Agnes Gund’s philanthropic innovations

In philanthropy, there’s often a tension between the glamorous causes which rich people support on the urging of their rich friends, on the one hand, and the really important if unglamorous causes which desperately need funding, on the other. For example: the social stratosphere that is the MoMA board, versus the grim nuts and bolts of the people working to reform criminal justice.

Which is why the Art For Justice Fund is so fascinating: it’s a bold attempt to imbue the issue of criminal justice with some of the prestige of the top end of the art world.

The impetus for the fund is Agnes Gund, the force-of-nature MoMA board member and long-time president who for a few years now has been regularly faced with the kind of philanthropic dilemma which could easily crop up in a philosophy grad seminar.

Specifically: Gund, the daughter of a successful Ohio banker, has more than enough money to live on, but she doesn’t have millions (let alone hundreds of millions) of dollars to give away. What she does have is a spectacular art collection, and lots of art-world friendships. How, then, to best fulfill her self-imposed philanthropic obligations?

Gund has donated more than 250 works to MoMA alone and has helped MoMA to acquire hundreds more; she has also supported and sat on the boards of countless other arts organizations. The way the things normally work in these kind of circles, Gund would hold on to her finest art until her death, at which point one of three things would happen. The art might stay in her family; it might get donated to MoMA; or it might get sold off as part of the estate.

Gund, however, has now blazed a different trail entirely. Recently, she sold her most valuable painting, a Lichtenstein entitled Masterpiece, to hedge-fund billionaire (and fellow MoMA board member) Steven Cohen. Cohen, who recently gave $50 million towards MoMA’s expansion project, paid $165 million for the work, most of which Gund passed on immediately to her new Art For Justice Fund.

The fund is very well designed, as such things go: the plan is that it will spend all of its money within five years, because the need for money now is so urgent. What’s more, it will only fund projects which can result in large-scale change to the structures and policies surrounding incarceration in America. (There will also be some “selected artistic initiatives,” but I suspect they’re going to be a rounding error in terms of total disbursements.)

But the major innovation here is just in the imagination behind the fund’s structure. Charities make bold asks on a regular basis, but I can’t think of one which would go up to an art collector like Agnes Gund and suggest that she sell her beloved Lichtenstein so that she could take the financial proceeds and put them towards criminal justice reform. That piece was hung in pride of place in her Upper East Side apartment, after all: it wasn’t some anonymous securities portfolio. What’s more, paintings are, well, paintings, especially when they’re as museum-quality as this one. They get donated to museums. That’s just how things work, in Gund-land.

So Gund deserves a huge round of applause just for reimagining the philanthropic potential of art. It’s not like MoMA desperately needs another Lichtenstein, after all. And MoMA already has a huge endowment, while the cause of criminal justice is in desperate need of funds. Besides, the Lichtenstein is probably just taking a detour on its way to MoMA: there’s surely a very good chance that Cohen will donate it there eventually. So, in these politically-charged times, Gund, who has six African-American grandchildren, has managed to execute what William Powhida says is “one of the most effective examples of ‘political art’ this year”. Better yet: In doing so, she has expanded the potential of what art can do. Today, we live in a world where the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker can proclaim that “art has meaning on a wall, but it also has meaning when it is monetized.” That’s all thanks to Gund.

On top of that, Gund has constructed some truly amazing framing in terms of what her fund looks like to her peer group. Right now, it’s essentially an ultra-exclusive club, made up of Agnes Gund and her A-list art-collector friends. Suddenly, selling art and giving the money to charity is aspirational, in a way that it never was before. Of course there have been thousands of charity auctions of art in the past, but that’s mostly art donated by artists. What we’re seeing here is collectors embracing the idea that, especially if they own more art than they will ever have walls to display, there’s real value in just selling it off for a good cause.

This is a fantastic way of raising funds, because it effectively expands the size of the philanthropic pie. Someone might have money they have put aside for charity; they might even have their own charitable foundation. But their art is, conceptually, in a completely different bucket. It’s a sunk cost for them, and in many cases that cost is much lower than today’s present value. If that person just hands over their painting to the Art For Justice Fund, it can do an enormous amount of good work – with no cash outlay needed. And it’s not like the art is “spent”: it just changes hands, and stays just as valuable and just as important as it ever was. It’s almost like free found money.

Money and wealth and ownership are fraught things, psychologically. My own personal art collection has very little financial value, but there is one piece which is worth more than I paid for it – and more than I would ever pay for it. (I’m kinda over it, tbh.) That doesn’t mean I want to sell it. But if someone came to me and told me that were I to give it up, that would do wonders for the cause of criminal justice reform – well, that’s the kind of thing which might finally get me to part with a piece which I might have got a little bit bored with.

I’m sure my editioned work on paper, which I bought on the internet, has little if any interest to the Art For Justice Fund. Some charities are built on small donations; others… aren’t. And that’s fine. Big donations are really important! And Agnes Gund is a true innovator in terms of creating a whole new way for rich people to donate their millions. For that, she deserves a huge amount of credit.

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