[Marxism] How the Superrich Took Over the Museum World

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 15 13:43:02 MST 2019

NY Times Op-Ed, Dec. 15, 2019
How the Superrich Took Over the Museum World
By Michael Massing

(Mr. Massing is the author, most recently, of “Fatal Discord: Erasmus, 
Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind.”)

With the recent opening of its sleek new quarters, the Museum of Modern 
Art has solidified its position as one of the world’s leading showcases 
for high culture. Designed by the “starchitect” firm of Diller Scofidio 
+ Renfro, the renovation cost $450 million; that comes on top of the 
$425 million the museum spent on an earlier makeover, in 2004. That 
redesign came under sharp criticism, and within a decade a new overhaul 
was deemed necessary. In less than 20 years, MoMA has spent almost a 
billion dollars reinventing itself.

Most of that money has come from the museum’s board of trustees. For the 
2004 renovation, 50 trustees donated $5 million each. For this go-round, 
board members have again opened their wallets, along with David Geffen, 
who does not sit on the board but provided a whopping $100 million. The 
vast fortunes that make such do-overs possible raise questions about the 
composition of MoMA’s board at a time when such boards in general face 
growing scrutiny.

Earlier this year, both the Metropolitan and Guggenheim museums 
announced they would no longer accept donations from those members of 
the Sackler family linked to OxyContin, the powerful painkiller 
implicated in the opioid crisis. In July, Warren Kanders resigned as a 
vice chairman of the Whitney Museum after weeks of protests directed at 
his ownership of a company that manufactures tear gas canisters that had 
been used against migrants on the United States-Mexico border. And on 
Oct. 18 — three days before MoMA’s reopening — more than 100 activists 
picketed an exclusive preview party, calling on one of its board 
members, Laurence Fink, and his company, BlackRock, to divest its 
holdings in private prison companies.

Individual cases like these reflect a more fundamental reality about 
museums: their dominance by the superrich in an age of mounting anger 
over income inequality.

MoMA is a prime example. Of its 51 trustees who have a vote, at least 45 
(by my count) work in finance, the corporate world, real estate or law, 
or are the heirs or spouses of the superrich. Only a handful come from 
outside these gilded ranks, among them the writer and actress Anna 
Deavere Smith and the Harvard professor of history and race Khalil 
Gibran Muhammad. As has been widely reported, both MoMA and the Met 
expect wealthy newcomers to give millions of dollars as the price of 
membership. (Because donations to museums are for the most part 
tax-deductible, the giving is leavened with a sizable dose of 

Art has always depended on wealthy patrons; see the Medicis, Frick and 
Morgan. In contrast to Europe, where museums receive significant (though 
now decreasing) state funding, most American museums rely heavily on 
private donors. And, since the late 1990s, when MoMA’s current push to 
expand began, its trustees appear to have been chosen overwhelmingly for 
their wealth, and the board now reads like a roll call of the 0.01 percent.

To take a random sample: MoMA’s president, Ronnie Heyman, is the 
chairwoman of GAF, a roofing manufacturer that her husband, Samuel 
Heyman, acquired in a hostile takeover. Philip Niarchos is heir to the 
fortune of the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. Jerry Speyer is 
the chairman and a founding partner of Tishman Speyer, the real estate 
colossus that owns Rockefeller Center. Marlene Hess is the daughter of 
Leon Hess, the oil tycoon who owned the New York Jets. John Elkann is 
heir to Italy’s Agnelli family, Joel Ehrenkranz is a senior partner in a 
wealth management firm and Zhang Xin is a Chinese billionaire businesswoman.

Many of MoMA’s trustees are devoted collectors of modern and 
contemporary art, and the museum has benefited accordingly. One longtime 
trustee (and former president), Agnes Gund, has funded or donated to the 
museum more than 800 works. And realistically, without the generosity of 
its trustees, the Modern might have a hard time keeping its doors open.

Yet its dependence on the kindness of billionaires comes at a price. 
Today’s museum world is steeply hierarchical, mirroring the inequality 
in society at large. In May, the activist group Art + Museum 
Transparency, seeking to break “the culture of silence and fear” in the 
industry, published a spreadsheet featuring salaries anonymously entered 
by hundreds of museum employees. According to it, MoMA curators seem 
very well paid; people in more junior positions much less so.

On May 31, 2018, when MoMA hosted its annual Party in the Garden 
fund-raiser, about 250 unionized museum workers and their supporters 
gathered outside to protest low wages and minimal overtime pay. All the 
while the compensation of its director, Glenn Lowry, has steadily 
climbed and now approaches $2.3 million (including salary, bonuses and 
benefits) — one of the largest such packages in the country.

Among the biggest losers in the current system are artists themselves. 
With art now considered an asset class similar to equities and 
commodities, collectors are forever on the lookout for rising stars 
whose work can be bought at bargain prices and then resold for many 
multiples as their reputation soars. When the market moves on, careers 
are often shattered (except in the case of a few ever-in-demand stars).

And even those artists who do remain popular usually benefit only from 
the initial sale of their work; as its value appreciates, the profits go 
mainly to collectors and auction houses. Museum trustees have ready 
access to curators and gallery owners who can point out emerging artists 
whose work they can buy at an early stage and benefit as the demand for 
it grows. And with so many rich people collecting contemporary art, and 
the public’s interest in such art growing, museums often seek to devote 
more space to it to keep donors interested and openhanded.

The Metropolitan, for one, has paid dearly for such expansionism. In 
2011, the museum, in a push to accommodate more modern and contemporary 
art, agreed to an eight-year lease on the longtime Madison Avenue home 
of the Whitney, which the Whitney was abandoning for its new Renzo 
Piano-designed palace downtown.

Perhaps the most serious concern about baronial boards is the possible 
constraints they place on what museums can exhibit.
The Met had to spend $13 million to renovate the building and $18 
million a year to run it, contributing to a $10 million deficit. The 
museum was forced to shed around 100 employees, cut benefits for 
curators and conservators, reduce its number of annual shows and suspend 
a planned $600 million renovation of its modern and contemporary wing. 
The Met also decided, for the first time in a half-century, to impose a 
mandatory admission fee on all out-of-state visitors.

In September 2018, the museum finally managed to rid itself of this 
millstone by announcing that the Frick Collection would take over the 
former Whitney building. Another casualty of the mess: Thomas Campbell, 
the museum’s director, who was forced to resign.

Perhaps the most serious concern raised about baronial boards is the 
possible constraints they place on what museums can exhibit.

With its more than 40,000 square feet in added gallery space, the Modern 
is seeking to upend hierarchies, remake the canon and break from its 
longstanding white, male, Eurocentric orientation. On a recent visit to 
the museum, I saw many dazzling and socially engaged works, such as 
Jacob Lawrence’s epic series on the great African-American migration 
from South to North, Michael Armitage’s paintings of African despair, 
and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s chilling “The Killing 
Machine.” In one of many edgy juxtapositions praised by reviewers, the 
museum has placed Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” with its 
primitivist figures of five women of the street, close by Faith 
Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die,” a frenzied tableau of a 
blood-soaked race riot.

I did not see much, however, about such urgent matters as income 
inequality, deindustrialization or the rise of populism. Why, I 
wondered, was there not more on the impact of Wall Street on Main Street 
or the continuing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis — the root of 
so much unrest in the world today?

A spokeswoman for the museum said that its trustees have no 
decision-making role in its exhibitions, which are determined solely by 
the museum’s “strong curatorial staff” in regular consultation with 
artists. Yet a board’s influence need not be overt to be profound; 
curators are no doubt savvy enough to know how far they can go in 
challenging a system of which their trustees are such pillars. In the 
end, it’s hard to measure the impact of trustees’ wealth on a museum’s 
content, and no doubt someone will be able to point to this or that 
exception, but it’s a subject that deserves much more discussion than it 
has received.

For the superwealthy, membership on museum boards brings many benefits, 
including an increase in social status, access to other powerful people 
and an enhancement of one’s image. Steven A. Cohen offers a good 
example. As the head of SAC Capital, the hedge fund he founded in 1992, 
Mr. Cohen amassed a fortune exceeding $9 billion, but he sought respect 
and recognition as well, and the art market surely helped him attain 
them. Over time, he and his wife, Alexandra, put together a collection 
of works by Picasso, de Kooning, Pollock, Warhol, Koons and others 
valued at $1 billion.

Mr. Cohen and his firm later came under investigation for insider 
trading. One of his managers was convicted and sentenced to nine years 
in prison, and SAC Capital had to pay $1.8 billion in fines. Mr. Cohen 
himself never faced criminal charges, but in January 2016 he was barred 
from managing outside investor money for two years.

That spring, Mr. Cohen joined MoMA’s board. In June 2017, the museum 
announced that he and his wife were donating $50 million to its capital 
campaign and that to acknowledge the gift, it was naming its largest 
contiguous gallery the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Center for Special 
Exhibitions. The Cohens, Glenn Lowry declared, are “incredible 
philanthropists” whose “longtime generosity to the museum exemplifies 
their deep commitment to sharing the art of our time with the widest 
possible audience.” The value of such a statement to Mr. Cohen’s 
reputation was inestimable.

MoMA’s chairman, Leon Black, is also an avid art collector. In 2012 he 
bought a version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at auction for $119.9 
million — the most ever paid for a work at auction at the time. Mr. 
Black’s net worth is estimated at $7 billion, most of it derived from 
Apollo Global Management, the private equity company he heads, which 
specializes in buying up companies, restructuring them and selling them 
for a profit.

Some say that private equity saddles companies with debt and strips them 
of their assets before selling them off; others say private equity 
invests in companies to enhance their productivity and make them 
profitable. Both cases no doubt occur, but in most instances, as studies 
have shown, the benefits accrue overwhelmingly to executives and 
investors at the expense of workers.

In November 2018, MoMA announced that Mr. Black and his wife were 
donating $40 million to the museum and that in appreciation it was 
creating the Debra and Leon Black Family Film Center, spanning two 
floors of the Ronald S. and Jo Carole Lauder Building (Estée Lauder 
money). The gift was announced at MoMA’s annual film benefit and gala 
dinner. Sponsored by Chanel, the evening featured a presentation of the 
work of the night’s honoree — Martin Scorsese — in the Roy and Niuta 
Titus Theaters (Helena Rubinstein money). The guests then dined in the 
Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium (Paine Webber and private 
equity money). Such celebrity mixing helps deflect attention from the 
part that companies like Mr. Black’s have played in the continuing 
transfer of wealth from the middle class to the moneyed elite over the 
past 30 years.

Is there an alternative to the current system? An obvious one would be 
to substantially increase public funding for the arts in general, and 
museums in particular. The budget of the National Endowment for the Arts 
has remained largely flat for the past 20 years. In 2018, MoMA received 
a paltry $22,000 in government funds (from New York City), compared with 
the $136 million it got from private sources. In fact, MoMA does not 
seek or receive federal or state funding.

Such a position is understandable, in light of the periodic public 
uproars over provocative works, and even their censorship, such as the 
infamous cancellation of an exhibition of homoerotic photos by Robert 
Mapplethorpe in 1989. But MoMA in fact gets substantial public support 
through the tax write-offs its wealthy donors receive as well as its own 
nonprofit status. The public is in effect subsidizing the museum without 
getting any corresponding say in its governance.

In return for nonprofit status, the government could require MoMA and 
other museums to allocate a certain portion of board spots to people 
whose lives are not devoted to making money. The presence of art 
critics, historians, architects and nonprofit leaders could force 
museums to consider a much broader array of viewpoints. (Museum boards 
are already diversifying when it comes to race.)

As for more direct public funding of museums, this might seem a long 
shot in modern-day America, but the current political moment has created 
new opportunities. If taxes on the rich were raised, which most 
Democratic presidential candidates support, more public funds could be 
earmarked for museums — and for libraries, performing arts centers and 
other cultural institutions. These are popular in communities across 
America, and providing support could become an effective rallying cry.

MoMA, the Met, the Whitney and other top museums are vital and essential 
repositories of American culture, but their dominance by the 0.01 
percent makes them highly vulnerable at a time of such social ferment. 
If they don’t change, the protests will only grow and get louder.

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