Artforum’s Top Editor Fired

Nearly fifty of the magazine’s contributors demand the reinstatement of David Velasco, who lost his job after publishing an open letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Headlined ‘An open letter from the art community to cultural organizations’, the open letter was published in Artforum on 19 October, accompanied by this image of Emily Jacir’s artwork Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Which Were Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948 from 2021.

On 26 October, the New York Times reported that the editor-in-chief of Artforum, David Velasco, had been dismissed after six years in the position. The dismissal came as a reaction to the magazine publishing an open letter signed by over 4,000 artists, academics, and cultural workers on 19 October, in which they state their support of Palestinian liberation and criticised the silence of cultural institutions on Israel’s bombing of civilians in Gaza.

In the open letter, which was also published elsewhere, including in e-flux, the signatories asked for “an end to the killing and harming of all civilians, an immediate ceasefire, the passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and the end of the complicity of our governing bodies in grave human rights violations and war crimes.” They referred to what is happening as an “escalating genocide.”

In recent weeks, more than 8,000 people in Gaza have been killed in Israeli bomb attacks, according to the Palestinian authorities, and over a million people have been internally displaced. At the same time, Israel maintains a blockade of Gaza, depriving the population of access to water, food, medicine, and fuel, and denying entry to international humanitarian organisations.

Among the letter’s signatories is the American philosopher Judith Butler, who is of Jewish descent and sits on the advisory board of the organisation Jewish Voice for Peace. Speaking to Democracy Now! Butler stated on 26 October that what we are witnessing is “the implementation of a genocidal plan,” and that they, as a Jew, see it as “imperative,” ethically and politically, to speak out against it.

Among the most well-known artists who signed the letter are Nan Goldin, Wu Tsang, Brian Eno, Nicole Eisenman, Jeremy Deller, Laure Prouvost, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Barbara Kruger, and Cecilia Vicuña. Other signatories include Velasco and several other members of Artforum’s staff.
The letter received a great deal of international attention, being partly met with opposition and condemnation. Although the call “reject[s] violence against all civilians, regardless of their identity,” it was criticised for not clearly distancing itself from Hamas’s attacks on civilians in Israel on 7 October, in which 1,400 people were killed and more than two hundred were taken hostage.

David Velasco. Photo: Artforum.

The day after publication, Artforum took down its own Instagram post about the letter, and published a response from art collectors Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy, and Amalia Dayan, condemning the letter’s “one-sided view.” A line was then added to the open letter expressing “revulsion at the horrific massacres of 1400 people in Israel conducted by Hamas on October 7th.”

A response from a group of Israeli artists was also launched. In this petition, which according to Hyperallergic was first published in the Israeli art magazine Erev Rav, the following claim was made about the open letter: “By ignoring the rights of all who live in Israel, it is as if those who signed the letter are dehumanizing all of those who live in Israel, the 9 million people who have a right to exist.” Among the signatories were Israeli artists Ronen Eidelman, Yonatan Amir, Ilit Azoulay, Yael Bartana, and Zoya Cherkassky, as well as international artists such as Hito Steyerl and Zoe Buckman.

According to the New York Times, campaigns were organised on WhatsApp to persuade advertisers to end their cooperation with Artforum. On 25 October, Hyperallergic wrote that it had been in contact with a number of artists, including those who signed the open letter, who had received threatening phone calls from collectors and gallerists after expressing support for Palestine. In an article published on 26 October, The Intercept reported that the high-profile collector Martin Eisenberg had contacted artists who had signed the letter, and from whom he had previously bought works, to express his displeasure.

According to The Intercept, Velasco’s dismissal came shortly after he was summoned to a meeting with Jay Penske, the owner of Penske Media Corporation, which recently acquired Artforum. Before Velasco was fired, he was defended by a group of artists in a letter to Penske, according to the New York Times. In the letter, they wrote that Velasco had established a “fearless and uncompromising vision” for the journal, and that his leadership of Artforum is “needed now more than ever.”

Artforum has so far made no comments about Velasco’s dismissal. But 26 October saw the publication of a statement from the publishers, who wrote that the open letter was shared on Artforum’s website and social platforms without their prior knowledge or that of “senior members of the editorial team,” adding that the letter had been widely misinterpreted as a statement from the journal. According to Danielle McConnell and Kate Koza, who signed the statement on behalf of the publishers, the publication of the letter was “not consistent with Artforum’s editorial process.” They stated that if “the appropriate members of the editorial team” had been consulted, the letter would have been presented as “a news item with the relevant context.”

“I have no regrets,” Velasco told the New York Times. He added that he was disappointed that a magazine which he believes has “always stood for freedom of expression and the voices of artists” had “bent to outside pressure.”

Velasco took over as editor-in-chief of Artforum in 2017 after the magazine’s management was accused of not taking seriously the #MeToo allegations against Knight Landesman, who was then publisher. Velasco had worked for Artforum since 2005, when he joined the magazine as an editorial assistant.

He told The Intercept that Artforum had been his life and that he had “given everything” to the magazine. “I have done nothing but exceptional work at the magazine for 18 years and this is a sad day. It breaks my heart,” Velasco said.

On 27 October, the New York Times reported that following the firing of Velasco, at least four other Artforum editors had resigned: Zack Hatfield, a senior editor; Emily LaBarge, a freelance editor; Kate Sutton, an associate editor; and Chloe Wyma, a senior editor. Nearly fifty Artforum employees and contributors have signed a letter demanding that Velasco be reinstated.

In addition, several artists said they would boycott the publication. Nicole Eisenman and Nan Goldin are among those who have criticised Penske for terminating Velasco, and both told the New York Times that they would no longer work with Artforum.

“I have never lived through a more chilling period,” Goldin said, “people are being blacklisted. People are losing their jobs.” Eisenman, for her part, expressed resentment over “these cowardly bullying and blackmail campaigns to distract everyone in the art world from the central demand of the letter, which was: cease-fire!”

Note: This is a translated and updated version of an article originally published in Norwegian on 27 October 2023.