While one VW division was violating the Clean Air Act, another was putting its name on MoMA programming that would boost its civic credentials — notably “Expo 1: New York,” at MoMA PS1, a Volkswagen-funded ecological showcase from 2013 that in retrospect looks like an egregious act of greenwashing.

“Volkswagen is das Auto, and MoMA is das Museum,” Martin Winterkorn, then its chief executive, said pithily in 2015. He is now facing criminal charges in the U.S. and Germany, though he has long contended that he was unaware of any wrongdoing.

Yet even after one of the largest corporate and environmental scandals in history, Volkswagen’s American subsidiary remains MoMA’s “lead partner of education.” It supports PS1’s public programming, which took place for nearly a decade in a Volkswagen-branded geodesic dome (finally retiring it in 2020). The museum has a traineeship program known as the VW Fellows, who appear in Volkswagen promotional materials and even get to visit the car plant in Wolfsburg. And Volkswagen of America underwrote the restoration of the Beetle in “Automania,” which the museum initially acquired in 2002.

A MoMA spokeswoman, Amanda Hicks, said in an email Wednesday that “VW has acknowledged that it betrayed the public trust” and “removed the leadership that allowed it to happen.” She added, “We’ve both continued our partnership and look to VW to live up to its promise to put the best interests of the public front and center.”

And really, this might all be so much inside-philanthropy, except that the organizers of “Automania” explicitly discuss polluters’ interest in art in the catalog and the museum’s online magazine. In both, Kinchin writes about the corporate practice of “artwashing, a by now well-established branding strategy practiced by the polluting fossil fuel industry.” The curator singles out Shell, which commissioned English artists to make posters of the bucolic English countryside; it also mentions Mobil, whose art philanthropy in the 1970s and 1980s was the subject of Hans Haacke’s institutional critique, and recent demonstrations against BP’s sponsorship of London museums.

For MoMA to criticize Shell, Mobil and BP for “artwashing,” and then to ignore the criminal polluters still supporting its own museum, takes a real brass neck. But some drivers, even when the future looks unsustainable, find it hard to give up their cars.

Through Jan. 2; the cars in the sculpture garden remain through Oct. 10.
Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.

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