Agnes Gund has quite the impressive résumé. She is President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Chairwoman of both its International Council as well as MoMA PS1. She is also a renowned collector, philanthropist and arts patron, having amassed a star-studded collection of modern and contemporary art. She has served on many boards, ranging from the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio to London’s Royal Academy. Gund, who is now 81, juggles all that with being a vocal social justice activist and her latest fight is US prison reform.
Arguably her boldest move was three years ago when she sold her 1962 Roy Lichtenstein painting, “Masterpiece”, and donated $100 million of the proceeds to start a fund, Art for Justice, in support for criminal justice reform. Her daughter’s documentary feature about her mother, “Aggie”, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week, highlighted how that decision came to be.
Agnes Gund was deeply inspired by Ava DuVernay’s award-winning documentary about mass incarceration, “13,” and decided to take the dramatic action as a result.
“She saw that film and was so moved by it, and said, ‘I am not doing enough’, and she literally went home, chose this painting and said, ‘I am going to turn this painting into money for criminal justice reform.”
In an Interview with TheWrap, Agnes Gund explained that the painting has been in her collection for 40 years now and that she had been close friends with both Roy Lichtenstein and his wife for decades. She explained that she held a deep personal connection to criminal justice issues since they disproportionately affect the African American community. “I have six grandchildren that are black,” she added, “and I should do something about that given the little I could give to it.”
Her fund’s goals include bail reform, reduction of excessive sentences for non-violent offences, and supporting re-entry into society after release. Support for the fund has been gathering great momentum with Mark Bradford being the latest high profile artist to donate over $1m in proceeds from his work at Frieze LA 2019 to the cause.
In the 1970s, Gund started Studio in a School, a successful nonprofit that brought arts education to public schools all over New York City. It is estimated to have reached 850,000 students to date and counting. In the 90s, she served as the president of the Museum of Modern Art and her time there is often considered to be the museum’s “golden era,” according to Bob Colacello, the Andy Warhol biographer, who sits on the boards of numerous arts organizations.
Whenever she is asked why she chooses to be a philanthropist, her answer is always the same: “guilt.” When asked how she chose the Lichtenstein from her star-studded collection, she simply remarked that she had nothing else to give. “Most of my collection is already given, or promised, to about nine museums after I die.” Her collection boasts names like Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Joseph Cornell. She has also collected more contemporary names like Christo and Rachel Whiteread.