Phase One: Agnes Gund's $100 Million Art for Justice Fund Takes Shape



In June, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund launched the $100 million Art for Justice Fund with funding from Gund's sale of Roy Lichtenstein's "Masterpiece."

By aiming to safely reduce prison populations, strengthen education and employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, and help people affected by the criminal justice system, the fund represented a bold foray into activist arts philanthropy by an individual, rather than an institutional funder. Which is not something we see often. 

Fast-forward to mid-November. The fund announced its first round of grants, and in doing so, has provided an intriguing multi-disciplinary roadmap for patrons and organizations looking to use the arts to drive social change.

The fund will allocate $22 million to 30 criminal-justice reform groups and education and arts initiatives that "bear witness to the experiences of those impacted by the system." The awards range from $100,000 to $7.5 million.

The first round of grants primarily focuses on literary organizations such as writers' workshops, theater groups such as the Actors' Gang, the National Book Foundation, PEN America and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The grants will "encourage artistic work among individuals likely to benefit, as well as existing artists and writers who can record the current situation, for example, in visual or performing arts, books or long-form journalism."

I was initially surprised by this approach. Most of the "artist as activist" grant programs we've covered tend to focus on visual art, and given the fact that the Art for Justice Fund was seeded with proceeds from the sale of a painting, I was expecting Gund, a collector, to embrace the visual arts out of the gate.

Then again, that's precisely the point, isn't it?

Given the sheer number of programs geared toward visual artists, coupled with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's "Artist as Activist" program's pivot to criminal justice reform, perhaps the fund's brain trust concluded the terrain was sufficiently covered. At the same time, literary organizations are often among the least-funded fields in the broader arts landscape.

Not that the fund is casting a small net. Other recipients include prosecution and bail reform bodies such as Alliance for Safety and Justice, the Center for Court Innovation, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and Color of Change, plus sentencing reform groups such as the Equal Justice Initiative.

The fund's next stage in 2018 will focus on "public arts projects." 

In announcing the fund earlier this year, Gund and Ford's Darren Walker expressed hope that Art for Justice would prod collectors to use their wealth to generate social change, noting that a cadre of "Founding Donors" had already committed gifts of artwork or contributions.

Five months later, the results are encouraging. In announcing this recent round of grants, the fund said that nearly 30 additional donors have since joined Gund in giving or committing to give additional substantial amounts.

And in October, the anonymous consignor of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Red Skull, which sold for $21.5 million at Christie's, announced that they would donate all the proceeds after taxes—estimated to be somewhere between $7 million and $9 million—to the New Jersey chapter of the Knowledge Is Power Program, a nonprofit that helps open new public charter schools.

Asked about the founding of the initiative, Gund said, "A lot of it is to do with books that I have read that have really energized me, and feeling that this is something that we really have to do something about and sooner rather than later."

One book that deeply affected Gund was The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which was written by Michelle Alexander with support from the Open Society Foundations. For a long time, OSF was one of the few big foundations backing criminal justice work. Now, there's much more support available for such work, thanks largely to the arrival of a number of major living donors in this space. Gund is the latest. 

"There are organizations that are doing a good job already, but need further funding to get going with changing things, and that’s what we want—some change," she said.