Written by Graham Bowley
The American Museum of Natural History said Monday that it would no longer host an event at the museum by an outside organization that was to have honored President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, whose environmental policies have come under fire.
The announcement followed days of criticism that a prominent institution dedicated to nature and science would serve as a platform to recognize someone who has proposed environmental deregulation and opening more of the Amazon rainforest to mining and agribusiness.
The event was to have been held in May in the museum’s Hall of Ocean Life, a popular space for galas. The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization that promotes business and cultural ties between the United States and Brazil, had rented the space.
“With mutual respect for the work and goals of our individual organizations, we have jointly agreed that the museum is not the optimal location for the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce gala dinner,” the museum and the chamber said in a joint statement. “This traditional event will go forward at another location on the original date and time.”
The museum acted quickly after discovering this month that Bolsonaro would be receiving the Person of the Year award at the event. The roughly 1,000-person gala is an established, annual event, and has been held at the museum in prior years. Past recipients have included former President Bill Clinton and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Among those who pushed the museum to cancel the gala was Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said he found holding the event at an institution that accepts city funding “really troubling.” Some staff members also signed an open letter to the museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter, saying that the event was “in direct conflict with the values of the museum.”
At the end of last week the museum announced it was reviewing its decision to rent out its space for the gala. Backing out seemed inevitable when, over the weekend, the museum issued statements publicly thanking those who had raised concerns and saying that, “We want you to know that we understand and share your distress.”
Museum representatives did not expand on reasons for jointly agreeing to cancel the event. But in earlier statements the museum had said it was “deeply concerned about the stated policy aims of the current Brazilian administration.”
It is unclear where the gala, scheduled for May 14, will take place. No one at the Chamber of Commerce could be reached for comment. According to its website, Bolsonaro is being honored in “recognition of his strongly stated intention of fostering closer commercial and diplomatic ties between Brazil and the United States and his firm commitment to building a strong and durable partnership between the two nations.”
It is also unclear what sort of financial hit, if any, the museum took for canceling the gala. The museum declined to specify how much money it had received or anticipated receiving for renting the space.
The speed with which events unfolded was underlined by the fact that the chamber’s website continued Monday evening to list the museum as the location for the gala.
Outside social events can be lucrative for museums. But this latest outcry comes at a time when there are increasing questions about the kind of oversight museums should exercise over people and organizations who serve on their boards, give them money or, as in this case, rent their space.
Traditionally, museums have argued that they do not apply ideological litmus tests to their donors or trustees, a position of principle, but also one that enabled often cash-challenged nonprofit institutions to accept financing from the widest spectrum of individuals.
The natural history museum cited the principle a few years ago in defending its decision to offer a board seat to Rebekah Mercer, who is an influential donor to the museum and also to groups that deny climate change.
Some museums, however, have recently taken a different stance. In several cases, institutions have said they are reconsidering their associations with some members of the Sackler family because their company, Purdue Pharma, has been linked to the opioid crisis.