How Links Between Museum Boards and Political Donations Show the Rot that Afflicts US Democracy

Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and political funding

The theme of this year’s Met Gala was ‘Heavenly Bodies’ and, predictably, there were plenty of them on the red carpet. Dressed in the showily outrageous gowns that are de rigeur at the event, they swivelled and smiled. Rihanna was the bejewelled Pope and rapper Cardi B was adjudged among the best dressed. Gussied up as they were, few of these stars of the Gala were the actual powers-that-be behind America’s most renowned museum.

What of the other stars, those with the USD$10 million or more required to be considered for the Board of the Met, for instance (with entry to the boards of other high-profile US arts institutions also requiring donations that often run into the millions)? Artist Andrea Fraser tells their story in her latest book 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics (MIT Press, 2018). Fraser, who has a history of making social, analytical interventions in her artistic practice (a 60-minute video of her performance work Untitled [2003] documents a sexual encounter with a collector who paid USD$20,000 to ‘make an artwork’), produces here the sort of statistical revelations that an America, lulled to the depredations of the very wealthy, tries hard to avoid. Ordered alphabetically, 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lists, museum by museum, the constitution of public boards and the puffed and coiffed people on them. Next to their names are records of the ‘other’ checks they wrote: the ones that went to political campaigns. 

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Temple of Dendur at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Erwin Verbruggen

The kicker is in that ‘other’: a record of 36,000 political contributions linked to 2,411 individuals who serve on the boards of the United States’s most influential cultural institutions. As Fraser told me over Skype this month: ‘the boards of most US museums are self-perpetuating. Existing members nominate new members, who are often social acquaintances and business associates. Through this process, boards become closed circles that almost never reflect the full range and diversity of organizational stake-holders.’

None of this would be of note were it not for the fact that the institutions, over whom they presumably exert great influence with their donations, are public institutions seemingly committed to inclusion and diversity and all the good things noted on their mission statements. It’s more than hypocrisy that is the problem: ‘In a democracy,’ Fraser tells me, ‘the nonprofit sector has been long considered the backbone of civil society, an independent ‘third-sector’ that serves as a check on both the state and the market. Participation in the governance of nonprofit organizations and associations has been seen as the training ground for participation in democratic institutions and government. What my research has shown, however, is that we have very much the same elite controlling the for-profit, non-profit, and public sectors.’

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Official portrait of Steven Mnuchin, United States Secretary of the Treasury. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

They are a slimy bunch: Rebekah Mercer, the Republican mega-donor who backed Trump and invested in Cambridge Analytica, sits on the board of New York’s Museum of Natural History; Steve Mnuchin served on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s board until he joined Trump’s Finance Committee. The two branches of the Sackler Family, the heirs of brothers Mortimer and Raymond, which own Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, have museum wings named after them in New York and London, as do members of the Koch family, longtime supporters of right-wing causes. Of course there are many museums, including the powerful Art Institute of Chicago, which have largely left-leaning boards – but that doesn’t make them more accountable to the public they purport to serve. 

American democracy has morphed into a stunted plutocracy. With the wealthy ensconced on the boards of for-profit corporations, funding political campaigns for public office as well as non-profit boards of public institutions, the rest of us are reduced from citizens with power to mere onlookers. Like gawkers at the Met red carpet, we watch, we wave and we hope to catch the attentions of the truly important, knowing all the while that we are shut out, bystanders rather than participants in the governance of these institutions.  None of the public, Fraser emphasized in our conversation, have any actual say in the aesthetic or substantive direction of the museums in their country and community. 

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Andrea Fraser talks to Radio Web MACBA, 2016. Courtesy: MACBA and Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Gemma Planell

Andrea Fraser talks to Radio Web MACBA, 2016. Courtesy: MACBA and Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Gemma Planell

Artists, too, are neutered. Fraser worries that knowledge of the donors, the politics and most of all the power they wield over institutions, inevitably risks self-censorship. Artists, like the rest of us, are dependent on the ‘donor class,’ its benevolence and its whims. They manifest themselves in myriad ways; Fraser notes in her book how the Doris Fisher Foundation, for instance, entered into a 100-year agreement with the San Francisco Museum of Art that decrees that at any time, 75% of the art displayed on its walls must be from the Fisher collection. SF MOMA is a public institution, but what the public may want is entirely irrelevant to the museum game, the walls, the art, the curators and the artists, all secondary to the billionaires on the board.

It is not only the analytical revelations in the book that are stirring. Going through the tables of numbers, the amounts of contributions, the percentages, the red and blue dots that connect wealth to political power, feels very much like trawling through the innards of a deeply diseased organism. Here is the rot that afflicts American democracy: public institutions as a convenient front for laundering dirty profits, converting ill-gotten gains to the sort of permissible art that can be lauded for its predictable rebellions, its solid investment value. 

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Metropolitan Museum of Art with obelisk, 5th Ave. & 81st St., New York City, 1914. Courtesy: Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Irving Underhill

2016 in Museums, Money and Politics is a risky book, and Fraser admits it. ‘Nothing may be more infuriating or hurtful, than having one’s good intentions questioned, above all by those one aims to help,’ she writes. Fraser is, like all other artists, dependent on the very system she is exposing, using the thin insulation provided to her in her role as an academic at UCLA to say what has not yet been said. But contained within 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics is the statistical scaffolding of America’s decline, the number and figures via which cultural production is enslaved in the service of what Fraser describes to me as a ‘fundamentally entrepreneurial, meritocratic ideology.’ Labouring at its engines are all the rest of us, a bitter and pointless donee class, voting for our wealthy overlords, marvelling at their millions, all the while complicit in our own impending irrelevance. Numbers, Andrea Fraser shows us, do not lie; museums often do. 

Main image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Kai Pilger

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon, 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, The Baffler, The New Republic, The New York Times, and many other publications.

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