New Scrutiny of Museum Boards Takes Aim at World of Wealth and Status

Warren B. Kanders, a vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, had just been driven out by a cascading protest over his company’s sale of law enforcement and military supplies. And his fellow trustee Kenneth C. Griffin was livid.

So hours after Mr. Kanders resigned in July, Mr. Griffin, a hedge fund titan and one of the world’s richest men, followed him out the door, quitting in outrage during a conference call with other board members.

Before lunchtime, the Whitney had lost two major benefactors — the lobby is named after Mr. Griffin, and Mr. Kanders and his wife have an adjoining stairwell.

By the end of the day, Mr. Griffin had changed his mind. But according to people privy to the events, he did so only after Leonard Lauder, the cosmetics scion and the museum’s powerful chairman emeritus, phoned Mr. Griffin from a boat to coax him back.

Mr. Griffin was not the only wealthy arts patron unnerved by what had happened — the tumult at the Whitney sent a lightning bolt through the entire museum world. If board members can be forced out because of what they do for a living, what does that mean for cultural institutions that depend on their generosity to survive?

“There is a slippery slope if you get very precious about holding out a litmus test for service on a board,” said Reynold Levy, the former president of Lincoln Center and a philanthropy expert. “This can be stretched to the point where it becomes very difficult to attract and retain board members.”

Anyone who scans the financial records of major American museums, or talks to their leaders and donors, can gauge just how much is at stake.

In the absence of significant public support, some museums rely on board members for upward of one-fifth of their annual budgets. The price of admission to the boards remains steep, often millions of dollars to enter, and annual donations of six figures to keep a seat. Those boards are also dominated, as they have been for years, by the likes of Mr. Griffin, Mr. Kanders and Mr. Lauder from finance, real estate and the corporate executive suite.

How to Find a Museum Board Seat? Start on Wall Street.

Some 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.

A list of 536 board members of 10 of the most-attended museums in the United States, by source of wealth

See methodology below.

By Sarah Almukhtar and Alicia DeSantis

In return for their donations, board members gain admission to an exclusive cultural club others yearn to join; give arts organizations their cachet and connections; and provide a power base that commands the attention of public officials. They also get a boost in status, rare access to artists and curators as well as the public recognition that comes with giving back.

Thanks to trustees’ support, the public gets to enjoy Picassos, Rembrandts, Shakespeare in the Park.

But an emboldened activist movement is holding a mirror up to this bargain, loudly questioning whether the greater good is served, even if not everyone agrees on who and what qualifies as “good.”

The Whitney protests, ignited by a report that tear gas made by a Kanders company had been used against migrants at the southern border, started out with noisy gatherings in the museum lobby calling on Mr. Kanders to step down. As he stood his ground, the protesters became more confrontational, marching to his Greenwich Village home and posting his address on Instagram for others to find. Eventually, several artists withdrew from the Whitney Biennial in solidarity, threatening the museum’s signature exhibition. Mr. Kanders resigned soon after.

Pressure is building on other cultural institutions as well, with demands they become more representative of the communities they serve. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has made city grants conditional on boards’ increasing their diversity.

Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which recently swore off money from members of the Sackler family with links to OxyContin, acknowledged that “we have to be clear about how we accept donations.”

But he also emphasized that the museum as we know it would not exist without the board that props it up.

“Institutions in the U.S. are built on philanthropy,” he said. “That means a significant amount of individual support.”

Dollars and sense

At the Whitney, some 10 to 12 percent of the $60 million annual operating budget comes from board contributions, a number that just begins to quantify what trustees pay for other things, like construction projects and tables at fund-raisers. In Mr. Kanders’s 13 years on the board, his donations approached $10 million.

The Museum of Modern Art estimates that its trustees contribute as much as 20 percent of its $175 million budget. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, officials pegged that support at about 30 percent.

“Trustees are an important part of the finances of a museum,” said Brent R. Benjamin, the director of the Saint Louis Art Museum and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, “and their financial leadership is critical for bringing in other donors.”

Trustees can also bring with them practical benefits. Having the developer Jerry Speyer as chairman for years helped the Museum of Modern Art navigate New York City real estate when pursuing its recent ambitious building projects.

The chairs and co-chairs of the boards of 10 of America’s most-attended art museums

Clockwise from top left: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters (Black); via Art Institute of Chicago (Levy); Henny Ray Abrams/Associated Press (Tuft); Todd Kirkland/Associated Press (Ressler); Richard Perry/The New York Times (Wynn); Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle, via Polaris (Fisher); David J. Phillip/Associated Press (Kinder); Steven Ferdman/Getty Images (Hess); Cindy Ord/Getty Images (Mack).

By Sarah Almukhtar and Alicia DeSantis

Having the chemical and fossil fuel magnate David H. Koch — who died in August — on the board helped the Metropolitan Museum of Art pay for its extensive plaza renovation in 2014 (Mr. Koch footed the entire $65 million bill).

There is a clannishness about these boards that has produced over the years a cadre of recognizable names from the same fields. An analysis by The New York Times of 10 of the country’s most popular fine art museums found that 40 percent of their board members had acquired their wealth from the world of finance. Many board members came from real estate and from the energy, oil and gas sector. Museums have not had much success, though, tapping into the new wealth arising from tech companies, the analysis shows.

The vast majority of trustees, unsurprisingly, are white. Only recently has that homogeneity been challenged in a meaningful way, with institutions realizing that the development of new audiences requires more people of color on the staff, on the board and in the programming.

“We need to define trusteeship beyond people of financial wealth,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which supports and advises nonprofits. “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.”

Some institutions have occasionally tried over the years to vary their boards to include members with other strengths who are not expected to “give or get” at the same level as wealthier trustees. The MoMA board, for example, includes the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith; the Whitney has the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.; the Guggenheim has the artist Rashid Johnson. Although benefiting from the input of these types of members — expertise, new perspectives, creative thinking — institutions still have to find trustees who can help pay their fixed, and often formidable, costs (like security, building maintenance, art insurance, shipping).

The price of membership

For board members not invited because of their artistic or academic accomplishments, the price of entry remains steep at the country’s most prestigious institutions. At the Whitney, a new trustee is generally expected to contribute about $5 million within a few years of joining the board and then about $200,000 annually to stay on it.

When board members describe their motives for giving, they often talk of the singular importance of the museum they support.

“The reason to serve, and it is service, is from a deeply held passion for the institution and its mission,” said Candace K. Beinecke, a trustee at the Met. “Serving on the board of a cultural institution is a serious commitment.”

For some, it can also be an investment.

Trusteeship often gives board members the inside track on up-and-coming talent, enabling collectors to buy the works of emerging artists before they become market commodities. Board members also gain coveted access to top curators, whom they can then informally consult about their own collections. The benefits work both ways, since curators can steer trustees toward works of art they want to purchase for — or have donated to — the institution.

“Being on a board of a museum, you are getting inside information about art, about the art market, who is hot, from curators, from directors,” said Marc Mayer, a former deputy director of the Brooklyn Museum and former director of the National Gallery of Canada.

While some boards have grown very large, in part to increase the donor base, most are governed by just a handful of people at the top. On rare occasions, a trustee comes to define an institution, as Mr. Lauder has the Whitney.

Over four decades, Mr. Lauder, who is the elder son of the cosmetics impresario Estée Lauder and went on to run her company, has been the museum’s biggest donor, contributing large sums of money as well as major works of art. Although he has a deep affection for the Whitney’s former home, designed by Marcel Breuer, on Madison Avenue and initially opposed the idea of a move downtown, Mr. Lauder not only came around but donated $131 million to the new building in the Meatpacking District, which was ultimately named after him.

Even as chairman emeritus and well into his 80s, Mr. Lauder has continued to wield remarkable power at the Whitney, if lately on a less day-to-day basis. Mr. Griffin, when asked to explain his reason for deciding to stay on the Whitney board after resigning, provided a statement that made it sound as if Mr. Lauder was still the man in charge, and made no mention of the museum’s current leaders. “I have great admiration for Leonard Lauder’s leadership in building the Whitney into one of the greatest institutions of American art in the world,” the statement said. “I will continue to support Leonard’s vision for the museum, and am proud to serve with him on its board.”

From board member to broad target

In 1996, Mr. Kanders, a former money manager who had ended up in the eyeglass and lens business, bought part of a company called American Body Armor. It was his first stop on a journey that would remake him into a provider of law enforcement equipment and military supplies. Today his company, the Safariland Group, makes a wide variety of products including bulletproof vests, bomb-defusing robots and gun holsters.

But it was one product — tear gas — that labeled him Museum Enemy No. 1.

Late in 2018, at a time when President Trump was warning of an illegal immigration “crisis,” United States Customs and Border Protection agents used tear gas on asylum seekers at the Mexican border, firing into a crowd that included children. The website Hyperallergic reported that the canisters had been manufactured by Mr. Kanders’s company.

Days later, about 100 Whitney staff members, ranging from front desk personnel to senior curators, signed a letter. “We work to bring in artists who are immigrants and artists of color to the collection,” it said. “Upon learning of Kanders’s business dealings, many of us working on these initiatives feel uncomfortable in our positions.”

Mr. Kanders declined to comment for this article.

Also paying attention was a loose coalition of activist groups, led by Decolonize This Place, an organization formed to fight a variety of ills like gender and race inequality, discrimination against indigenous groups and the effects of gentrification. They have argued that museums, as structured today, are undemocratic, ignoring broad public interests to favor the rich.

In March, they began gathering every Friday evening at the Whitney, often carrying treats for the security guards, like baklava, to win friends and demonstrate their peaceful intentions. But their chanting — “Warren Kanders, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide” — was sometimes loud and aggressive as museum visitors poured in, drawn by the Whitney’s pay-what-you-wish night.

The Whitney’s signature Biennial exhibition was getting underway, and one of the exhibitors, Forensic Architecture, a group that aims to collect evidence of potential human rights violations, submitted a video work, “Triple-Chaser,” named for Safariland tear-gas canisters. The video suggested that by selling bullets to the Israeli government, one of Mr. Kanders’s companies may have abetted what United Nations investigators have called possible war crimes.

The protesters were unfazed by arguments suggesting that by targeting a major benefactor they were threatening the financial foundation of an important cultural institution, one that had made significant progress in diversifying its staff and its programming.

“There’s no point in saying, ‘How would you fund that,’ if that very thing is not really worth saving,” said Eyal Weizman, the founder of Forensic Architecture.

The museum determined — in consultation with the New York Police Department — that as long as the protests were peaceful and did not threaten the artwork or visitors, forcibly removing people would only ratchet up tensions further.

“When you’re engaged with contemporary culture you’re engaged with contemporary culture,” Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, said in an interview. “As one of my trustees said, when you say you want to be part of the dialogue, you don’t always get to choose the dialogue that you’re part of.”

In the ninth week, the protesters took their campaign up a notch and marched from the Whitney to Mr. Kanders’s house in Greenwich Village, where a teenage son was at home without his parents. Once there, the protesters set up a prop on the street outside: a large model of a tear-gas canister that spewed a fog of dry ice.

The pressure on Mr. Kanders grew in July when three artists and writers published “The Tear Gas Biennial” in Artforum, calling for the 75 artists in the Biennial to withdraw from the show in protest.

Eight artists soon said they would, including Nicole Eisenman, who has close ties to the Whitney. Some art world veterans questioned the purity of the artists’ position; would they, for example, refuse to sell to a collector whose source of income they found objectionable?

But the activists, who had been protesting for months, began to sense victory. They published a series of triumphant posts on Instagram, including one that listed the Kanders address: “We encourage folks to pay his ass a visit.”

By this time, Mr. Kanders had grown frustrated by the museum’s leadership and concerned for his family’s safety, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking. He was angered by the way the protests were handled, and he had not been informed about the Forensic Architecture video until the day it was installed.

Mr. Kanders’s bitterness was evident in his resignation letter, issued July 25, in which he said his wife would also be leaving her position as co-chairwoman of the museum’s painting and sculpture committee.

“The politicized and oftentimes toxic environment in which we find ourselves,” he wrote, “across all spheres of public discourse, including the art community, puts the work of this board in great jeopardy.” He added, “I hope you assume the responsibility that your position bestows upon you and find the leadership to maintain the integrity of this museum.”

The fallout from Mr. Kanders’s resignation was immediate. The artists who had threatened to withdraw from the Biennial agreed to stay. Other museum directors wrung their hands over what the departure might mean for their trustees who could be similarly targeted.

Four museum directors who spoke about their concerns but requested anonymity because of the highly charged nature of these issues said they worried that the Kanderses’ departure would have a chilling effect on cultural philanthropy. Given the range of hot-button issues, what sort of trustee would now be a safe pick? Someone from Big Pharma, from a chemical company, from Facebook?

Several weeks ago, concerned museum directors approached Mr. Walker, the Ford Foundation director, who together with Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, arranged a meeting for them at Mellon’s offices in Manhattan to discuss possible ways forward. Mr. Walker was concerned that the activists sometimes sounded as if they would like to use political power to destroy arts institutions, not reform them. But he urged 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.

“They can be proactive and establish a broad set of principles and a philosophy that informs their definition of trusteeship,” Mr. Walker said in an interview. “But we’re not just talking about money.”

Nevertheless, it’s also clear that financial concerns are not going to evaporate any time soon. Consider the Whitney’s next big project, an art installation on the Hudson, across from the museum, by David Hammons that recreates in steel the broad outline of the Pier 52 shed that once stood there.

It is scheduled to open next year, thanks to the support of major donors to the project. They include Warren B. Kanders.

Rachel Shorey and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.

Methodology for research on trustee wealth: We researched the boards of 10 U.S. museums with among the highest attendance, as calculated by The Art Newspaper in a 2018 survey. We excluded the Smithsonian museums and the Getty Center, which are well-attended but do not rely as much on board fund-raising because of government support or unusually large endowments. Estimations of the sources of trustee wealth were based on publicly available records, including news accounts and occupations as listed in campaign finance contributions, using a methodology similar to that used by Andrea Fraser, a professor at UCLA, in her book “2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics.” The category “Other” includes industries like insurance, technology, business services and natural resources.

Robin Pogrebin is a reporter on the Culture Desk, where she covers cultural institutions, the art world, architecture and other subjects. She is also the co-author of “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation.” @rpogrebin Facebook

Elizabeth Harris is a culture reporter. A Times reporter since 2009, she has covered education, retail companies for the business section, real estate and New York politics. @Liz_A_Harris

Graham Bowley is an investigative reporter on the Culture Desk. He also reported for The Times from Afghanistan in 2012. He is the author of the book “No Way Down: Life and Death on K2.” @Graham_Bowley Facebook

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