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Israel-Hamas war causes conflict at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A San Francisco arts center is trying again with new leadership after protest over the Israel-Hamas war shut the place down. Nastia Voynovskaya of member station KQED reports from San Francisco.

NASTIA VOYNOVSKAYA, BYLINE: Last Friday, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts opened its doors for the first time in a month since a February 15 protest where eight artists modified their own exhibited works with pro-Palestinian messages. Protesters also demanded the museum join a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions and to, quote, "remove all Zionist board members and funders." The protesters call themselves Bay Area Artists Against Genocide. Some 300 supporters joined them outside the museum on the eve of its reopening. Here's video artist Courtney Desiree Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COURTNEY DESIREE MORRIS: All people have the right to a dignified existence, and all people have the right to sweetness and pleasure and happiness and joy. And I want that for Palestinians right now, because they are suffering tremendously.

VOYNOVSKAYA: The artist said the original protest was motivated by the museum's alleged censorship of pro-Palestinian art. Months prior, the art center prevented artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo from putting the words free Palestine on a museum marquee above their mural. And painter Jeff Cheung says he was told to change his mural that used the colors of the Palestinian flag. Branfman-Verissimo says the artists felt it was time to speak out.

LUKAZA BRANFMAN-VERISSIMO: This is a moment in which artists locally in the Bay Area - nationally - must fight political oppression within the art world.

VOYNOVSKAYA: After the protest, the museum closed for a month, prompting further censorship accusations. It sparked calls for a boycott and an open letter from staff criticizing leadership, which has now garnered nearly a thousand signatures from artists and museumgoers. The city's Board of Supervisors now plans a public hearing on the controversy. The museum uses public funds and sits on city property. Similar protests have unfolded across the world - from the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin to the Brooklyn Museum, the Pace Gallery in New York, and many others. At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, staffers are demanding the director call for a cease-fire and help protect Gaza's cultural heritage sites.

HRAG VARTANIAN: I think what's happening is there is a waking up of a lot of artists and cultural workers.

VOYNOVSKAYA: That's Hrag Varnatian (ph), editor-in-chief of art publication Hyperallergic, which has been covering the turmoil.

VARTANIAN: During the last 40 years, the super wealthy have taken over many of the art institutions that we often consider public and in reality are not.

VOYNOVSKAYA: Here in San Francisco, Yerba Buena officials called the artists' demands divisive and hateful - a charge the artists deny. CEO Sara Fenske Bahat initially told artists their modified works would be taken down but then changed course. Fenske Bahat, who is Jewish, abruptly resigned on March 3 as a result of the controversy. In her resignation letter, she wrote, quote, "the vitriolic and antisemitic backlash directed at me personally since that night nearly three weeks ago has made being here intolerable." Yerba Buena board chair Renuka Kher declined multiple requests for an interview but said in an emailed statement that the museum is committed to rebuilding public trust.

The situation - and others like it - have illuminated a divide, often with artists and museum workers on one side and museum leaders and funders on the other. And with no end in sight to Israel's military offensive in Gaza, questions remain about how artists and cultural institutions respond. Here's Hyperallergic editor Varnatian.

VARTANIAN: When an artist is being told that they can't include something with their work - when they can't alter their own work, then the question is, well, who owns that work then? Who is allowed to determine how that work is seen and altered?

VOYNOVSKAYA: He says those questions cut to the heart of freedom of expression.

For NPR News, I'm Nastia Voynovskaya in San Francisco.

INSKEEP: This is one of many, many stories we have on different aspects of the Israel-Hamas war. And you can hear differing views of the conflict at npr.org/mideastupdates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nastia Voynovskaya