Gund Sells Painting to Start Criminal Justice Reform Fund

Agnes Gund has started a criminal justice reform fund with the proceeds from the sale of a Lichtenstein work.

Agnes Gund has founded the Art for Justice Fund, to provide funding for criminal justice reform initiatives. Photo: Shutterstock

Philanthropist Agnes Gund, a former president of the Museum of Modern Art, sold one of her most valuable paintings to provide seed funding for a nonprofit criminal justice reform fund.

Roy Lichtenstein’s “Masterpiece” hung on Gund’s mantel until she sold the piece in January for $165 million, including fees. Most of that money—$100 million—went to establish the Art for Justice Fund, which supports criminal justice reform and seeks to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.

“This is one thing I can do before I die,” Gund told the New York Times. “This is what I need to do.”

The Ford Foundation, which will administer the fund along with Rockefeller Philanthropic Associates, has joined Gund in asking other collectors to donate to the fund, with the goal of raising another $100 million over the next five years.

“The larger idea is to raise money among a community of art collectors that they can use their influence and their collections to advance social justice,” said Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. “Art has meaning on a wall, but it also has meaning when it is monetized.”

The founding donors—people who have already committed to the fund—include Laurie M. Tisch, a chairwoman of the Whitney Museum; Kenneth I. Chenault, CEO of American Express, and his wife, Kathryn; philanthropist Jo Carole Lauder; financier Daniel S. Loeb; and Whitney trustee Brooke Neidich.

Tisch will contribute $500,000 in proceeds from a Max Weber painting she recently sold. “It’s ambitious, but when Aggie puts in $100 million, that’s a real signal that it’s important and I’m happy to be a part of it,” Tisch said.

“There’s long been this criticism that people who have the means to acquire fine art are allowed to surround themselves with beautiful things while they are unwilling to look at the ugly realities that sometimes shape a community or a culture or a country,” said Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson. “Using this art to actually respond to over-incarceration or racial inequality or social injustice is a powerful idea.”

Walker says participation in the fund doesn’t require people to sell art works; any types of contributions are welcome.

Over the next five years (2017-2022), the Art for Justice Fund will support innovative advocacy and interventions aimed at safely cutting the prison population in states with the highest rates of incarceration, and strengthening education and employment opportunities for people leaving prison. It will also support a few artistic initiatives that enable artists to “bear witness to the injustices of the system and speak to the potential of people enmeshed in it,” the Art for Justice Fund website reads.

Criminal justice has not been a particularly popular venue for philanthropic funding. Stevenson hopes that the Art for Justice fund not only provides funding for prison reform efforts but that it will “help energize some long-overdue reform efforts.”

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