Museums Worried About Effect of Protests, Board Resignations

Museums Worried About Effect of Protests, Board Resignations

Many in the museum world are worried that increasing scrutiny of the sources of major donors' wealth — and the attendant pressure on institutions to decline or return gifts — may have a chilling effect on cultural philanthropy, the New York Times reports.

One institution recently in the crosshairs, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, received nearly $10 million in gifts from board vice chair Warren B. Kanders and his wife, Allison, co-chair of the board's painting and sculpture committee, over the past thirteen years. In July, however, the couple resigned from their positions on the board following months of debate and controversy concerning Warren Kander's connection to Safariland, a company that sells tear gas and other products that have been used against asylum-seekers trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin, for whom the museum's lobby is named, was so outraged by what he saw as the unfair treatment accorded the couple that he resigned from the board — only to be coaxed back by chair emeritus Leonard Lauder, who in 2008 gave the museum $131 million for its endowment — a gift the Whitney recognized by naming its new downtown headquarters after Lauder.

Another major New York City institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently announced that it would refuse gifts from members of the Sackler family, whose privately held company, Purdue Pharma, has been implicated in the opiod crisis. Met director Max Hollein told the Times that "we have to be clear about how we accept donations." But Hollein also emphasized that museums as we know them today would not exist without the wealthy board members that support them. "Institutions in the U.S. are built on philanthropy," he said. "That means a significant amount of individual support."

Indeed, contributions from board members account for between 10 percent and 12 percent of the Whitney's $60 million annual operating budget, about 20 percent of the Museum of Modern Art's $175 million budget, and about 30 percent of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's budget, the Times reports. An analysis of ten of the most popular fine art museums in the United States found that 40 percent of their board members had amassed their wealth in finance, with real estate and energy, oil, and gas also high on the list of sources of board member wealth. According to the Times, museums haven't had as much success tapping the wealth created in Silicon Valley.

Several weeks ago, concerned museum directors approached Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who, with Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander, arranged a meeting to discuss possible ways forward. Walker urged the museum directors to get ahead of the issue by re-evaluating the criteria they use to select trustees in a manner consistent with their missions. "We need to define trusteeship beyond people of financial wealth," Walker told the Times. "Expand the number of board members and bring in people with other assets besides money that the museum needs. What's interesting to me is the lack of energy, focus, and creativity to figure this out."

Robin Pogrebin, Graham Bowley, Elizabeth A. Harris. "New Scrutiny of Museum Boards Takes Aim at World of Wealth and Status." New York Times 10/02/2019.