Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ethics and Philanthropy

As my mother often said, “In former times”, I now find myself using the expression frequently meaning, in our world before the Pandemic.  Many of my ideas of what to write about were instigated by an active art market and museum exhibitions usually viewed first-hand. Today, it is often an idea from a family member or something I have recently read about.

 “Woke” is a recent addition to our dictionary.  It is no longer the past tense of wake but rather, a term that refers to awareness of issues that concern social and racial justice. A laudable thought indeed, particularly in the case of “Black Lives Matter” where, I believe, the term originated.  But now it has spread, for one thing, to eliminating history.  I am against removing statues of our historic leaders including one of my childhood heroes.  I grew up believing Robert E. Lee to be a hero because he was an honorable soldier in the service of his people, even if his cause was not what I was taught to believe in.  If we destroy our past, how can we possibly learn to save our future. 

One area of our culture that has, so far, preserved our past is our museums.

Which brings me to the latest “Woke” subject, --the “atrocities” of high net individuals on the Boards of Directors of our art museums. No one is perfect and some are even less perfect than others. We cannot expect that only people we all approve of will support our museums.  As it says in the bible, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”  Do we judge every prospective donor to a museum on moral grounds and turn them away if we do not like the way they earned their money?  

Depending on your politics, it is for better or for worse that our government does not fund our cultural institutions.  Therefore, someone of means must, or they will no longer exist.  Miss Frick, as she was always known (Helen Clay Frick daughter of Henry Clay Frick), after I found precisely the work of art by the artist she had requested. The message was relayed the to me, “Though it was exactly what she was looking for, I am afraid, Mr. Stiebel, that Miss Frick will never purchase anything that had belonged to the Vanderbilt’s.”  She could afford to say that our museums cannot. (For this and a couple of other stories about Miss Frick please visit,

The Museum of Modern Art is now under siege for having Leon Black, co-founder and former-CEO of Apollo Global Management, tainted by his association with Jeffrey Epstein, on their board.  He has stepped down as board chair and we are yet to find out whether he resigned his purse as well.  Where should the money and collections come from?

A new book on the Sackler family, “Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe, details a complicated deal a former Director of the Metropolitan Museum, James Rorimer, made with the pharmaceutical mogul Arthur Sackler, well before OxyContin was created.  Sackler bought Asian works from the Museum’s own collection and then donated them back in order to have his name as their donor on the Museum wing named for the family, The Sackler Wing.  Moreover, he was given his own private enclave in the Museum to store his personal collection of Asian art in the hopes that it would be left to the Met someday.  My wife, when she was a curator at the Met worked with collections in three different departments storage areas and had a key to open most of the doors in the Museum but if the elevator stopped at the “Sackler” floor the key was useless. No Museum staff had access.  A couple of directors down the line and the bond was broken with mutual disdain and the Sackler collection went elsewhere.

So, was Rorimer right or wrong?  I am sure that if the museum had gained what was considered the most important collection in the field, he would be hailed as a visionary, but the bet did not pan out. Any leader has to take chances and if his or her successes are more fruitful than their failures, they are praised long after they are gone. In this case, Rorimer’s successes far outstripped his failures.

In 2019, bowing to pressure on account of the OxyContin scandal, the Met agreed to turn down future funds from the Sackler family but decided not to change the name of the Sackler Wing.  Mind you this was before the Museum had to close because of the pandemic.  Would they have decided differently if they had been able to predict the financial crunch of the following year?  Was it a right decision for the Met?  Could a poorer institution afford to make the same decision?  How would you decide these very thorny issues?

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