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Growing Movement Calls Out Elites at Prestigious Cultural Institutions

It’s getting harder and harder for the super-wealthy to find shelter from scrutiny through philanthropy.

Activists took over the lobby at the Whitney Museum of American Art to demand the removal of the museum's Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders. Kanders is the CEO of Safariland, a corporation that manufactures the tear gas used against migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A host of recent campaigns aimed at board members of prestigious cultural institutions have exposed how major arts organizations take money from, and award prominent positions to, wealthy elites profiting from mass incarceration, pushing deadly and addictive drugs, poisoning the environment, and pillaging public resources. The most well known of these fights has been the effort that removed Warren Kanders, owner and CEO of the body armor and chemical weapons manufacturer Safariland, from the board of the Whitney Museum.

These aren’t just battles over shady corporate figures burnishing their reputations through joining museum boards and engaging in philanthropy — though they are about that. They relate to the bigger problem of how elites who profit from destructive corporate practices maintain and exercise their power through striking a bargain with important cultural institutions — a bargain where these elites provide big money in exchange for the cultural clout and do-gooder status that these institutions provide them.

But as recent campaigns like those against Kanders and others show, it’s getting harder and harder for the super-wealthy to find shelter from scrutiny through philanthropy. Moreover, by power-mapping the boards of these museums, organizers can turn these elites’ strategy against them, using their relationships with cultural institutions to draw more attention to their misdeeds, rather than allowing them to use these relationships as shields against criticism.

How Wealthy Elites and Major Cultural Institutions Benefit From Each Other

Wealthy elites dominate the boards of major U.S. cultural institutions. What do both sides get out of this relationship?

Rich board members and donors receive a range of benefits. Their connections to these institutions burnish their reputations, provide access to powerful networks, and offer a status symbol that is seemingly beyond reproach. Connections to major cultural institutions and large donations to philanthropic causes helps put a sheen on their day-to-day business activities while granting positive publicity, prestige, and another lever of power.

For the museums, it’s pretty clear how they benefit: they get millions of dollars from board members and their networks. These board seats are not exactly merit-based, so they come with the expectation that the members will use their social and economic heft to help fund the museum. A New York Times report found that 10-12% of the annual budget of the Whitney Museum came directly from its board, for the Museum of Modern Art it is 20%, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art it is a staggering 30%.

While these donations and connections may help these museums build larger budgets to support their missions, they help the powerful insulate themselves from scrutiny and accountability.

While elites expect criticism around their business practices, they likely feel that the cultural legitimacy of an institution like a leading art museum — and more importantly their role at that institution — is beyond reproach. And when their roles on these boards are challenged, their networks kick in to defend them. This process was made particularly clear in the fight to remove Warren Kanders, the owner and CEO of Safariland, from the board of the Whitney Museum in New York City.

Kanders, Tear Gas and the Whitney Museum

Kanders served on the board of the Whitney since 2006 and was Vice Chairman when it was widely revealed that tear gas manufactured by his company was being used against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana.

Safariland manufactures body armor and an array of “less lethal” munitions for military and law enforcement through its different subsidiaries. Their tear gas products in particular have gained notoriety for being used against protestors around the world. In 2014 tear gas canisters were collected and photographed by journalists on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri in the midst of protests around the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Those canisters were traced back to Safariland. At the time, we released “Profiting from Ferguson,” a map that outlined the ownership and investors in major tear gas producers.

Since publishing that initial map, it’s been further documented that Safariland products have been used against protestors in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and at the U.S.- Mexico border.

The munitions business has made Kanders exceedingly wealthy. In 2018, Forbes estimated that he was worth around $700 million, based largely off of the value of Safariland. For his part, Kanders is proud of the business and industry that made him wealthy and in turn secured his board seat at the Whitney Museum. In 2018 he told Forbes:

“I’m very comfortable with our business — we’re technological leaders in every aspect of what we do. We expect to continue that. I feel good about it.”

When Hyperallergic publicized that Safariland products were being used against migrants at the border and that Kanders was connected to the Whitney, DeColonize This Place organized ongoing actions at the museum calling for Kanders’ removal from its board. In the following weeks staff at the museum and artists taking part in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the museum’s signature exhibit, signed on to an open letter calling for Kanders’ resignation.

What ensued can only be described as a circling of wagons among the museum’s elite board of trustees and leadership. In a statement, Kanders’ fellow trustees wrote:

“We feel it is unfortunate that Warren Kanders was singled out…We have an extraordinarily committed, thoughtful, active and generous Board: together we shall get past this challenging moment.”

Kanders’ own statement in response to the protest is most telling:

“While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society. This is why I believe that the politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy… I believe that my record speaks for itself, both with regard to my philanthropic activities as well as the businesses and institutions that I associate with.

Finally, after eight months of ongoing protest and pressure, Kanders agreed to step down. In a remarkably brief moment of solidarity, billionaire hedge fund manager and fellow Whitney trustee Kenneth Griffin announced that he too would step down in protest of Kanders’ resignation. Griffin quickly backed off the threat.

A statement on Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney’s director Adam D. Weinberg exposed the logic informing the transactions between wealthy donors and museums: giving money to the arts overrides harm caused by the accumulation of that money. In Weinberg’s words:

“Here’s a man who has given a tremendous amount of his time and money to young, often edgy and radical artists — somebody who is very progressive — that’s one of the ironies of all this.”

It was clear that Kanders expected more social recognition for his role at the museum and he, and his fellow trustees, were shocked and irate when that elevated status was questioned.

Mass Incarceration, the Opioid Crisis and Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis

In addition to Kanders, 2019 saw several other protests at art institutions with high profile board members involved in some of the most pressing issues facing humanity.

  • In February, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now held protests at the Guggenheim Museum over its connection to the Sacklers, the billionaire family that owns Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the opioid drug OxyContin. The family was a major donor to the Guggenheim and has an education facility at the museum named in its honor. Mortimer Sackler was a Trustee at the museum for nearly two decades. Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers are the subject of thousands of lawsuits for their role in fueling opioid addiction in the United States, where an estimated 200,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoses. The company and the family are expected to pay billions in settlements.
  • In October, organizers and activists with Art Space Sanctuary and New Sanctuary Coalition disrupted a swanky MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) opening party to call out trustee Larry Fink for his company’s investment in private prisons. Fink is the CEO of BlackRock, a mega investment management firm that is the second largest investor in notorious private prison corporations CoreCivic and GEO Group. BlackRock has over $507 Million invested in the two companies. BlackRock and Fink have also drawn the focus of climate activists over the firm’s fossil fuel investments.
  • Also in October, New York Communities for Change and others led protests against MoMA trustee Steve Tananbaum, the founder of GoldenTree Asset Management, a hedge fund that owns at least $2.5 billion in debt from Puerto Rico. The debt crisis in Puerto Rico has been exacerbated by hedge funds like GoldenTree that purchased debt for pennies on the dollar and are now forcing the island into dramatic austerity cuts in order to pay interest on the bonds they purchased. GoldenTree is one of the top three holders of this debt and one of the most aggressive firms seeking repayment.

Mapping Art Museums Is Mapping Power

Beyond the current targets of protest, there are other powerful people sitting on influential boards at arts institutions across the country who are enjoying the prestige of their vaulted positions. A few notable examples include notorious inside trader Steven Cohen, who sits on the MoMa board along with Anne Dias Griffin, ex-wife of hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin. Griffin sits on the boards of the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Private equity billionaire and charter school pusher Antony Ressler sits on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art board, while his brother-in-law Leon Black is a trustee at MoMa. Debra Ressler Black, Leon Black’s wife and Antony Ressler’s sister, sits on the board of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The map below reveals some of the members of the boards of four large arts institutions around the country: The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Click through the slides to see key members of each board.

What to Expect From the Ruling Class?

We are in a moment where the cascading effects of calling out the rich and powerful even in their “safe spaces” of philanthropy can be an effective tool for changing the norm of passive acceptance of funding at all costs. We can no longer look away from the funding source as this new gallery is being built or that new edgy installation is being put up. The Met, The Guggenheim, and others have agreed to no longer accept donations from the Sackler family. The Louvre in Paris removed their name from one of its wings entirely.

Furthermore, the resignation of Kanders shows how deeply unnerved the powerful become when held accountable for their dirty business practices. In covering the activism surrounding Kanders, the New York Times asked “If board members can be forced out because of what they do for a living, what does that mean for cultural institutions that depend on their generosity to survive?”

Spinning this issue toward the very survival of these institutions is a clever move by the powerful individuals looking to maintain their status on these boards. They claim that the museums cannot survive without them, and they certainly wish that were true. In truth, they also need these museums. Their status within these institutions elevates and burnishes their images as do-gooders, which enables them to continue their businesses practices that uphold major apparatuses of oppression and injustice.

Challenges to art museums and other cultural stewards over the societal harm inflicted by their board members raises further questions about how we fund our critical institutions. Museum budgets would no doubt be more consistent and dependable if they were less reliant upon the charitable whims of millionaires and billionaires. Yet this dependence persists because we allow a small number of individuals to amass unimaginable wealth while the institutions that serve us all beg and bargain for scraps.

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