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Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Fund Aims to Reduce Prison Population by 20% in 5 Years
Portrait of Agnes Gund. © Annie Leibovitz. Courtesy of the Art for Justice Fund.

Portrait of Agnes Gund. © Annie Leibovitz. Courtesy of the Art for Justice Fund.

New York philanthropist and art collector Agnes Gund announced the first round of grants distributed by her Art for Justice Fund on Wednesday, with $22 million going to 30 organizations across the United States working in criminal justice reform and the arts.

Gund launched the fund with much fanfare this past June, donating $100 million from the $165 million sale of one of her “most cherished” artworks: Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece (1962). Gund sold the piece specifically to pay for the initiative, which aims to channel the transformative power of creativity and the arts towards the country’s mass incarceration crisis. The fund has the ambitious goal of reducing the U.S. prison population by 20 percent in the next five years.

“I started the Art for Justice Fund because the criminal justice system in its current state, particularly in its treatment of people of color, is unfair and unjust,” Gund said during a teleconference on Wednesday morning. “The facts are clear: Black and Hispanic women, men, and children are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than white people.” She added that she’s witnessed “how the world views and treats them differently” through personal experience as the grandmother to African-American children.

By selling her Lichtenstein, Gund said she wanted to communicate her belief “that all Americans are linked and that art can be a source for social change.”

The fund comes at a moment of urgency: At present, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.2 million people in prisons and detention centers. The fund is aiming to “reduce this harmful reliance on prisons and jails, and instead to focus on increasing community investments in health and public safety,” said Helena Huang, who serves as the program officer of the Art for Justice Fund. Huang also works at the Ford Foundation, which, along with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, has partnered with Art for Justice to administer grants and cover the initiative’s operational expenses.

The first round of grants, ranging from $100,000 to $7.5 million, were given to policy groups, community organizations, advocates, artists, and writers. Sixteen of the organizations are specifically working towards reducing incarceration rates in the U.S. through missions that align with three of the fund’s areas of focus: “addressing bail and prosecution practices, harsh and excessive sentencing, and barriers for successful reentry into the community,” said Tanya Coke, the senior program officer of the Ford Foundation’s Gender, Race, and Ethnic Justice division.

“Taken together, we believe that these three strategies…can have a significant impact on reducing incarceration rates across the country,” Coke said, “and to do that for the next five years at a scale that would reduce prison populations by 20 percent—which is really our north star goal, with regard to this time-limited fund.”

Grant recipients range from the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, to Californians for Safety and Justice, to the Mayor’s Office of the City of Detroit. Among the grantees are four New York City-based organizations all fighting to cut down on pre-trial detention in the city, a goal that Coke noted will play an important part in closing the controversial Riker’s Island prison in the next five to 10 years, as currently planned.  

The other 14 grant recipients speak to the fund’s two arts-focused objectives, the first of which is “enabling artists to bear witness” to the mass incarceration crisis by allowing them to disseminate the realities of the criminal justice system, and represent the voices of incarcerated individuals. Among the organizations receiving funding in this first round are the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the National Book Foundation, and PEN America.

In regard to the emphasis on written storytelling in this first round, Alexander said, “we’ve focused a little more on what we think is the primary, first-level importance of the written word to tell this story and to move some of these human stories forward.” She noted that in 2018 Art for Justice will share news about public art projects that will happen in the future. “The visual arts are an underpinning animator and philosophy, the wind underneath the wings of this whole project,” she added.

The final objective of the fund is to back organizations that use art to build skills and foster self-expression among those already incarcerated and also to divert young people from prison.

A highlight within this group of grantees is the Philadelphia Mural Arts Advocates, a community-focused public art organization that produces murals across Philadelphia, in collaboration with the city. They also administer “therapeutic training for prisoners released on probation who require viable employment options,” Alexander said, and their funding from Art for Justice “will support arts-based training and employment opportunities to people who are formerly incarcerated, and a new fellowship program for formerly incarcerated artists.”

Currently the grants are awarded through a nominating process by invitation only, though Huang notes they have not ruled out a future opportunity in which organizations may be able to apply for grants. Looking ahead to 2018, Art for Justice plans to administer three more rounds of grants, in spring, summer, and fall.

Beyond Gund’s founding $100 million donation, at least 30 additional philanthropists have pledged to the fund, including a $5 million commitment from Alice Walton. Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, noted that the response has been encouraging, and following the holidays they will continue fundraising efforts.

When asked if the fund was launched in response to the election of President Donald Trump, Coke clarified that Gund’s plans began well before, but added that “the election makes this work all the more urgent.”

Casey Lesser is an Editor at Artsy.