world to what Galeano terms “their political servitude and social degradation.”

Within the underlands of world-class museums is also the curse of resource wars, the below the surface deposits that have historically given rise to militarism and control over natural commodities such that the dynamics of resource scarcity and its hoarding also organize global currents of peace and war.[7]

Strike MoMA meme featuring David Rockefeller, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and David Rockefeller Director Glenn Lowry at Richard Serra: Sculpture opening at MoMA, 2007 (Strike MoMA)

Indeed, Guggenheim made most of his profits from silver mining and smelting in Colorado, and one of MoMA’s original art patrons, John D. Rockefeller, made his fortune from investments from oil wells in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the latter half of the 1800s. Forays into Latin America by modern carbon barons became commonplace to a petrol imperial expansionist imaginary. As Greg Grandin’s book on Henry’s Ford’s excursions into the Amazon Basin shows, rubber dreams were pervasive to the extractive view that extended across the hemisphere, interconnecting the oil economy to the rubber boom, to Americanization of the world’s largest biodiverse region.[8] Further, the expansion of the prison industrial complex in the Américas has deep connections to Rockefeller’s direct political influence and the Cold War riptides that criminalized the Latin American political Left, its intellectuals, and activists as subversives and terrorists.[9] There is no innocence in these cultural substrates, just fosas comunas.

Women of the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared demonstrate during the Pinochet military regime

By the 1930s, both John D. Rockefeller and Paul Getty funneled their oil profiteering into art collections, creating the foundation of major US cultural institutions, and the creation of a particular form of modern art to serve US imperial interests. During the Cold War, MoMA inaugurated a new program of hemispheric art and culture among twenty-one republics, sourcing art to build out Pan-Americanism in an effort to sway Latin American and Caribbean hearts and minds.[10]

At the end of his life, John D. Rockefeller had become not only the world’s richest man, but also its greatest philanthropist. Yet, in Latin America the Rockefeller family name continues to be not a benevolent symbol, but responsible for the wreckages of American empire and its political interventionism through its acquisition of black liquid gold. After discovery of deep petrol reserves in the Andean Foothills, Standard Oil’s competition with Shell Oil in South America led to the Chaco War (1932-1935), a militarized conflict between Bolivia and Paraguay with lasting and profound consequences. Though competing accounts exist about the degree of interventionist corporatism, this unnecessary war between the two nations was at least in part fueled by Rockefeller’s greed.[11]

The enduring connections between American empire, extractivism, and art are not always visible. Recently, the Whitney Museum’s show Vida Americana exhibited a mural replica of “Man at the Crossroads,” the 1934 fresco Diego Rivera commissioned for the Rockefeller Center. This powerful work was chiseled off the wall because Rivera painted Lenin’s figure in direct opposition to Rockefeller’s demand. Influenced by New York Leftist groups to make stronger visual connections to power hierarchies in his work, Rivera also painted in the figures of the peasant and the worker to envision directions for a communist future. This rare overt inscription to Cold War relations, and the role of Rockefeller as a kind of heteropatriarchal figure of hemispheric capitalism, is an important art archival trace of US economic and military domination.

There are also gendered implications throughout these imperial histories of extractivism, war, and architecture that are then returned as liberal philanthropic motives to establish uniquely American cultural institutions. Empires are forcefully taken and built and then given away through kinder gestures as the museum collection. When Mrs. Rockefeller founded MoMA with other millionaire wives, it was not merely a place to record, collect, and display art, but as the design for an institution of hegemonic cultural influence. And, John D. Rockefeller who initially opposed experimental modern art came to see that abstraction could be championed as free expression, which was pitted against the social realist art coming from material realities in the Américas. The history of museum collecting, then, must also be told through the wives of powerful barons as institution-builders of US white art hegemonies, as well as through modern/colonial distributions of cultural distinction.

 

Extractivism and Art Washing

New York art galleries and their collections have historically operated as repositories for investment bankers and multibillionaire international conglomerates. And, as I have discussed, art ownership is a form of control over political and social value through the fungibility of art as a commodity. This is not to take away the significance of particular exhibitions such as Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, which makes explicit oil economy connections to anti-Black gentrification, or the countercurrent work of specific curators and curators of color, or even the diverse value and patrimony of collections themselves. My point is instead to ask: How does collected art embed, express, and erase the violence of the accumulative practices of global racial capitalism?

The Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros is a privately held collection based in both New York and Venezuela and it archives Latin American contemporary art. And, the Patricio Phelps de Cisnero Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America, established by MoMA in 2016, is yet another influential site of philanthropy, empire, and even the practice of influence that is art washing. Mr. Gustavo A. Cisneros, Cisneros’ husband, as the New York Times reported in 2002, is “a multibillionaire whose international conglomerate of 70 companies relies on unfettered access to high-ranking political and economic officials in nearly 40 countries.”[12] Such unfettered political access, as Galeano noted, is never innocent in producing myriad forms of inequality.

Cisneros made his fortune through diverse assets, with Venezuelan oil in the pre-Chavez period serving as the stronghold of his first earnings. When easy access to underground petroleum reserves proved to be difficult, Cisneros diversified his portfolio, becoming one of the richest men in South America. In the post-Pinochet landscape of expanded neoliberalism in the region, this meant that state policies aimed at privatization and deregulation helped grow Cisneros’s multinational economic and political authority.

Currently, Grupo Cisneros is a vast media empire based in Coral Gables, Florida, and it is a conglomerate of digital media, entertainment, tourist, and real estate investments, with an astounding consumer audience that reaches more than 600 million Spanish and Portuguese-speaking peoples throughout the hemisphere as well as in Europe. The Cisneros group is also one of the largest investors in Univision, which is broadly known as a conservative media organization with massive global cultural and political influence upon Latinx America and European markets.

The Cisneros MoMA collection was founded by Mrs. Cisneros, a powerful patron and nexus figure of art patronage in her own right, who by all accounts has an impeccable reputation. Yet, along the surface of this liberal philanthropy, and within the production of beautiful art texts and meaningful curatorial projects, even the most contemporary waves of art from the Américas cannot fully hide the structural conditions that produce a billionaire class, its outsized privileges, and its new destinations of imperial control.

Plundering petroleum-rich biodiverse Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous territories, as I’ve discussed in my book The Extractive Zone, is at the core of colonial modernity. Perhaps, then, communications and digital media empires, as well as real estate, have become the future of extractive capitalism? Media and communications, like oil wells and gold mines, make for powerful accumulative source materials that can be abstracted in ways that racialized capital thrives upon.[13] And, new technologies depend upon the same language as resource extraction, such as mining big data, prospecting and collecting biomatter, tracking users through surveillance, and normalizing dispossession through right wing agendas. Further, the military state is both the originator of, and thoroughly ingrained within, this new media matrix.

The ability of the Cisneros Group to accumulate billions of dollars of net worth through media conglomerates at a time of widening immiseration around the world is evidence of this new boundary line. Such investments into art and culture, particularly in New York, are part of the return upon extracted value, as appreciation, rent, and a rise in capital gains. And, cultural expansionism exacerbates and further solidifies the inequalities of the race/class/gender and sex order in the Américas, an order that has had permanence since the sixteenth century.

 

Decolonial Futures

Important struggles in East Los Angeles and in Boyle Heights upon Gabrielino and Tongva Indigenous occupied lands over the past few years against art washing have shown the intimate connections between real estate capitalist investment and an extractive art industry that displaces to take over. In the case of MoMA, as in the case of other museums like the Whitney, the target is often the board of trustees where the entanglements of the matrix of coloniality remind us to follow the money.

Over the past several decades and with particular intensity since Strike MoMA, I have thought a lot about the complexity of what it means to confront liberal institutions for their historic power grabs, their complicity and involvement in petroleum and carbon induced climate change, their explicit connections to the machine of war, empire, and Indigenous, including Palestinian dispossession. Even as it is always difficult to speak truth to powerful actors and institutions, the MoMA Strike crystallizes for me the importance of our transversal and coalitional work in creating new spaces for solidarity in an increasingly authoritarian, skewed, and unjust world.

Strike MoMA, May 9, 2021 (Hrag Vartanian)

In Verónica Gagos’s book The Feminist International (2020), the author points to the state as the target of new formations of political power as potencia. Gago builds upon the work of Marxist Anarchist Rosa Luxemburg to consider how feminist, precarious labor, those in the informal economy, Afro-descendant communities, Indigenous peoples, transnational feminists, queer and trans-alliances generate methods to confront the patriarchal and violent conditions of the modern and colonial state. Hers is a theoretically rich and elegant argument, so it is not my objective to reduce the work of Gago’s embodied activism and theory-action to a few lines here. Instead, I want us to consider how the racial and heteropatriarchal state, especially in what is constituted as the Global North, and in particularly in the United States, is one, but certainly not our only target. In epicenters like New York City, the art museum represents an extractive core of the problem, and may be a similar, and dare I say a better target for the multiple demands and dispossessions across geographies of extraction. At the same time, striking is a way to work together to continue to imagine and build a post-extractive future.

So far, Strike MoMA has expressed many different levels of articulations. It reflects on connections to the Israeli military state and the oppression and ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people; It connects to study of tri-continental alliances and decolonization movements, it organizes working groups that learn from and struggle on behalf of Black freedom, against the carceral state, for Immigrant rights and Internationalism, as well as several other current threads. This transversal and revolutionary activity has made me reflect further on how the museum and art collection are sites of extractive modernity and art washing, as well as how the capitalist power complex fully coheres in the museum.

Maybe targeting carbon centers and media empires is precisely what Stuart Hall referred to as the project of articulation in particular historical junctures. Maybe striking in every way possible is exactly what we have to do to unbuild the colonial planetary and think towards the wider pronoun, the We of our non-extractive future

Outside MoMA, April 30, 2021 (Hakim Bishara)

[1] For details, see “The Ruins of Modernity Tour” map, online at Strike MoMa website, https://www.strikemoma.org/.

[2] See “The Bond Between Art and the Oil Industry,” https://www.contemporaryartstavanger.no/the-bond-between-art-and-the-oil-industry/ viewed May 27, 2021.

[3] For an excellent analysis of the rise of petro cultures in the US and its imbrication with our current global petrol-based economy see Matt Huber’s Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital (2013)

[4] See Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2004).

[5] See Jon Beller’s article, “Fascism on the Blockchain? The Work of Art in the age of NFTs,”  https://www.coindesk.com/fascism-blockchain-art-nfts viewed May 30, 2021.

[6] Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent, 25th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Cedric Belfrage, New York: Monthly Review Press (1997), and Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, tercera edición, revisada, México: Siglo XXI Editores (2004).

[7] See Vandana Shiva’s Earth Democracy (2005), Michael T. Klare’s Resource Wars, the New Landscape of Global Conflict (2001), and my book The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (2017), and The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save our Earth, by the Red Nation (2021).

[8] See “Dearborn-on-Amazon,” by Ben Macintyre, July 16, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/books/review/Macintyre-t.html

[9] See Micol Seigel’s “Nelson Rockefeller in Latin America: Global Currents of US Prison Growth,” Comparative American Studies, An International Journal, pp. 161- 175, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/1477570015Z.000000000106?journalCode=ycas20 viewed May 29, 2021.

[10] See Lucie Levine’s “Was Modern Art Really a CIA Psy-Op? In Jstor Daily, April 1, 2020. https://daily.jstor.org/was-modern-art-really-a-cia-psy-op/ viewed May 30, 2021.

[11] There is a deep historiography in both Spanish and English on this topic and there has been much investigation and counter-refutation.

[12] See Simon Romero’s “Coup? Not his Style. But Power? Oh, Yes,” April 28, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/28/business/coup-not-his-style-but-power-oh-yes.html viewed May 29, 2021.

[13] See Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tool for the New Jim Code (2019).