10 Major Museum Scandals Sparked by Trustees and Directors
At their most idealized, museums are repositories for precious objects and sites of discovery. Regardless of their noble missions, however, they’re also institutions with some very prosaic needs—perhaps most essentially, the need for money. Programming, staffing, acquiring and storing art, securing loans, and maintaining a building all require major and continual investments.
In the United States especially, where government arts funding is often under attack, many museums rely heavily on donations from corporations and high net worth individuals. For their significant generosity, the latter group can receive thanks in the form of a board membership. When they become trustees, donors enjoy opportunities to participate in decision-making processes: They often help determine a budget, vote on hiring and firing, and plan fundraising events. Development departments exist, in part, to keep board members happy.
Sometimes, however, the public scorns a trustee, or the relationship between a museum and its patrons. Complaints typically range from reprehensible sources of wealth and shady business dealings to preferential treatment for trustees’ collections and interests. Below, we examine ten such scandals, which pitted ten museums’ funders and leaders against their audiences and staff.
2019: Warren B. Kanders and the Whitney Museum of American Art
Art and violence are uncomfortable bedfellows. It’s no wonder, then, that museum staff, art enthusiasts, artists, and activists are up in arms over Warren B. Kanders’s position as vice chairman of the board of trustees at the Whitney Museum of American Art, given his connection to defense equipment manufacturer Safariland. In 2012, Kanders (whose most prominent role is as CEO of athletic equipment brand Clarus Corporation) bought the Jacksonville, Florida–based law enforcement and military gear manufacturer.
Publications ranging from Al Jazeera America to Hyperallergic made the connection in 2015, but the uproar really escalated this past fall, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials unleashed Safariland-manufactured tear gas on asylum-seekers at the U.S.–Mexico border. Hyperallergic published an article that detailed the conflict. Three days later, Whitney staffers penned a letter to museum leadership protesting Kanders’s position on the board.
Tensions escalated again when activist group Decolonize This Place held a town hall meeting about the issue in January. The conflict was back in the news in February, when Chicago-based artist revealed his refusal to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial due to the museum’s ties to Kanders. Decolonize This Place has continued agitating for Kanders’s removal, both inside and outside the museum, with weekly protests every Friday leading up to the Biennial’s opening.
2018: Rebekah Mercer, David Koch, and the American Museum of Natural History
In 2018, a protester outside the American Museum of Natural History carried a clever sign that read: “Get Rebekah Mercer Out of Our Museum.” The image above the text depicted Mercer’s face on a dinosaur skeleton. The visual perfectly lambasted Mercer’s prehistoric views on science and climate change.
According to BuzzFeed’s estimates, Mercer and her family gave almost $4 million to anti-science groups in 2016. Beneficiaries of her wealth (which derives from the work of her father, Robert Mercer, at hedge fund Renaissance Technologies) include the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which disputes connections between greenhouse gases and global warming, and the Heritage Foundation, which routinely denies the severity of climate change. Mercer’s name is still listed on the museum’s board of trustees. The public’s efforts to remove her, apparently, have been less successful than the outcries against fellow climate change denier David Koch, who in 2016 abandoned his own trustee post at the museum.
2017: Theresa Sackler and the Victoria and Albert Museum
Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2017 New Yorker feature about the wealthy Sackler family sparked a still-raging, global debate. In 1952, three of its patriarchs—brothers Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler—bought the drug company now known as Purdue Pharma (at the time it was Purdue Frederick). Arthur, who worked on their advertising, died in 1987, leaving a multimillion dollar inheritance for his family. Raymond and Mortimer were still leading the company in 1995, when they released the new painkiller OxyContin. Keefe detailed their underhanded attempts to market the drug, regardless of ongoing research showing how addictive—and potentially fatal—it could be. Keefe’s reporting made the case for Purdue Pharma’s significant responsibility for the ongoing opioid crisis.
Over the years, numerous arts organizations have profited from Purdue’s generosity. Theresa Sackler, Mortimer’s widow, is on the board of the Victoria and Albert Museum, while Mortimer’s son (also Mortimer) spent almost 20 years on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s board. Through the Sackler Trust, Theresa has given money to many more institutions. Last month, major international institutions including the Tate museums group and the Guggenheim announced they would no longer accept money from the Sackler family, while the U.K.’s National Portrait Gallery reached an agreement with the Sackler Trust to halt a £1 million ($1.3 million) grant. Lawsuits are still pending regarding the role that the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma have played in deceiving doctors and worsening the U.S. drug overdose crisis, which killed more than 70,000 Americans in 2017.
2015: Dede Wilsey and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Before she became a senator (and then a presidential candidate), former California Attorney General Kamala Harris investigated an art museum crime. Her office began focusing on Dede Wilsey, then president at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the organization that runs the de Young and Legion of Honor museums), when the socialite was accused of giving a $450,000 severance package to an ill museum worker at the de Young without proper oversight. Wilsey stepped down, with little remorse for her actions. “I personally feel they should be erecting a statue to me,” she told the New York Times in a 2016 profile.
2012: Robert Archibald and the Missouri History Museum
The moral of this story? Always get an appraisal. In 2006, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, under the leadership of President Robert Archibald, purchased a nearby vacant lot for $875,000. The board planned to use the land for a community center. The owner of the property, Freeman Bosley Jr., was an acquaintance of Archibald’s, the former mayor of St. Louis, and a one-time museum trustee. Bosley Jr. had been running a failing barbecue joint called Big Jake’s on the lot. In 2012, The St. Louis Dispatch reported that the actual value of the land was a mere $260,000. Archibald resigned, but his career didn’t suffer too badly—the institution offered him a $270,000 consulting fee, for which he’d train the institution’s next leader.
2009: Dakis Joannou and the New Museum
Museum trustees are often art enthusiasts with major wealth, so it’s no surprise that many of the world’s biggest art collectors are intimately involved in supporting one or several institutions. While they may sometimes loan works from their holdings for temporary exhibitions, it’s more unseemly when an institution mounts a show entirely devoted to one of its trustees’ collections. The exhibition can look like propaganda or bribery, as institutional context can boost artworks’ value—in both exhibition and auction catalogues.
Unsurprisingly, the art world was not happy when the New Museum presented “Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection” back in 2010. Joannou, a Greek construction tycoon and New Museum board member, tapped artist Guilty) to curate an exhibition comprised of over 100 works from his massive collection. The show featured a curious assortment of artists, from Dan Colen. But the aesthetic and conceptual strengths of the show didn’t matter to detractors.
“[A museum] is supposed to be an independent arbiter of taste and art-historical value,” former Sotheby’s specialist Noah Kupferman (who was working as a New York University Professor at the time) told the New York Times. “It is not supposed to surrender itself to a trustee and donor whose collection stands to be enhanced in value by a major museum show.”
1974: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The museum’s leadership was not pleased, and a few weeks before the show’s scheduled opening, Guggenheim director Thomas M. Messer cancelled the exhibition. He described Haacke’s real estate project as “a muckraking venture” and told the New York Times “the trustees have established policies that exclude active engagement toward social and political ends.” The show’s curator, Edward Fry, was also fired, cementing its status as one of the most famous exhibitions that never happened.
Though he didn’t exactly get the last laugh, Haacke did get some measure of revenge. In 1974, the Stefanotty Gallery staged his exhibition “Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum board of trustees,” which featured a series of panels listing the various sources of wealth and corporate affiliations of the trustees who’d helped scuttle his museum show three years earlier.
1969: The Rockefeller family and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
The late 1960s was a time ripe for social critique via intense, politicized performances (often called “MoMA board of trustees—the family, they claimed, was involved in manufacturing weapons used in the Vietnam War. GAAG organized a brawl between two men and two women in MoMA’s lobby that ended with (animal) blood spilling across the institution’s floor. When they left, they scattered pamphlets outlining the Rockefellers’ connections to the war.
The performance piece, titled Blood Bath, preceded another anti-war artwork that more successfully entered the canon. The Art Worker Coalition’s poster, And babies? (1970), overlaid the text “Q. And babies? A. And babies.” on a war photograph by Ron Haeberle of dead Vietnamese citizens. The exchange came from a television interview in which CBS reporter Mike Wallace asked U.S. soldier Paul Meadlo how many people in a Vietnam village he and his cohort had rounded up and killed, on Lieutenant William Calley’s orders. Meadlo explained, “I fired them on automatic so you can’t…you just spray the area, so you can’t know how many you killed ’cause they were going fast. So I might have killed 10 or 15 of them.” Wallace asked: “Men, women, and children… and babies?” Meadlo famously replied, “And babies.”
MoMA initially agreed to distribute And babies? but ultimately pulled its support. New York lithographers printed over 50,000 copies of the Art Worker Coalition poster, and newspapers around the country reproduced the scathing poster and its graphic image.
1965: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Board of Trustees and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors
By today’s standards, 1964 artwork Back Seat Dodge ‘38 looks fairly tame. The piece consists of an old car of the titular make parked on a patch of fake grass among scattered beer bottles. One door hangs open, revealing a tangle of sculptural legs and bodies—an insinuation of illicit roadside canoodling. In 1966, a year after LACMA’s Wilshire Boulevard space opened to the public, it hosted a Kienholz exhibition, curated by Maurice Tuchman, which included Back Seat Dodge ‘38. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was not pleased and threatened to shut down the exhibition. For opening day, the museum’s trustees agreed to shut the car door; thereafter, museum leadership brokered an agreement: The door would stay closed and a guard stationed nearby would open it at the request of individual visitors (provided they were over 18). The public was anxious to see the work as it was intended, and according to the New York Times over 200 people lined up to see it.
1939: Many trustees and the British Museum
Sometimes, ancient sculptures need a good scrub. In the early 1800s, British ambassador Lord Elgin made one of history’s most controversial art acquisitions, allegedly taking the Parthenon Marbles (ca. 447–438 B.C.E.) back to England with Sultan Selim III’s approval after receiving permission to sketch the structures—the exact language in the ruler’s decree is still the subject to myriad interpretations and a source of tension between Britain and Greece.
The artwork consists of a group of carved, horizontal reliefs that had been part of the classical Greek architecture of the Parthenon and other Acropolis buildings. By the 20th century, London’s grime had thoroughly coated the marble sculptures, and in 1939—just after the marbles were installed in a new gallery at the British Museum named for art dealer Joseph Duveen—the institution’s trustees elected to clean the reliefs without telling the public. But the British tabloid The Daily Mail found out and published an article headlined: “Elgin Marbles (Worth £1,000,000) Damaged in Cleaning.” The process, which probably used unauthorized copper tools, is said to have damaged the sculptures’ patina.
Press clippings from the time reveal significant public interest in the matter. “Like the mouldy bits of gorgonzola, this patina is much admired by artistic epicures,” novelist A.G. Thornton wrote in STAR. “To-day the usual parties were conducted around the Bloomsbury mausoleum, and not a word was said about any patina.” In a letter to the editor of the Sunday Times Letter, Robert Byron wrote: “For a hundred years the London atmosphere has been encrusting those once sun-kissed figures with a sheath of corrosive soot. [. . .] The lustre and the gentleness have vanished. The lumps of stone remain, robbed of life, dead as casts.”
Before the trustees could publish a report and adequately investigate whether any harm had been done, World War II broke out, and the thoroughly scrubbed sculptures were sent to storage for safekeeping.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.