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Climate Activists Protest the Museum of Modern Art’s Fossil Fuel Donors Outside Its Biggest Fundraising Gala

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NEW YORK—The Midtown Manhattan air was filled with dangerous levels of smoke from Canadian wildfires on Tuesday evening, but that didn’t keep climate activists from gathering outside the Museum of Modern Art’s biggest gala to protest the museum’s ties with fossil fuel billionaires.

About 15 protesters called on MoMA to cut ties with Henry Kravis, co-founder and co-executive chairman of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR), the fourth-largest private equity firm in the country, due to the firm’s funding of fossil fuel projects. Kravis’ wife, Marie-Josée Kravis, is the MoMA’s current chair, and the Kravis’ have their own gallery in the museum.

Organized by three community groups––the Climate Organizing Hub, New York Communities for Change, and Reclaim Our Tomorrow––the protest fits into a broader trend of backlashes against philanthropy from billionaires whose methods of acquiring their riches have had detrimental social and environmental impacts, and growing pressure on cultural institutions to refuse donations tainted by the fossil fuel industry. 

Much of the Northeast experienced dangerous levels of air pollution this week as smoke traveled south from hundreds of Canadian wildfires—unusual for their location and how early they are burning in the season—and New Yorkers were urged to limit outdoor exposure. On Wednesday, NYC’s air quality was ranked the worst in the world’s major cities. 

“This smoke that’s in the air is coming from wildfires in Canada that are polluting the air we breathe and that is happening because fossil fuel profiteers like Henry Kravis are pouring billions of dollars into fossil fuels,” said Climate Organizing Hub executive director Jonathan Westin, speaking to the rally and pointing to the smoky sky. “We literally can’t breathe our air because people like Henry Kravis are keeping the fossil fuel industry alive.”

The protest took place outside of the MoMA’s biggest fundraiser of the year, where the Kravis’ were expected to be in attendance. As guests in suits and gowns strutted into the museum, protesters yelled chants like “Henry Kravis you can’t hide, we charge you with ecocide,” and “we need clean air, not another billionaire.” Most of the guests didn’t acknowledge the protest, though some accepted flyers and two who declined to be named said it was bringing attention to an important issue.

Private Equity in Fossil Fuels

A 2022 report from Private Equity Climate Risks, a consortium of nonprofit and research groups focused on financial transparency and accountability, found that 73 percent of KKR’s energy portfolio consists of companies invested in fossil fuels, making it one of the top three private equity firms in the world for the proportion of its investments in oil and gas. KKR self-identifies as “a leader in asset-based investing in the oil and gas industry,” despite also claiming a commitment to sustainable investing and ESG. 

Henry Kravis co-founded KKR in 1976 with a $10,000 startup investment, and now has an estimated net worth of $10 billion. Like many other private equity titans, Henry Kravis stands to benefit from growth of the fossil fuel industry and has acted accordingly: he donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration in 2017, alongside other big names in private equity with big investments in oil and gas production. That year, private equity firms funneled $20 billion into the fossil fuel industry. 

KKR’s biggest ties to fossil fuels include the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Canada and the expansion of the LNG industry in Texas. KKR also manages the company Crescent Energy, whose subsidiary bought wells in Wyoming from ConocoPhillips in 2021. In 2021 and 2022, when private equity firms acquired $25 billion in oil and gas assets, KKR alone accounted for $14.5 billion of those purchases. 

KKR’s investment in the fossil fuel industry is part of a larger reality: In recent years, oil and gas assets have trended toward private ownership, including through private equity firms, which has decreased transparency and hindered emissions reductions.

“We’re seeing a troubling trend that private equity companies, like the bottom feeders that they are, are still willing to continue to move in…and eke the last decade or two of profits out of some of the dirtiest projects that other financiers [won’t] touch,” said Alice Hu, senior climate campaigner at New York Communities for Change, an organization focused mostly on legislative advocacy. “We’re trying to send a message: These people should not continue to be given social license to operate.” 

Billionaire Accountability and Museum Patronage

Marie-Josée Kravis’ appointment as MoMA board chair in 2021 followed the controversy surrounding their former chair, Leon Black, who stepped down amid revelations regarding his friendship and financial relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. Kravis has been active on MoMA’s board since 1994, and she and her husband have given generously to the museum, including a gift of a $25 million painting in 2005. Beyond the Kravis’, MoMA’s history is inextricably linked to fossil fuels: the museum was founded by the Rockefellers, who made their fortune in oil. 

Sophie Shepherd, 21, and the other protesters chanted for Kravis’ removal outside the walls of the MoMA garden. Credit: Keerti Gopal

This isn’t the first time protesters have called for art and cultural institutions to hold their donors to account. After it was announced that Black would step down at the MoMA, the Strike MoMA Campaign protested for 10 weeks, calling for an end to “toxic philanthropy.” In 2019, artist Nan Goldin organized high-profile protests against international museums’ ties with the Sackler family, which got rich off the sales of oxycontin, a prescription narcotic blamed for driving the opioid crisis. Protests at the Whitney Museum in New York led to the resignation of a board member whose company sells tear gas. And a London gallery director resigned after reports linked her to cyberweapons. 

The Great Recession hit museum endowments hard, and the coronavirus pandemic further stressed the finances of museums and cultural institutions, prompting them to seek out high-dollar donors more actively over the past 15 years. 

According to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, philanthropy is increasingly dominated by the very wealthy: households making over $1 million accounted for 40 percent of charitable deductions in 2019, up from just 10 percent in 1993. 

This means that the nonprofit sector is increasingly dependent on, and accountable to, a small number of wealthy donors, said Chuck Collins, director of the program on inequality and the common good at IPS and co-editor of Inequality.org. He argues that this is a problem for democracy, giving the wealthy outsized influence.  

“It’s a concentration of wealth and power, and then philanthropy becomes an extension of that power,” Collins said. “People are weaponizing their philanthropy to advance whatever their agenda is.”

Activists who target art institutions often point out cognitive dissonance between the institutions’ stated goals of advancing social good, and the tainted money that funds them. Protesters on Tuesday pointed out that MoMA has identified itself as a champion of sustainability and often seems to promote climate activism.

“It’s just pure hypocrisy and intentional blindness,” said rally-goer Camilla Calamandrei at the protest. “[MoMA] literally built an entire building to meet world-class sustainability standards and then this is who they put on the board, this is who they support.”

Marie-Josée Kravis is an economist, public policy specialist and member of the International Advisory Committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and does not herself work for KKR, although both she and her husband are benefactors of MoMA. Although the protest focused mainly on her husband, Marie is more involved in museum activities. 

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As both the wealth gap and calls for fossil fuel divestment have grown, there’s been increased scrutiny of billionaire philanthropy, raising questions about the “social license” wealthy individuals can purchase with charitable giving and the accountability they should bear for the impacts of corporations they lead. 

Collins said that it’s about time institutions like MoMA revoke the status of the people that have financially enabled the fossil fuel industry.

“We should be holding them to account in the same way [as] if they were financial enablers of large drug cartels, engaged in socially rogue activities,” Collins said. “We should be saying, we don’t want your money, this money came from imperiling planet Earth.”

A recent court ruling that the Sackler family would receive complete immunity from all civil suits against Purdue Pharma by victims of the opioid crisis suggests a separation of individuals from the activities of the companies they own. But the ruling has faced pushback from people fighting to hold corporate owners and leaders accountable for the sins of the companies from which they made their fortunes. 

“There’s a deep, deep disconnect between the money that funds institutions like this and what is actually happening across the globe,” Westin said. “I think that’s mostly just billionaires like Henry Kravis [who] want to make a bunch of money off [fossil fuel] infrastructure projects and don’t care about what happens to generations and generations that are going to continue beyond him.”

Ten uniformed police officers were in attendance for the 15-person protest, and they threatened to arrest protesters continuing to use their megaphones, at which point the rally-goers stopped using them. The protesters dispersed after some 90 minutes, but returned at 9 p.m. that evening to project three rotating messages—“MoMA Drop Kravis,” “ Kravis funds climate chaos,” and “Kravis Kills Communities,”—onto a wall inside the museum’s garden, where MoMA’s party went on under a smoky, red-tinged sky.

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