Doubtful museums and donors | Apollo Review

The American philanthropic system of rewarding private support with tax deductions has long traded donor recognition for major gifts. The presence of prominently engraved names is common on the facades of museum buildings, entrances to galleries and even public restrooms. State-supported cultural institutions, including those in the UK, were once less dependent on this form of recognition, but the trend has accelerated since the opening of the Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery a year ago. two decades.

Exchanging visibility for money is now increasingly difficult, as revelations of alleged or documented transgressions by the wealthy abound on social media. The resulting brilliance is sure to have a dampening effect on future giving from individuals or families whose wealth derives from practices now considered unethical or otherwise problematic. Museums and boards linked to fossil fuel companies, for example, have long been the target of criticism – but protests that once focused on institutions have now turned personal, targeting individual executives and the well-to-do.

A simple but surprising form of empowerment emerged in May 2019: an online spreadsheet titled “Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019”, which revealed self-reported – mostly paltry – salaries at dozens of museums. of American art. . This humble spreadsheet was actually a declaration of independence from a culture of courteous bullying. Emboldened by such acts of advocacy, critics spoke out with less fear of recrimination, and the distinguished veneer of art museums was forever cracked. Condemnations of privilege and excess, whispered before, are suddenly heard everywhere.

The payroll spreadsheet emerged months after artist Nan Goldin led protests against the Sackler family’s support of museums, funded in part by the addictive drug OxyContin. The Harvard Art Museums, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler Galleries and the Louvre have all been publicly humiliated.

Protests outside and inside the Whitney Museum in 2019 led to the resignation of its administrator Warren B. Kanders, CEO of Safariland, a maker of law enforcement and military supplies. More recently, a wave of unionization has transformed workplaces from museums from Boston to Philadelphia to the Whitney, the New Museum and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with union campaigns spreading west to Art Institute of Chicago.

The latest concession to protest is the Met’s decision to withdraw public acknowledgment of donations from the museum’s seven spaces named after Sackler (and only Raymond and Mortimer Sackler and their heirs). The change is literally superficial, since there is no question of sending money back to the Sackler family.

Museums are, however, savvy on several fronts – not just the extent to which their wealth comes from dubious donors – but also how they pay people, whether excessively at the top or insufficiently at the bottom; the extent to which their staff, board, audience, and programs reflect the demographics and concerns of the diverse communities in which they are located; and their commitment to preserving the collections, as some trustees cite financial difficulties to monetize items at auction, even as their endowments have ballooned during the pandemic and their top donors have made extraordinary gains.

Brilliant museums born of scabs, robber barons and environmental plunderers like JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, seem to be immune to renaming or shame because so long s It is past that their transgressions seem distant. But new money brings new problems. It is also possible that the relative isolation of older institutions from criticism will be challenged in the future.

Given the growing practice of singling out donors, museums will become a more cautious industry, with the backgrounds of contributors under constant scrutiny and nervous scrutiny of aggrieved persons carrying placards on the steps. A partial solution would be for museums to align their endowment investment policies with their stated values, and thus recycle tainted donations. Most index funds are full of companies clearing the rainforest, exploiting workers and other toxicities aplenty. Although it was founded with assets derived from the oil industry, the Rockefeller Foundation divested from fossil fuels in 2020. But major museums have yet to follow suit.

Maxwell L. Anderson is president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership.

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