Agnes Gund Sells a Lichtenstein to Start Criminal Justice Fund
By ROBIN POGREBIN
Originally posted at the New York Times
In January, rumors swirled that the art collector and patron Agnes Gund had sold her prized 1962 Roy Lichtenstein “Masterpiece” for a whopping $150 million, placing it among the 15 highest known prices ever paid for an artwork.
Ms. Gund is confirming that sale now, revealing that she parted with the painting (for what was actually $165 million, including fees) for a specific purpose: to create a fund that supports criminal justice reform and seeks to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.
This new Art for Justice Fund — to be announced Monday at the Museum of Modern Art, where Ms. Gund is president emerita — will start with $100 million of the proceeds from the Lichtenstein (which was sold to the collector Steven A. Cohen through Acquavella Gallery).
“This is one thing I can do before I die,” Ms. Gund, 78, said in an interview at her Upper East Side apartment, where the Lichtenstein used to hang over the mantel, along with works by Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko. “This is what I need to do.”
Ms. Gund, together with the Ford Foundation, which will administer the fund, has asked other collectors to do the same, in the hopes of raising an additional $100 million over the next five years.
The effort is noteworthy, not only for the amount of money involved — rarely do charitable undertakings start at $100 million — but because Ms. Gund is essentially challenging fellow collectors to use their artworks to champion social causes at a time when the market has made their holdings more valuable than ever.
“The larger idea is to raise awareness among a community of art collectors that they can use their influence and their collections to advance social justice,” said Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s president. “Art has meaning on a wall, but it also has meaning when it is monetized.”
Those who have already committed to the fund — and are being called founding donors — include Laurie M. Tisch, a chairwoman of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Kenneth I. Chenault, chief executive of American Express, and his wife, Kathryn; the philanthropist Jo Carole Lauder; the financier Daniel S. Loeb; and Brooke Neidich, a Whitney trustee.
“I was moved by her passion,” Ms. Tisch said of Ms. Gund, adding that she would contribute $500,000 in proceeds from a Max Weber painting she recently sold. “It’s ambitious, but when Aggie puts in a $100 million, that’s a real signal that it’s important and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
The fund will make grants to organizations and leaders who already have a track record in criminal justice reform — like the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. — that seek to safely reduce jail and prison populations across the country and to strengthen education and employment opportunities for former inmates. The fund will also support art-related programs on mass incarceration.
“There’s long been this criticism that people who have the means to acquire fine art are allowed to surround themselves with beautiful things while they are unwilling to look at the ugly realities that sometimes shape a community or a culture or a country,” said Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “Using this art to actually respond to over-incarceration or racial inequality or social injustice is a powerful idea.”
The impetus for the fund was personal. Six of Ms. Gund’s 12 grandchildren are African-American, and she has worried about their future as they’ve matured, particularly in light of shootings of black teenagers like Trayvon Martin in Florida.
“I have always had an extreme sensitivity to inequality,” Ms. Gund said.
She added that she was also deeply affected by Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” and by Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary, “13th,” about African-Americans in the prison system.
After seeing the film, Ms. Gund called Mr. Walker, long a close friend. “She said, ‘I really want to do something to help here,’” Mr. Walker recalled. “‘What if I sold one of my jewels and we used the proceeds to make grants to organizations working on mass incarceration?’”
He added: “Aggie is in the unique position of being a prominent, privileged white philanthropist who also has African-American grandchildren. So she is a witness to the barriers that they have faced as they have matured in a world that still has a narrative about expectations of them.”
Participation in the fund does not require the sale of artwork, Mr. Walker said; any type of support is welcome.
Because criminal justice “has never been very popular in philanthropy,” Mr. Stevenson said, “I’m hoping the fund will help energize some long overdue reform efforts.
“Right now in the United States, we have the highest rate of incarceration,” he continued. “The Bureau of Justice is projecting that one in three black male babies is expected to go to jail or prison. We have incredibly high levels of poverty. There’s despair in many communities.”