Artforum staff resign to protest editor’s firing over anti-Israel letter

Several employees of leading art magazine quit after David Velasco axed for backing ‘Palestine liberation’ in open letter that made no mention of Hamas massacres

Artforum at the 2023 Armory Show VIP Preview at Javits Center on September 7, 2023 in New York City. (Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images via JTA)
Artforum at the 2023 Armory Show VIP Preview at Javits Center on September 7, 2023 in New York City. (Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images via JTA)

JTA — Several staff members at a leading art magazine resigned in protest over the weekend after their editor-in-chief was fired following the publication of a letter that was sharply critical of Israel.

Pro-Israel figures in the art world had condemned Artforum and its editor in chief, David Velasco, since the magazine’s publication of a letter expressing support for “Palestinian liberation” without mentioning the 1,400 people massacred when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

The drama at Artforum follows similar sagas at other arts and culture institutions in the wake of Hamas’ attack and Israel’s military response in Gaza. At 92NY in New York City, for example, staff members resigned and a book-talk series was scrapped after the venerable Jewish cultural institution canceled a talk with an author who had signed a different open letter condemning Israel.

David Velasco, who had worked at Artforum since 2005, was let go Thursday, one week after he oversaw the publication of an open letter “from the art community to cultural organizations.”

Declaring, “We support Palestinian liberation,” the letter condemned what it called “the institutional silence” of the art world to “the crimes against humanity that the Palestinian people are facing.” It also endorsed a ceasefire in Gaza. In addition to being signed by Jewish art-world luminaries including Nan Goldin and Barbara Kruger, the letter was also signed by Velasco himself.

The letter’s initial wording made no mention of the October 7 attack by the Palestinian terror group Hamas. A clause added October 23, several days after publication, notes that the letter’s original, unnamed organizers “share revulsion at the horrific massacres of 1,400 people in Israel conducted by Hamas on October 7th” and “hope for the expeditious return of all hostages” along with a ceasefire. But it claimed that the new text could not be circulated to all 8,000 of the original letter’s signatories.

Days later, Velasco was reportedly summoned to a meeting with Jay Penske, CEO of the media conglomerate that owns Artforum. At the meeting, the Intercept reported, Velasco was fired. That same day, the magazine’s publishers posted a separate item noting that the letter “was not consistent with ‘Artforum’’s editorial process” and saying it had been “misinterpreted” as reflecting the position of the magazine.

“I have no regrets,” Velasco told the New York Times in an email. “I’m disappointed that a magazine that has always stood for freedom of speech and the voices of artists has bent to outside pressure.”

Following Velasco’s firing, according to ARTNews, at least four editors resigned from Artforum in protest and dozens more employees and contributors signed their own open letter demanding he be reinstated. They argued that his firing over the letter stifled the kind of “cultural debate” the magazine had staked its reputation on. In addition, several artists have declared their intention not to work with Artforum in the future, including Goldin and the Jewish painter Nicole Eisenman.

Some artists who removed their names from the letter after its initial publication said they had done so following what they characterized as a pressure campaign by pro-Israel art collectors. The Intercept reported that Bed Bath & Beyond heir Martin Eisenberg contacted at least four artist signatories of the letter whose work he owns to voice his objections.

The New York Times reported that Jewish museum fundraiser Sarah Lehat Blumenstein told a WhatsApp group she was prepared to launch a “deaccession plan” to “diminish the artists’ status”; Blumenstein told the Times that such a plan was not active.

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