Top Art Patrons Discussed Deploying NYPD Against Columbia Students


Billionaire art collectors and art-world stakeholders discussed ways to get police to disband pro-Palestine student protests at Columbia University, according to chat messages obtained by the Washington Post.

The messages were sent in a private WhatsApp group whose members reportedly included collector Len Blavatnik, a major benefactor of institutions including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Modern; tech tycoon Michael Dell, who helped establish the Magnum Photos collection at the University of Texas at Austin; Daniel Loeb, art collector and former Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art trustee; former Starbucks CEO and momentary presidential hopeful Howard Schultz, a top Seattle art collector; and Joseph Sitt, the real-estate investor behind Brooklyn’s Sephardic Heritage Museum and the Coney Art Walls mural initiative.

On April 27, Sitt, Blavatnik, Loeb, and others attended a Zoom call with New York City Mayor Eric Adams in the wake of mass student arrests at Columbia and as a new encampment emerged on campus. Sitt wrote that Adams was “open to any ideas we have” to address the campus protests, including hiring private investigators “to then have his police force intel team work with them,” according to the Post.

“I’ll be grateful when the perpetrators are dragged off campus,” Loeb reportedly wrote in the chat that day.

Minutes of the Zoom call shared in the chat noted potential tactics to get police back on campus, including donating to Adams’s reelection campaign and using the group members’ “leverage” to influence Columbia University President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik.

Days later, New York Police Department (NYPD) officers removed and arrested dozens of student protesters who had occupied the Hamilton Hall building at Columbia, renaming it “Hind’s Hall” in honor of Hind Rajab, a child who was killed by Israeli forces in Gaza. Mayor Adams said in a press conference the next morning, “At [Columbia’s] request, we went in and conducted an operation to allow Columbia University to remove those who have turned the peaceful protests into a place where antisemitism and anti-Israel attitudes were pervasive.” 

Hyperallergic has contacted the mayor’s office for comment. In a statement to the Post, Deputy Mayor Fabien Levy said NYPD was deployed to Columbia’s campus at the request of university leadership and that “the insinuation that Jewish donors secretly plotted to influence government operations is an all too familiar antisemitic trope.”

According to the Post, the WhatsApp group was started in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack by a staffer of real-estate billionaire Barry Sternlicht — also an art collector, a financial supporter of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a member of the Business Committee for the Arts at the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts. The staffer reportedly wrote to chat members that the goal was to “change the narrative” in Israel’s favor and convey “the atrocities committed by Hamas.” It drew around 100 members, many of them high-profile business and finance names, such as hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, investor Joshua Kushner, and Kind Snacks founder Daniel Lubetzky.

Some members of the group, the Post said, also worked with the Israeli government to coordinate university screenings of Bearing Witness to the October 7 Massacre (2023), a 40-minute film composed of footage provided by the Israeli military.

Hyperallergic has contacted the individuals named in this story for comment. In response to inquiries from the Post, a spokesperson for Blavatnik said he joined the Zoom call to understand how Adams “was thinking about the Columbia protests” and was not involved in conversations about sending private investigators. Sternlicht confirmed that the chat was shut down in early May.



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