After thousands of high-profile artists and curators signed an open letter expressing solidarity with Palestinians and supporting a ceasefire in Gaza, published in the magazine Artforum on October 19, the public pushback was swift. The following day, the magazine posted a public response signed by prominent gallerists denouncing the original letter as “one-sided.”
Behind the scenes, however, powerful art dealers and gallerists who control the cultural and monetary tides of the art world began a private campaign to force some of the biggest names on the letter to retract their support, according to a half dozen sources, including letter signatories as well as others informed about the influence campaign.
Soon after the letter was posted, Martin Eisenberg, a high-profile collector and inheritor of the now-bankrupt Bed Bath & Beyond fortune, began contacting famous art world figures on the list whose work he had championed to express his objections to the letter.
Eisenberg, who owns millions of dollars’ worth of work by Artforum letter signatories, contacted at least four artists whose work he owns to convey his displeasure at seeing their names on the letter. (Eisenberg did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.)
On Thursday, a week after the letter was posted, Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco was summoned to a meeting with Jay Penske, the CEO of Artforum’s parent company, according to three sources. The son of billionaire Roger Penske, Jay oversees the conglomerate Penske Media Corporation. (Penske Media did not respond to a request for comment.) Before the day was out, Velasco was fired after six years at the helm of the magazine.
“This magazine has been my life for 18 years and I’ve given everything to it,”
“This magazine has been my life for 18 years and I’ve given everything to it,” Velasco, who rose from being an editorial assistant to the coveted editor-in-chief job, told The Intercept. “I have done nothing but exceptional work at the magazine for 18 years and this is a sad day. It breaks my heart.”
In a statement to the New York Times, Velasco said, “I’m disappointed that a magazine that has always stood for freedom of speech and the voices of artists has bent to outside pressure.”
The pressure campaign against the letter echoes a wave of repercussions faced by writers, activists, and students who have spoken out for Palestinians. Right-wing groups lobbying for Israel, as well as donors to prominent institutions and various other wealthy interests, are condemning open letters and using the lists of signatories as blacklists across cultural, professional, and academic spheres.
“Anecdotally, I know that a majority of people in the art world are devastated by the genocide by Gaza but many are scared to speak out or even join the call for a ceasefire,” said Hannah Black, an artist and writer who signed the Artforum letter but was not pressured to remove her signature. “It is absolutely McCarthyite and many of the dogmatic anti-Palestinians within the art world have, as Joseph Welch said of McCarthy, ‘no sense of decency.’ They are willing to destroy careers, destroy the value of artworks, to maintain their unofficial ban on free speech about Palestine.”
In a testament to the efficacy of the campaign against the Artforum letter, artists Peter Doig, Joan Jonas, Katharina Grosse, and Tomás Saraceno all withdrew their support. According to an Intercept analysis, the three artists were among 36 names removed from the online version of the letter between October 20 and October 26. (An additional 32 names were added during that period.)
Artforum, a premier international art publication, published the October 19 open letter calling for humanitarian aid to Gaza, accountability for war crimes, and an end to violence against civilians. The letter — which was not commissioned or drafted by Artforum, but published on the magazine’s website as well as in other publications like e-flux — went on to condemn the occupation of the Palestinian territories and reiterate its demands with a call for peace.
“We believe that the arts organizations and institutions whose mission it is to protect freedom of expression, to foster education, community, and creativity, also stand for freedom of life and the basic right of existence,” the signatories concluded. “We call on you to refuse inhumanity, which has no place in life or art, and make a public demand from our governments to call for a ceasefire.”
In a post on the Artforum website before news broke of Velasco’s firing, the publishers Danielle McConnell and Kate Koza wrote that the publication of the letter was “not consistent with Artforum’s editorial process.”
“The open letter was widely misinterpreted as a statement from the magazine about highly sensitive and complex geopolitical circumstances,” the publishers wrote. “That the letter was misinterpreted as being reflective of the magazine’s position understandably led to significant dismay among our readers and community, which we deeply regret.”
Critics of the letter said its failure to mention the surprise attack by Hamas on October 7 — in which some 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed — was offensive and, according to some, antisemitic. Four days after the letter was published, Artforum posted an update reiterating the letter organizers’ condemnation of the loss of all civilian life, adding that they “share revulsion at the horrific massacres” of October 7.
The response published in Artforum the day after the original letter came out was signed by three influential gallery owners: Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy, and Amalia Dayan. In their critique, the gallerists wrote:
We are distressed by the open letter recently posted on Artforum, which does not acknowledge the ongoing mass hostage emergency, the historical context, and the atrocities committed in Israel on October 7, 2023—the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust.
We denounce all forms of violence in Israel and Gaza and we are deeply concerned over the humanitarian crisis. We—Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy, Amalia Dayan—condemn the open letter for its one-sided view. We hope to foster discourse that can lead to a better understanding of the complexities involved. May we witness peace soon.
The authors of the response letter — the joint directors of Lévy Gorvy Dayan, which has gallery spaces and offices in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong — curate shows with some of the most prolific and highest grossing artists in the world, both living and dead. Their website lists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Joel Mesler, and Adrian Piper as representative artists and collaborators. Dayan is the granddaughter of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli politician and military commander who is alleged to have ordered the country’s military to attack the American naval ship the USS Liberty during the Six-Day War of 1967.
Lévy Gorvy Dayan is more than a series of galleries; the venture is a powerful consortium, described by the New York Times as a “one-stop shop for artists and collectors,” representing artists, organizing exhibitions and auction sales, and advising collectors. In 2021, Lévy told the Financial Times, “I grew up feeling that art was freedom and fresh air.” She said she did not believe in gallerists and representatives “controlling them” — the artists — “completely.”
According to two artists who appeared as signatories on the first Artforum post, the Lévy Gorvy Dayan letter was a shot across the bow by powerful art dealers and influencers, warning others to stay in line. One artist who spoke to The Intercept said a collector offended by the Artforum letter returned a work by the artist to a dealer. The collector did not contact the artist prior to returning the work, according to the artist, who asked for anonymity to protect their livelihood.
Another open letter posted under the title “A United Call from the Art World: Advocating for Humanity” called the original Artforum letter “uninformed.” It offered no criticism of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, which has killed an estimated 7,000 people in the last 19 days. This letter, issued under the banner of “peace, understanding, and human dignity” garnered over 4,000 signatures. Among them was that of Warren Kanders, who resigned from the Whitney Museum of American Art board following protests over the fact that his companies sell chemical weapons. (The Intercept reported last year that, despite claims of divestment, Kanders remains in the tear gas business.)
“It really shows that they never cared about the art.”
Penske Media Corporation, Artforum’s parent company, drew criticism in 2018 selling a $200 million stake to Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund. That same year, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered under orders from Saudi’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Another artist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their livelihood, said the affair with the Artforum letter showed that many of the gallerists and collectors whose money makes the art world turn did not understand artists’ subject matter.
“It really shows that they never cared about the art,” the artist said. “My art, like a lot of the people facing this, has always been political, about oppression and dispossession.”