Yerba Buena Center for the Arts CEO Resigns Over Pro-Palestine Action

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s (YBCA) interim CEO Sara Fenske Bahat has resigned as the institution’s galleries remain closed since February 15, following a pro-Palestine action led by eight exhibiting artists.

Fenske Bahat’s departure follows weeks of turmoil at the center. After artists Jeffrey Cheung and Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo alleged that YBCA prevented them from advocating for Palestine in additional projects for the Bay Area Now 9 exhibition, eight artists in the show altered their own artworks with pro-Palestine messaging during a February 15 event at the Center. They also distributed flyers and called for an “end to YBCA’s censorship of artists” and “the removal of Zionist YBCA funders and board members.”

On February 21, the board of directors issued a public statement claiming that the flyers contained “unreasonable demands” — a phrase also used in a more recent board letter addressing Fenske Bahat’s resignation — and stated that the altered artworks would be stored away so the exhibition could reopen.

The group, made up of Paz G., Tracy Ren, Jeffrey Cheung, Leila Weefur, Sholeh Asgary, champoy, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, and Courtney Desiree Morris, shared an open letter to the Center endorsing a public boycott until the YBCA reopened the exhibition as is, called for an immediate ceasefire, and publicly committed to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), among other demands. Several of the Center’s employees also co-signed a separate letter supporting the artists that echoed a majority of their requests.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, artist Morris stated that the group had some email interactions with Fenske Bahat and the board regarding the potential for dialogue about the intervention and next steps. However, she said they were blindsided by Fenske Bahat’s abrupt resignation and disappointed by her letter to the board.

The former CEO stated in her letter that as a Jewish leader, she was personally subjected to “vitriolic and antisemitic backlash” since the intervention, and that she no longer felt safe at work “due to the actions of some of [the Center’s] own employees.”

Fenske Bahat wrote that she disagreed with the Israeli government on many fronts and was “horrified by the suffering of Palestinians,” but also maintained that “many in the YBCA community strongly believe Israel has a right to exist” and that the Center’s mission as a space “that fosters meaningful connection for all” also extends to those who hold that belief, including herself.

She alleged that the boycott letters called on the Center “to ban artists based on their national origin” — a characterization the artists refute.

The artists shared social media graphics publicizing their open letter and call to boycott the Center until their demands were met (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via @kilns on Instagram)

“The goal is to target institutions that are directly participating in or that directly benefit from the occupation of Palestine,” Morris told Hyperallergic, stressing the PACBI guidelines that expressly state that the cultural boycott is “institutional and does not target individuals as such.

“We’re not opposed to engaging with Israeli artists who are open to having real conversations about the impact of Israeli occupation on Palestine,” Morris said.

Morris added that all the group simply wanted open dialogue with the YBCA board, which has also expressed the same desire in its updated statement while characterizing certain aspects of the group’s demonstration and demands as “hateful.”

“We’re willing to do that work with them if they’re willing to meet us halfway,” Morris said. “Artists play an important role in decolonizing political imagination, and art institutions can too. But we’re not prepared to accept accusations that we were engaging in hate speech, or racist, violent, and antisemitic speech, because that was not what happened and that has never been our position.”

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