Winter of Discontent for Museums and Donors

Wave of protests over sources of donor wealth engulfs museums yet again

This winter has been marked by a series of art world protests at prestigious museums in the U.S. and abroad, directly connecting the art world with issues that are presumably outside its reach, such as the opioid addiction and immigration, both of which have been elevated to the level of national crisis.

Most prominent were theatrically staged demonstrations led by revered photographer Nan Goldin against the Sackler family, art donors whose wealth originates in aggressively marketed pharmaceutical opioids, and recent protests at the of Whitney Museum directed against Warren B. Kanders, CEO of the arms manufacturing company producing tear gas that was used in November 2018  against illegal immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. In both cases the tension is generated by, on one hand, a desire by art community to articulate and uphold its own ethical principles, and, on the other hand, wealthy donors’ attempt to present themselves as contributors to society at large, as opposed to just successful players in the free markets.

In her recent academic study, museum scholar Nicole Fernandino has described the relationship between art museums and wealthy as a “juggling act.” While the combined effect of skyrocketing art market prices and insufficient public funding make the museums’ needs for big-money contributors obvious, the motivations of the donors and collectors are less transparent.

According to Fernandino’s study, they tend to fall into a number of categories that range from philanthropy, and desire to be seen as social benefactors to taking advantage of tax benefits granted by charitable contributions and increasing the value of donors’ private collection. These motivations, which tend to intertwine, bring donations that often come with strings attached. These take the form of  obscure legal documents that commit museums to keep and prominently display the whole donated collection, sometimes in the building or museum wing carrying the name of the donor carved into marble.  Museums have had to go to court to challenge the posthumous legacy of donors, as was the case with the Brooklyn Museum when it discovered that as much as a quarter of works in the collection of Col. Michael Friedsam donated in the 1930s were not museum quality or even outright fakes, or with the Clifford Still Museum in Denver, which had to wait six years after the death of Still’s widow in order to save itself from bankruptcy by selling four of Still’s paintings.

The museums have found themselves in a more complicated situation when the donor is still alive and determined to cement his legacy, as in the case of $400M donation by Stefan Edlis – a charmingly non-pretentious nonagenarian featured in HBO’s documentary Price of Everything . Edlis’ contemporary art collection was ultimately declined by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015, only to be welcomed by the Art Institute of Chicago, which opened a New Contemporary wing for that express purpose.  In spite of having Edlis, who has donated tens of millions of dollars already, as a board member, Chicago MCA has determined that the terms of this donation –  all 25 works to be displayed for the next 50 years – is at odds with the mission of a museum that is trying to stay nimble and keep its finger on the changing pulse of contemporary art.

Jeff Koons, Bourgeois Bust – Jeff and Ilona Koons ( courtesy of The Tate Museum London).

Edlis’ collection includes names like Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and no fewer than nine Warhols – works seen by the museum as representing a continuation of the modern art canon rather than  the cutting edge of contemporary art’s the MCA aspires to define within is walls. Those artists however were sorely missing from Art Institute’s collection, with whom Edlis had no prior connection, and the museum was all too happy to welcome Edlis’ collection and display all of the works – including Jeff Koons’s marble portrait of him and his ex-wife – in accordance with the donor’s wishes, thereby essentially agreeing to let his taste shape the canon of contemporary art within its walls for next half a century.

The nature of the juggling act played out between the museums, donors and the public has changed with the political climate and, while Edlis’ donation was debated in terms of its artistic merit and suitability to the museum’s needs, The Whitney Museum trustee and vice-chair Warren B. Kanders found himself under fire now for the source of his money. Kanders has responded by pointing out his contributions to progressive causes and distancing himself from the way his product is used, saying his company’s role is “to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed”, an abdication of responsibility that is not being accepted by a panoply of activist groups behind the gathering protests which is expected to escalate in run-up to this year’s Whitney Bienalle.

Among the groups supporting  the protests are  Decolonize This Place, a movement centering on “Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification”, and WAGE, an activist organization whose mission is to  “establish sustainable economic relationships between artists and the institutions who contract our labor.” The activists are calling for artists’ boycott of this year’s Biennale unless the ethico-political demands of the Whitney’s staff and economic demands of 70 not-yet-invited artists are met, namely that they should not be required to provide unpaid work in order to participate.  These activist groups explicitly root themselves in radical politics of the ‘60s and precedents such as Art Workers’ Coalition in 1969, which aimed to “connect the economies of major cultural institutions to state violence and race and class-based oppression.”

It would seem that many  donors find themselves now in similar position of salvaging  their reputations and probably none as much as the Sacklers, a family behind the Purdue Pharmaceuticals, makers of OxyContin, whose name is prominently displayed on unprecedented number of art institutions including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Guggenheim in New York, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Paris’ Louvre.

Nan Goldin Challenges the Guggenheim

On February 11, the demonstrators led by Nan Goldin brought the Guggenheim Museum to a standstill dropping thousands of fake prescriptions from the galleries, handing out fake prescription bottles, and staging a “die-in” by lying down on the atrium floor, repeating in ever greater numbers the actions already staged at the Met’s Sackler Wing and other Sackler-associated museums.  Nan Goldin, it needs to be remembered, is known for the verite-style portrayal of her downtown circle in the hedonistic seventies, sometimes associated with drug-glamorizing “heroin chic” style, and has succumbed to drug addiction herself for many years.

Her first return to the art scene, in the early nineties, has been centered on those who have not survived the drugs and the AIDS epidemics, artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowitz, and also revisited the activism of that generation, especially the ACT UP movement which brought visibility to the AIDS crisis, which Goldin’s PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) group explicitly emulates. Whereas ACT UP activists staged mass die-ins at New York headquarters of generously art-sponsoring Philip Morris company to protest their funding of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (who had notoriously labeled gay AIDS victims perverts and worked to de-fund AIDS programs)  Goldin’s PAIN repeats similar tactics against the Sackler family, who she considers responsible for the today’s opioid epidemics.

Goldin herself blames Sackler-produced and unethically marketed opioids for re-igniting her own addiction several years ago and, having survived the overdose, she laid out her motivation in a poignant Art Forum essay: “I believe I owe it to those affected by this epidemic to make the personal political.” Her main demand – as well as of related artist-driven initiatives such as The Opioid Spoon Project– is for museums to reject the “tainted” Purdue Pharma/Sackler money, which instead should be channeled into addiction prevention and treatment.

The PAIN campaign doesn’t distinguish among the members of large Sackler family, which includes three pioneering brothers and their numerous descendants, all in some way entangled with or profiting from pharmaceuticals manufacture and marketing.  Just last week, Goldin declared she will refuse a prestigious retrospective of her work at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery if it accepts a gift of £1 million from the Sacklers, putting the venerable institution in a bind from which it is yet to emerge with a position. “Regular” internal review of the Sackler grant is still ongoing.

What to make of the donors’ plight, to the extent there is one?  When it comes to the Sackler family, it must be noted that it was not the family members, but their privately held company of Purdue Pharma that has pleaded guilty in a criminal case and paid $600 million fine for wrongdoing, a distinction that Nan Goldin doesn’t care about, and the distinction that the family members themselves clearly see as dubious, given that Sackler name cannot even be found on a company’s web site without detective work, as prominently displayed it may be on marble plaques in museums around the world.

Ognjen Simic

Ognjen Simic is a research psychologist and a lover of arts and sciences from Croatia, based for the last two decades in Williamsburg, NY, where he reports on the cultural landscape.

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