‘Where Are You, People?’ The Art World’s Deafening Silence After the Hamas Attack in Israel

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The silence is deafening.

As I write this, it’s been five days since the barbaric attack on Israel’s citizens by Hamas. And every new day brings more horrific details of the carnage on October 7, “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” according to U.S. President Joe Biden.

And yet the art world has been silent.

In New York, the home of the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, not a single major museum has so far expressed its official support for Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people. Not one major gallery chose to send a message of empathy and take a public stand against the slaughter of Jewish civilians despite, by now, widely reported, grim toll: the estimated 1,200 Israelis killed, including babies, women, and the elderly. Just imagine for a second anything of this magnitude taking place in community, among people.  

The art world’s silence speaks volumes. As a Jewish woman, who’s been writing about art, artists, galleries, museums, auction houses, foundations, fairs, lawsuits for more than 17 years, I feel a mix of pain, disappointment, rage, and fear. Why are the Jews being slaughtered and the art world turns a blind eye—and goes on shopping at Frieze London as if nothing happened? Where is the solidarity? Where is the empathy? Where is the moral compass?

I have reached out to museums including the Met, the MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney; galleries including Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth, and David Zwirner; auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips.

It’s been radio silence—with the exception of just a few lonely voices.

(The tide may be changing as we speak. Following my inquiries, Christie’s and Phillips today posted statements on LinkedIn condemning the “terrorist attack” against Israel.)

Those who remain silent are the same businesses and institutions that issued almost instant (and correct) support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion last year, for Black Lives Matter after George Floyd’s murder; that telegraph their support for LGBT rights and minority rights through exhibitions, policies, and statements.

These are the same institutions and businesses whose endowments, boards, and coffers have been oiled by wealthy Jewish patrons for decades. And these are the same entities who employ and represent staffers and artists, who may see Israel as the aggressor often without real understanding of historic complexity in the region and throughout centuries. It’s a fashionable view.

“Where are you, people? Who are you, people?” said New York-based private art dealer and collector Alberto Mugrabi, whose father was born in Israel. “We are seeing who is with us and who is not.”

Why the silence? I’ve asked myself and others this week.

“Now, at this moment, the art world could stand by Israel and say those are atrocities,” said Tania Coen-Uzzielli, director of the Tel Aviv Museum, which has been closed alongside all other public institutions. “I cannot hear this voice.”

A member of a WhatsApp group of 20 museum directors around the world, she has received just four personal messages since the attack. The group as a whole has been silent, including all of its American members. “I don’t know why,” Coen-Uzzielli said. “I am struggling with this. Really.”

Perhaps people are afraid to say the wrong thing and offend someone. Perhaps museums are afraid to be criticized or canceled by their constituencies. Perhaps galleries are afraid to lose business.

Powerful art patrons such as Qatar’s Sheikha al Mayassa, who has been one of the top art buyers of the past 20 years and is the chairperson of Qatar Museums, posted images of the Palestinian flag projected onto museum buildings in Doha on social media after the massacre.

“People are afraid,” a public relations consultant told me about why the art world doesn’t want to take a pro-Israel stance publicly.

Some, including actress Stella Schnabel, the daughter of painter and film director Julian Schnabel, have spoken out on her private Instagram account against “Israeli apartheid” rather than about the massacre of Israelis. Others, like members of the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa, walked back their initial pro-Hamas comments.

The first statements of support for Israel came, not surprisingly, from Jewish institutions, starting with the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Jewish Museum in New York. Regional Jewish museums, like the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, dedicated to sharing Jewish heritage through the lens of the American experience, responded with clarity and passion:

“We are living through history and watching it unfold. The choices we make at this moment both individually and collectively matter. We are often asked at the Maltz Museum how could the Holocaust have happened? How could people have followed Hitler? When we study artifacts that teach us about history, we define for ourselves what it means to be a perpetrator, by-stander, or upstander. Every one of us can choose how to act now. What side of history will each of us be on? We condemn the terrorist attacks on the Jewish people of Israel by Hamas and encourage all people to stand up and speak out against the brutally cruel and utterly inhumane crimes targeting Jewish homes, families, children as young as babies, and the elderly including Holocaust survivors.”

The mainstream art world’s silence is particularly stark compared with the public expressions of support for Israel. The massive projections of the Israeli flag onto the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin left me transfixed on Monday. Equally powerful were the blue-and-white light treatments of the Empire State Building in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the House of Parliament in London.  

Those who have expressed support for Israel ranged from the National Basketball Association to the New York City Schools chancellor David Banks. But the institutional art world remains mum.

In the past few days, every time a follower on Instagram posted his or her support for Israel it made me feel grateful. I realized how much these expressions of solidarity meant to me during these dark days for the Jewish State and the Jewish diaspora.

Homa Taj, an artist who grew up in Iran and isn’t Jewish, re-posted the Holocaust Museum’s statement in support of Israel in her Instagram story on Monday—and quickly saw the repercussions.

“We were bleeding followers until the story disappeared,” Taj told me. “This kind of reaction doesn’t surprise me. You have to buckle down and take a stance and believe in what you think is right.”

Adam Cohen, the owner of A Hug From the Art World gallery in Chelsea, posted on Wednesday an image of a deconstructed flag of Israel accompanied by a comment: “THE UNEQUIVOCAL SILENCE OF MY COLLECTIVE ARTS COMMUNITY IS DEAFENING #NEVERAGAIN.”

The most recent edition of The Canvas, an art industry newsletter, was titled, “When did the Artworld Lose Its Voice?”

There’ve been a few lone voices. The first thing you see on the website of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany, which comprises 15 state museums, is Israel’s flag and the condemnation of terrorism.

Pace Gallery was the only one of the major galleries that responded to my request to comment on the events in Israel (though the company is yet to make a public post or statement).

“We are shocked and horrified by the atrocities and war crimes being committed in Israel,” Marc Glimcher said in a statement. “No political goal can justify these actions. We mourn the loss of innocent lives. Our hearts go out to the families and communities that have been destroyed and desecrated.”

I asked Cohen, of A Hug from the Art World gallery, why he decided to speak up on Instagram.

“I felt the silence and I saw this image online and it best represented how I felt,” Cohen said in a telephone interview. “So I thought it important to share.”

When asked how Cohen felt in the art world as a Jew, the dealer said that the real question was how he felt in the as a Jew. “And the answer is: Proud yet afraid.” 

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