MoMA Says It Did Not Show ‘Gender-Based Animus’ toward Nude Performer in Marina Abramovic Piece

New York’s Museum of Modern Art responded on Tuesday to claims that it had failed to prevent sexual assaults against an artist who appeared in a Marina Abramović work, saying that it could not be held liable for his allegations.

The artist, John Bonafede, sued MoMA last month. In 2010, during a widely seen Abramović retrospective held at MoMA, Bonafede participated in a version of Imponderabilia (1977), a performance in which he and another performer stood at opposite ends of tight portal through which visitors had to squeeze to enter the next gallery.

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Bonafede’s lawsuit alleged that he had been sexually assaulted seven times by five male exhibition attendees during the show’s run. During each, the lawsuit claimed, the visitor would “fondle and/or grope Plaintiff’s genitals.” He also claimed that he saw a similar assault take place against a female performer.

Bonafede described “years of emotional distress” following these assaults, and said that MoMA was aware that they were taking place. In a New York Post report published during the show’s run, a museum spokesperson said MoMA was “well aware of the challenges” of having nude performers in the galleries and said that certain visitors had been escorted out by security.

On Tuesday, MoMA denied that it was culpable for Bonafede’s allegations, “even if true,” a lawyer for the museum wrote. The motion called for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

Moreover, the lawyer wrote, MoMA did not exhibit any “gender-based animus” that would render it liable for what allegedly happened to Bonafede within the galleries.

“While incidental contact was expected, MoMA prescribed procedures for performers to report any concerns,” Tuesday’s filing reads. “MoMA hired a stage manager to serve as a liaison between the performers and MoMA curators. Performers and MoMA staff created a signal system to alert security in the event performers were inappropriately touched, the protocols for which were included in the performers’ handbook.”

The museum claimed that Bonafede had informed the stage manager for the show about the assaults, and that Bonafede was given the option to stop performing. He did not take that opportunity, MoMA said.

A lawyer for Bonafede did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bonafede’s lawsuit came amid a flurry of legal actions filed as the window closed for New York’s Adult Survivors Act, which enabled “survivors of sexual assault that occurred when they were over the age of 18 to sue their abusers regardless of when the abuse occurred.” The window closed in November, but according to CNN, Bonafede’s case received an extension.

Abramović’s 2010 retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” was hugely popular, and is most commonly remembered for its titular performance, in which she sat at a table in MoMA’s atrium as visitors sat facing her. Images of people crying during the performance subsequently went viral.

Imponderabilia was notably restaged for a 2023 Abramović retrospective held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The performance was retooled for that show, with visitors given the option of entering a separate doorway that allowed them to bypass Imponderabilia, and the performers in it were given access to a therapist.

The 2010 version at MoMA was different even from the original 1977 one, which featured an even tighter portal. The MoMA version, by contrast, was widened so that visitors in wheelchairs could pass through. “I felt the piece really suffered for that,” Abramović told the New York Times.

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