Missing Patrons: Will More Major Donors Give for Art and Social Justice?

Agnes Gund (center) with Cindy Sherman and Katharina Sierverding. Photo:  lev radin/shutterstock

Agnes Gund (center) with Cindy Sherman and Katharina Sierverding. Photo:  lev radin/shutterstock

The idea that the arts can drive social change is perhaps the hottest trend in arts philanthropy at the moment. But a closer look at these kinds of gifts reveals an interesting nuance. Most of these come from institutional funders.

The list is long and growing. Creative Capital. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. A Blade of Grass. Surdna Foundation. The Ford Foundation (naturally). The Rockefeller Foundation. There are some exceptions, like the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation and its Art & Social Justice Initiative, but a family foundation rolling out a program is quite different from a wealthy patron cutting a check to a middleman to promote arts activism.

This is why I find Agnes Gund's recent $500,000 gift to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York so intriguing, and quite possibly, portentous. The gift will create and endow the Dorothy Lichtenstein ArtsReach Fund to "support programs designed to effect social change."

Gund’s gift comes on the heels of her decision to start the Art for Justice Fund in partnership with the Ford Foundation to advance criminal justice reform in the United States. To launch the fund with a $100 million gift, Gund sold her 1962 Roy Lichtenstein "Masterpiece" to the collector Steven A. Cohen for $165 million. The painting became the means to a more impactful end.

Taken in tandem, these two developments point to an emerging philanthropic roadmap for arts patrons and collectors. Rather than cut checks for risky new wings, Gund is prodding patrons to follow the lead of institutions and use their wealth to generate meaningful social change through the arts.

I'll explore related questions like why patrons are lagging behind their institutional counterparts momentarily. But first, a closer look at Gund and her latest gift is in order.

A Collector Ramps Up Her Philanthropy

Gund is the founding trustee of the AG Foundation (formerly the Agnes Gund Foundation), president emeritus of New York’s MoMA, and chair of its international council. She is also chair of MoMA PS1, the founder and board chair of Studio in a School, and co-founder of the Center for Curatorial Leadership.

With a personal collection of 2,000 artworks, Gund has donated some 250 works to MoMA, numerous works to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and has given or loaned various pieces to museums around the country. 

According to a 2014 profile in the New York Times, Gund donated $6 million to $7 million a year through her foundation with her "two areas of concentration" being cultural institutions and women's organizations. 

The new Dorothy Lichtenstein ArtsReach Fund, supplemented by an additional $100,000 from its namesake, a longtime member of the Parrish’s board of trustees, will allow the Parrish Art Museum to "engage in dialogue with local communities, collaborate on programming at the Parrish and beyond, and foster community by using art to challenge prevailing narratives."

The gift, in short, provides a model for museums and arts organizations looking to pivot toward issues like social justice and greater engagement. This is no small feat.

Organizing for Social Activism

As repeatedly noted here on Inside Philanthropy, museums—particularly large, lumbering legacy institutions—are struggling for relevance in a space where institutional funders increasingly expect a more immersive, socially focused experience that reaches diverse audiences. Institutions like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall have recently rolled out programs to meet these demands.

That being said, Gund's gift to the Parrish Art Museum looks a little bit further down the road.

In three, five, or 10 years, museums will likely juggle multiple socially focused programs simultaneously. How do they fit into a larger framework? As such, the Parrish Art Museum's socially focused approach will be an "integrated effort of all of its departments: curatorial, education, public programs, museum experiences, membership, and communications." 

Patrons as "Late Adopters" 

So why aren't more patrons active in this "artist as activist" space? Rather than take this question as gospel truth, I feel obliged to first provide some corroborating evidence. 

I recently reviewed major gifts profiled on IP from patrons in the visual arts space over the past three years. Obviously, IP hasn't profiled all the gifts in the space during this time period, so the exercise wasn't meant to be comprehensive.

That said, it was striking how few patrons gave toward socially conscious art causes. Most gifts went toward capital projects, with some artwork donations thrown in for good measure. There were also a handful of endowment gifts and donations to university art schools.

Perhaps the only patron whose approach resembles Gund's would be Michael Bloomberg. The former mayor of New York gave $75 million to the Shed, a new arts center, whose programming includes a free, citywide program that explores "social justice issues through dance."

This (admittedly) anecdotal evidence suggests the patrons are late adopters when it comes to funding socially conscious art. As to why this is the case, here are a few theories.

The first, as cynical as it may sound, involves the Freudian trappings of a classic mega-museum give. Donors like to have their names gracing new museum wings, concert halls, and elegantly manicured courtyards. Cutting a check to a museum to fund a socially focused arts program lacks the PR-friendly, ribbon-cutting pizazz. (These are billionaires, after all.)

All that being said, as repeatedly noted, the bloom may be coming off the capital project rose for many patrons. As such, many will likely give a second look to socially oriented programs like Dorothy Lichtenstein ArtsReach Fund.

Secondly, patrons—and collectors in particular—view the idea of impact through a unique lens. Why sell their work to fund socially focused arts programming when they can start their own museums from scratch and be assured their collection will see the light of day?

Yet by arguing that "art can be a powerful force for justice"—or, at the expense of splitting hairs, the sale of art can be a powerful force for justice—Gund's Art for Justice Fund should trigger some serious introspection across the collector community. Indeed, that's a key goal. A cadre of "Founding Donors" have already committed gifts of artwork or contributions to the fund, and Ford President Darren Walker said at the time of its creation that he hopes more will get on board. "The larger idea is to raise awareness among a community of art collectors that they can use their influence and their collections to advance social justice," said Walker. “Art has meaning on a wall, but it also has meaning when it is monetized.”

I recently spoke with VIA Art Fund President Bridgitt Evans on the state of arts philanthropy and on Gund's fund in particular. A collector herself, Evans considers Gund's approach a perfectly logical development. Collectors are "exposed to a wider variety of artists, practices, ideas, and social commentary," and moving forward, collectors like Gund will "direct the same passion they have to collecting to philanthropy." 

Third, most patrons like results. Giving to a socially focused fund, according to conventional wisdom, won't generate comparable metrics like, say, an increase in the total number of visitors to a museum. But once again, the narrative here is changing.

Gund and other arts funders like the Annenberg Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation—where Gund served on the board from 2009 to 2013—have embraced the cause of using the arts to catalyze criminal justice reform.

But it's also an area where funders needn't worry about an ambiguous return on investment. If the goal is to reduce the U.S. prison population, particularly for nonviolent offenders, one can effectively and objectively track progress. 

Last but not least, individual patrons lack the administrative infrastructure available to institutional funders. It's easier for a patron to cut a check to a trusted museum that do the legwork of identifying emerging socially focused programs. I don't see this dynamic changing all too drastically in the short term, but then again, as museums continue to develop more mature and well-defined programs to attract patron support, anything is possible.