Susanne Pommer/shutterstock
Susanne Pommer/shutterstock

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art joined several museums in considering the sale of some artwork to cover financial gaps left by the COVID-19 pandemic, around $150 million in lost revenues in the case of the Met. Such institutions are looking to take advantage of last year’s decision by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), allowing the deaccessioning of work to help pay for care of collections, without fear of penalty, until April 2022.

Artnet’s Eileen Kinsella wrote that “many have found the Met’s announcement particularly bruising considering it has an endowment of $3.3 billion and a number of billionaires on its board.” The implication here is that if the Met dipped into its endowment and trustees made some generous contributions, its leaders wouldn’t have to consider a plan that’s been met with animosity from art professionals and the public.

The Met’s chief communications officer Ken Weine told me that museum leaders did, in fact, pursue such options in response to the shortfall. The museum redirected $25 million of the endowment proceeds to pay for annual operating costs, and trustees set up and contributed to a $35 million COVID-19 emergency relief fund for “unrestricted funds to use for operating purposes,” he said.

But for some critics, that’s not enough. In early February, the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight called the emergency fund, which was $25 million at the time, “pathetic.” A month later, writer Taylor Green submitted a petition demanding the Met halt its deaccessioning plan while calling on trustees “to do the job they signed up for: to give, to support the institution.”

The Met’s are not the only trustees drawing criticism. Employees at the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMoMA) and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA) questioned trustees’ commitment to equity after failing to avert layoffs that disproportionately affected employees of color. These debates are part of a broader conversation around what many consider to be billionaire donors’ middling philanthropic response to a crisis that disproportionately affected low-wage workers and communities of color.

Trustees, museum representatives say, have provided institutions with critical support during an unprecedented crisis. Detractors contend they have an obligation to do more, especially as their wealth has surged across the past 12 months. As museum leaders continue to contemplate deaccessioning plans in an effort to crawl out of a pandemic-sized financial hole, it’s a debate that’s unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

“Donors have literally built the Met”

When the Met floated its plan in mid-February, Artnet’s Brian Boucher asked director Max Hollein whether this is “the kind of instance, when you go to the trustees and say, ‘If ever you wanted to be the hero, now would be the time?’” Hollien responded by saying that “one needs to see this in a bigger perspective,” citing trustees’ contributions to the Met’s annual fund, major capital projects, and emergency fund.

Weine elaborated on this idea during our chat. “We come from a starting place that our donors have literally built the Met, for which we are incredibly thankful,” he said, noting that the museum gets 9% of its operating budget from the city of New York, and “but for a periodic infrastructure gift from the state and federal governments, essentially no other government funding.”

Donors “built the entire collection of 1.5 million works and the 2 million square-foot building that is the largest art museum in the world,” and helped grow the Met’s endowment to over $3 billion, Weine said. “It’s years like this you realize the importance of that because half of our $300 million operating budget comes from the annual endowment proceeds.”

Still, there have always been limits to donors’ support, even pre-pandemic, as Ian Alteveer, the Met’s curator of modern and contemporary art, pointed out to the New York Times. “We’re facing a huge budget deficit,” he said. “We’ve tried for years to get more robust funding for conservation, one of the prime things related to collections care.”

The Met isn’t alone. Last year, the Brooklyn Museum sold off more than 20 works to create a fund to take care of work in perpetuity. Director Anne Pasternak told ARTNews’ Andrew Russeth that, while her board had been generous during the pandemic, “we don’t have donors who want to endow conservation positions.”

Billionaires on the board

When ARTNews asked Pasternak why trustees can’t step up now, she responded with a question of her own. “We’re public institutions. Why is it that a handful of people are expected to carry the burden of a public institution that they didn’t create?”

One answer is that the handful of people in question have the resources required to carry that burden. The typical museum funding model is predicated on the idea that institutions need affluent and connected trustees who can meet annual board giving minimums, fund renovations, and compel their wealthy friends to give.

According to a Times report in 2019, some 40% of the more than 500 people who served on the boards of America’s most popular museums at the time either worked in finance or derived their wealth from it. Also in 2019, author Michael Massing found that of the MoMA’s 51 trustees who had a vote, at least 45 worked in “finance, the corporate world, real estate or law, or [were] the heirs or spouses of the superrich.”

Last November, the Met announced the election of two board co-chairs—lawyer Candace K. Beinecke and the multi-billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James, executive vice chairman of Blackstone, the global asset management firm.

The makeup of institutions’ boards is no accident. Annual giving minimums, sometimes in the millions of dollars, often shut out less affluent (and more diverse) individuals from the ranks of elective trustees.

Disproportionately impacted

Critics have been asking why wealthy trustees haven’t stepped up philanthropically to avoid the selling off of artwork. But museum employees concerned about rent, health insurance premiums, and depleted savings have been asking them to do so for close to a year.

In April 2020, the SFMoMA laid off 135 on-call workers, most of whom were low-wage and racially diverse frontline staff, reported Hyperallergic’s Valentina Di Lisca. A few weeks later, workers penned an open letter to director Neal Benezra and the board, asking them to retain the museum’s remaining staff.

“SFMOMA’s workers continue to ask the questions that have resounded across the cultural sector for weeks,” Di Lisca wrote, like, “why aren’t their wealthy benefactors, to whom a handful of millions represents a minimal fraction of their assets, helping sustain them?” The letter noted that if 60 of the museum’s 72 board members gave $50,000, “we would have an estimated $3,000,000 funds to pay staff.”

The SFMoMA board includes billionaires Mimi L. Haas, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and her son Robert, who chairs the museum and the Gap. Other trustees include former Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich and former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. With a net worth of $10.5 billion, chair emeriti Charles Schwab oversaw the museum’s $610 million capital campaign, which wrapped in 2015.

The board passed on the workers’ proposal, and SFMoMA announced a second round of layoffs. With a projected total shortfall of $26 million, a spokesperson called the layoffs “necessary.”

Last summer also found the SFMoMA navigating the fallout of having censored an Instagram comment made by a former staffer alleging institutional racism. In September, the museum live-streamed a “Sunshine Meeting” in which trustees unveiled a revamped diversity and inclusion plan. Vice-chair Diana Nelson noted that representation of people of color on the museum’s board increased from 19% in 2019 to 25% in 2020.

Addressing the trustees, former employee Jessalyn Aaland questioned the museum’s next round of furloughs. “It’s disingenuous to announce a 20% furlough for employees at the same time the museum is talking about all this work about diversity and equity,” Aaland said, as reported by Hyperallergic. “The people who will be disproportionally impacted are people of color and working-class people at the museum.”

The museum did not respond to IP’s request for comment, but Benezra (who stepped down in February) told the Times that, “Like many other cultural institutions, we have had to confront issues of racial injustice at SFMOMA… and we have learned a great deal from our staff, artists and our larger community.”

“Time to start writing lots more checks”

By the end of the month, total U.S. billionaire wealth had increased $1.3 trillion since mid-March, 2020. Any hopes that billionaires’ surging fortunes had translated into proportionately robust giving dissipated in March when Candid and the Center for Disaster Response reported that 74% of COVID giving from high net worth individuals in 2020 came from MacKenzie Scott. Soon after, the Washington Post’s Nitasha Tiku and Jay Greene wrote that tech titans’ pandemic-era frugality should “shatter the myth of the benevolent billionaire.”

The Met floated the possibility of deaccessioning against this highly charged backdrop. “I don’t know how many billionaires sit on the [Met’s] board of trustees, arguably the most prestigious and desirable in Manhattan,” the LA Times’ Knight wrote, “but I am comfortable going with the adjective ‘plenty.’ Time to start writing lots more checks, or time to step aside.”

The Met, indeed, does have some billionaires among its board of trustees, including J. Tomilson Hill, Howard Marks, Richard L. Chilton, Tony James, James Breyer, Michael Kim, John Pritzker, Alejandro Santo Domingo, and Debra Black, whose husband, Leon, has a net worth just shy of $9 billion. With that sum included, the group’s combined net worth stands at roughly $27 billion.

A disconnect on equity

SFMoMA’s layoffs suggest that employees of color frequently find themselves on the receiving end of pink slips. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. When everyone was flying blind in the early days of the pandemic, it quickly became clear that the crisis disproportionately affected communities of color. Such layoffs look particularly bad when institutions are professing their commitments to equity.

In December 2020, Art in America released its 2020-21 Annual Guide. The publication included a piece by Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA) director Madeleine Grynsztejn touting the museum’s “commitment to equity throughout our institution, both on our walls and in our staffing practices.”

On January 22, the MCA cut 11% of its workforce. “We delayed this decision as long as possible,” a statement read, “but after nearly a year of closures and reduced revenue, we need to pivot towards long-term sustainability, so we can continue to be a center of innovative and compelling art.”

As with SFMoMA employees, the layoffs did not sit well with MCA workers, “who believe that the public image of representation and inclusion the museum puts forward clashes with its staffing decisions,” reported Hyperallergic’s Di Liscia. Soon after, artist Hồng-Ân Truong cancelled a performance out of solidarity with laid-off staff, and MCA Accountable, a collective comprised primarily of workers of color, launched a GoFundMe relief fund.

Heroes wanted

MCA Accountable’s GoFundMe page has raised $36,000 and change since its launch. Not bad, but a sum that is dwarfed by the combined fortunes of MCA’s billionaire trustees, which include Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Robert H. Defares, life trustee Penny Pritzker, Giving Pledge signatory Liz Lefkofsky, and Helen Zell, wife of businessman Samuel Zell, whose net worth stands at $5.3 billion.

On March 12, Artnet’s Boucher reported that a group of artists withdrew their work from an MCA exhibition “to protest the museum’s layoffs of more than 40 staffers in January.” The group previously met with Grynsztejn to make a series of demands, Boucher wrote, “including public apologies to laid-off staffers of color, the adoption of progressive standards for compensating artists who participate in exhibitions, and a restructuring of museum leadership.”

Could the museum’s trustees have preempted a public relations debacle by scrounging up a few million to keep its employees on payroll? Perhaps. At the very least, it would have engendered a ton of goodwill by backing up the museum’s commitment to equity with cold, hard cash. (The museum did not respond to IP’s request for comment.)

In a statement to Artnet News, the museum expressed disappointment at the artists’ withdrawal, while recognizing and respecting their decision. “We take seriously our mission to welcome all communities and we are constantly working to improve,” the statement read. “We know that the MCA has more work to do to become an equitable institution.”