What The Sacklers And Museum Boards Tell Us About Toxic Philanthropy In The Art World

This article was published on Hong Kong art media CoBo Social on 26 January 2021.

Even before the pandemic, philanthropy as a whole has been “dominated” by high net worth individuals (HNWI). Reportedly, giving by small donors declined over the last two decades, with an increase in donations spearheaded by mega-donors and mega gifts over US$300 million.

This trend of fewer but richer individuals driving donations is definitely visible in the art world. This is an alarming development for various reasons, mainly because of the relationship that exists between arts organisations and HNWIs or corporations, facilitated by donations and sponsorships.

According to Deborah Fisher, Executive Director of A Blade of Grass, a well-known New York-based non-profit dedicated to promoting socially engaged art, which let go of its staff and ended its flagship fellowship program last year, “[Unlike most non-profits], the business model for an average arts non-profit is more shaky because it has a lot of cognitive dissonance embedded in it.”

Fisher pointed out, “We simultaneously need substantial support from individual donors, who need things like social capital, or to increase the value of their collections.”

Her observation emphasises the type of reciprocal exchange expected by most HNW donors, even with non-profit entities. One of the most damning text messages published recently fleshing out this problematic relationship, involved members of the Sackler family and Dia Art Foundation, an internationally renowned contemporary arts non-profit with spaces all across New York.

These WhatsApp messages were exchanged from October 2017 to June 2019, when the family were facing increasing pressure for their company Purdue Pharma producing OxyContin, the drug behind the US opioid crisis. The messages were made public due to Purdue’s ongoing bankruptcy litigation, following the company pleading guilty and settling for US$8.3 billion last year.

“I just spoke to head of communications at (the Dia Art Foundation),” wrote Marissa Sackler, granddaughter of former Chief Executive of Purdue Pharma Mortimer D. Sackler, in a message from October 2017. She stated that a New York Times reporter was contacting art institutions for an article about their connections to the family. “Dia shares PR representation with the Tate and a number of other art institutes who’ve been contacted. They are all planning to give short positive statements about us being supporters of theirs.”

A year prior, Dia Art Foundation announced that it had created the Sackler Institute, “following a gift from the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation.” The Sacklers had also made similar donations to the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History.

The lengthy WhatsApp thread shows how the Sacklers used their pre-existing donor-recipient relationships with high profile cultural institutions, as well as their accompanying PR ecosystem, to push back against increasing awareness of their involvement in the opioid crisis. Nonetheless, following intense public outcry and protests led by artist Nan Goldin, a large number of major museums and universities announced in 2019 they would no longer accept Sackler money, some even removing the family name from their walls.

Yet, even with recurring cases of insurmountable evidence, litigation and public outcry such as the Sacklers, British Petroleum and Warren Kanders, the art world still continues to possess a soft spot for toxic philanthropy, even today.

Just last month, Ukrainian-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik donated US$13.7 million to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, to help fund the renovation of the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House.

Blavatnik has made quite a name for himself as a supporter of the arts, giving more than US$68 million towards Tate Modern’s extension and donating US$6.8 million to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2016. Yet, this very same individual, with the new wing in Tate Modern named after him and a suite of galleries in the Courtauld to follow suit, also donated US$1 million to former US President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee in 2016.

There is clearly a collective failure to recognise that individuals and organisations able to donate vast amounts of money and art are the very same people and entities wielding increasing power over politics, education, healthcare, finance and more, often creating the very fiscal inequality and social fragmentation they are purporting to salve with arts and culture.

This wilful ignorance is most emblematic with museums and their dependence on trustees and boards members, especially in the US. American museums tend to rely heavily on board members for “upward of one-fifth of their annual budgets”, with board admission amounting to millions of dollars and annual donations of six figures to keep a seat. In return for their donations, “board members …. get a boost in status, rare access to artists and curators as well as the public recognition that comes with giving back.”

Most worryingly, “40 percent of the more than 500 people who sit on the boards of America’s most popular art museums either work in the finance industry or derive their wealth from it. Many other trustees owe their wealth to real estate or profits from the energy industry, including oil and gas.”

This overreliance on HNWIs in society is an issue analysed in Winners Take All, a New York Times best-selling book by Anand Giridharadas. In an interview with Business Insider, he said, “We don’t need the richest and most powerful people in the society to give more. We need them to take less. We don’t need them to make a difference. We need them to stop making a killing at the society’s expense. We don’t need them to increase their generosity. We need them to reduce their complicity and injustice.”

For an example of the uber-wealthy in the art world taking more from society than necessary, look no further than the Board of Trustees at the Guggenheim.

In the first week of January 2021, it was reported that Florida authorities would be investigating allegations that MorseLife, an assisted living and healthcare company, administered coronavirus vaccines to wealthy donors and members of Palm Beach Country Club, along with residents and employees of its upscale nursing home. Real estate developer William L. Mack, who runs MorseLife with his brother David Mack, is also Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Guggenheim.

While some may argue the examples above are just a few bad apples, being rich does not necessarily mean one is inherently selfish and mega donations are not always a cover for nefarious actions and connections, surely the net worth of billionaires growing by nearly US$1 trillion during the pandemic in 2020 is evidence enough of the primordial nature of wealth and privilege.

As for those who argue that toxic philanthropy is only a problem in the US and UK, the symbiotic pandering between HNWIs and cultural institutions in various parts of Asia, fuelled by a collective hunger to make their mark in the international art scene, might very well put the West to shame.

Playing out across the globe in its varying iterations, the financial manipulations by HNWIs and mega corporations in the name of philanthropy, as well as the museums, PR agencies and relevant arts organisations that enable such machinations, need to be brought to light. In disentangling this financial toxicity from the arts ecosystem, the art world could find a way to rewire the socially ingrained mindset of giving solely for the sake of taking.

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