In the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians last week, the amount of conversation, sharing of links and articles, and discussions about the sheer awfulness of the tragedy has been consistent, and sometimes overwhelming. Among friends and colleagues (Jewish and not), there have been expressions of concern, questions about whether I or others I know have family or friends in Israel, and inquiries in the vein of the usual and good things that people do for those they care about.
But in the midst of the endless news cycle about the violence, it did not occur to me to care or wonder that the National Basketball Association released a statement condemning Hamas. When I learned that they had—in an Artnet News article by Katya Kazakina that criticizes the art world for not doing something similar—my reaction was not to say, “Indeed, why don’t museums and galleries have the courage of the NBA?!”
Rather, my reaction was to scream (mostly to myself):
As a founder of a consulting firm who helps organizations craft these statements, I rarely have the opportunity to express my own views on the matter, but this seems like the right time. My feeling—because this really is a matter of how one feels—is that condemnatory statements from unrelated organizations and unattached to concrete actions are, in a word, meaningless.
I admit that I take for granted that most people who work in the arts think that the murder of George Floyd was awful, tragic. But the fact that they do has little bearing on the reality of Floyd’s murder, or the ways in which police officers in Minneapolis or elsewhere are trained, or how qualified immunity too often protects (in my opinion) officers who commit violence. These things—police officer training, the justice system, legislation around qualified immunity—are not the business of art museums or galleries or auction houses.
Likewise, I am aware of—and have experienced personally—antisemitism in the art world. But a museum or gallery or auction house statement about the attack on Israel does not aid the victims. It does not meaningfully address the potential for a rising tide of antisemitism in the U.S. or elsewhere. It won’t ensure that Israel’s military does its utmost to protect Palestinian civilians while pursuing Hamas, and it won’t protect Israeli civilians—or Jewish people anywhere else—against future attacks either.
What all of these statements do, however, is perpetuate an unnecessary cycle of inequity. Inequity because I don’t recall seeing any statements about the attacks faced by Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, or the recent suicide bombing in Pakistan. Nor do I recall seeing statements about the ongoing massacre of the Rohingya, or the cultural genocide being slowly but deliberately perpetrated by the Chinese on the Uighurs or the Tibetans. Why comment on one thing and not another? This, in turn, creates an unnecessary cycle because having started down this road, people are too scared to hit the brakes but too busy to issue statements about everything that happens. Admittedly, it’s hard to say: We did start this cycle, but we need to stop because it’s not productive.
There are three pieces of advice I would like to give the art world. First, take care of your staff, the people who come to work and who may be personally affected or have connections to people who are. It does not need to be a complicated message that parses the details of what happened, but rather a simple note acknowledging the tragic event and reminding people of the mental health resources available to them.
Second, focus on current events in your community rather than what is playing out halfway around the world. It is much too easy to be distracted by distant tragedies and ignore the things happening in the communities that actually support and patronize your organization.
And finally, if you do feel compelled to make a statement, combine it with a tangible action. This, too, does not have to be complicated—but it should also not be self-serving. Waiving admission fees for a day is self-serving. Offering an auditorium or gallery space to a local group that might want or need a place to gather and grieve is a gift. Noting your collection of Judaica or art by Black artists is self-serving. Inviting a Black or Jewish artist to give a talk about their work or their connection to the situation, or their own related experiences, can be a source of emotional sustenance and aid in communal grieving. And it is not to say that there aren’t organizations that have responded in these ways—but if compelled to act, then these approaches should be the focus.
As I noted above, this is about how a person feels. If someone finds it gratifying to know that arts organizations have made condemnatory statements about a tragedy halfway around the globe then I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I certainly appreciate the idea of “solidarity” around an issue, and in our era of declared allyship, I understand that hearing statements of support may make some people feel seen and acknowledged. And there are some specific circumstances that make sense to me, such as arts organizations that focus on particular communities—as has been the case with many Jewish museums’ statements since Hamas’s attack. But I suspect that, for most of us, what really offers comfort in times of trouble is the direct, interpersonal support we get and give from our family, friends, and colleagues.
Arts organizations are not perfect, and If they make mistakes in their own actions or operations, it is fair to demand accountability. But if we want to demand leadership on issues of importance beyond the walls of an arts organization, then let’s make those demands of the people whose job it is to affect change: our politicians. Let’s please stop asking the art world to make performative and often self-flagellating statements about circumstances well beyond their control. Let’s stop pretending that the act of issuing a statement changes society—or that the failure to do so indicates a lack of moral clarity. As circumstances demonstrate every day, the world is significantly more complicated than this reductive thinking, and we owe it to ourselves—and to the people who are actually harmed—to do better.
Sascha Freudenheim is the cofounder and principal of PAVE Communications & Consulting. This opinion reflects only his views and not the views of any PAVE client.