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A Closer Look Into the Whitney Museum’s Board

The weapons manufacturer isn’t the only board member with ties to war profiteering and the Trump administration at a progressive institution like the Whitney Museum.

A view towards Midtown Manhattan from the Whitney Museum (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

News that a company owned by the vice chairman at the Whitney Museum of American Art supplies the Trump administration with teargas canisters and smoke grenades has sparked calls for greater transparency of leadership in the arts.

Warren Kanders and Allison Kanders at the inaugural Whitney Collection Award in 2016 (Photo by Patrick Mcmullan/PMC © Patrick McMullan)

Such demands, issued by museum staffers and activists alike, have wrought a new moral dilemma upon cultural institutions: How can a museum finance their exhibitions without accepting what the public might perceive as dirty money?

In November, Hyperallergic published a report on the Whitney’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders, who owns and operates the multi-billion dollar weapons manufacturer called Safariland. The company’s anti-riot ballistics have appeared in political clashes around the world from Standing Rock to Baltimore, Ferguson, and Gaza. They also announced a $7.3 million sale of ballistic equipment to the NYPD in 2016. More recently, Safariland canisters were found at the US-Mexico border after American patrolmen launched them at Central American asylum-seekers.

The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, responded to concerned employees in December with a letter describing his institution as “a culture that is unique and vibrant — but also precious and fragile.” He continued, describing the museum as “a safe space for unsafe ideas.”

Kanders’s response to staffers struck a more direct tone, which aimed to separate the businessman from his company’s weaponry. “I think it is clear that I am not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve,” he wrote.

At a town hall meeting held by the movement Decolonize This Place in January, participants expressed a concern that the media’s focus on Kanders has overshadowed the perceived bad politics of other trustees. How New York City’s cultural gatekeepers spend their money when it comes to their politics and business dealings — and how these special interests may conflict with museum ethics — has become central to the debate on how institutions should vet their board members.

Nancy Carrington Crown

Nancy Crown and Steve Crown at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s inaugural “Dinner & First Look” in 2015 (Photo by Patrick Mcmullan/PMC © Patrick McMullan)

Another museum vice chairman whose family benefits from the border wall’s weaponization, Nancy Carrington Crown belongs to one of America’s richest families through her marriage to Aries Steven Crown.

In 2015, Forbes estimated that the Crowns have a combined net worth of $8.8 billion. Their fortune funnels through the family’s private investment firm Henry Crown & Company, where Mr. Crown is a general partner. The group has stock in major companies including Hilton Hotels, Rockefeller Center, Maytag, Aspen Skiing Co., the New York Yankees, and the Chicago Bulls.

But a foundation of the Crown business empire is General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors in the country, which activists have castigated for providing services to President Donald Trump’s child detention centers and surveillance systems on the border.

(Crown and Kanders are certainly not the only board members with connections to weapons manufacturing. Thomas E. Tuft, the Whitney’s co-chairman, leads the international financial firm Lazard, which invests in Arotech Corporation, BWX Technologies, Boeing, CPI AeroStructures, AeroVironment, and Aerojet Rocketdyne — all producers of military equipment, missiles, drones, and nuclear reactor parts. Julie Ostrover, a museum trustee, is the wife of Douglas Irving Ostrover; he’s the founder of the private equity firm Owl Rock, which invests in AC&A Enterprises Holdings, a maker of military equipment, and Perspecta, a provider of tech support for the US armed forces.)

Although the conglomerate is best-known for manufacturing weapons, armored vehicles, and submarines, it also specializes in outsourcing bureaucracy. Since 2000, General Dynamics has worked for the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Refugee Resettlement on “casework support services to help ensure special needs of unaccompanied children are met” and “has no role in the family separation policy, nor a role in the construction or operation of detention facilities,” according to a company spokesperson quoted in a Quartz article on the matter.

The Crown family owns a 10 percent stake in General Dynamics, and James Crown (Mrs. Crown’s brother-in-law) is the company board’s lead director and chairman. The conglomerate has a net worth of $48.88 billion and earned $3.4 billion in the 2018 fiscal year alone. In 2018, the business spent nearly $12.1 million lobbying lawmakers and executive agencies. Overall, the amount of clients lobbying on defense has increased between 2016 and 2019 by 16 percent; General Dynamics tops that list of influencers with almost double the reports issued compared to its second-place colleague, Lockheed Martin.

Historically, General Dynamics has had problems when mixing its money with politics. In 1977, General Dynamics was charged with misconduct ranging from billing fraud to securities-law violations to bribery. In 1985, the United States Navy froze its contract with the company and accused the business of “maximizing profits without regard for public trust.” The defense contractor was also fined $675,000 (~$1.58 million after inflation) for giving Admiral Hyman G. Rickover $67,000 (~$157,398) in gifts, which the Navy secretary then described as “clearly unethical and possibly illegal.” Later that year, four General Dynamics executives were indicted for overcharging the government on antiaircraft guns; the company temporarily lost its security clearance for a month because it mishandled classified documents; and it was suspended from bidding on government contracts for five years probation period.

Pamella G. DeVos

Pamella DeVos and Daniel DeVos at the Whitney Gala presented by Louis Vuitton in 2014 (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/PMC © Patrick McMullan)

Another vice chairman at the Whitney, the Secretary of Education’s sister-in-law actively avoids linking her public and professional personae to her family’s multi-million dollar investment in the Trump administration.

Pamella DeVos rarely mentions the education secretary on social media, though her daughter has posted about the family’s participation in President Donald Trump’s inauguration festivities.

A benefactor of a $5.1 billion family fortune, DeVos uses her maiden name as the title of her fashion brand, Pamella Roland. “We’ve always had a presence in Washington,” she explained to the New York Times in 2017, but her brand’s prominence in the nation’s capital has undoubtedly skyrocketed since Trump’s arrival in office. Not only does the fashion designer routinely dress the education secretary, but she also has outfitted Melania and Ivanka Trump for events.

The DeVos family has a long history of injecting capital into conservative causes by donating millions to rightwing politicians through a network of private foundations. The Detroit News reported that the family spent a combined $7.9 million on last year’s election cycle; by comparison, they spent nearly $10 million during the 2016 elections. According to federal disclosure forms, the Michigan billionaires gave nearly $1 million to senators voting on Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing, which passed by a slim 51-50 margin with a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence. (The above figures do not include money donated through nonprofits linked to or controlled by the family.)

Some investigative journalists believe there are links between this money and the separation of immigrant families, the limiting of labor union power, and the stifling of LGBTQ rights. Some have also suggested that DeVos money helped convince President Trump to shuffle his shortlist of Supreme Court nominees, putting Brett Kavanaugh’s name at the top of his deck to advance the Secretary of Education’s agenda to privatize schooling.

In 2015, the DeVos family estimated that it had donated a lifetime total of $1.2 billion across philanthropic causes. According to one analysis of their financial records, the DeVos family gave more than $90 million in 2013 and another $94 million in 2014, with most of these totals going toward education and health sectors. (Donations to arts and culture composed 12 percent [$10.8 million] and 15 percent [$14.1 million], respectively.)

Over the years, Pamella DeVos has given nearly $1.25 million to Republicans, according to federal disclosures. Her husband, Daniel DeVos, has contributed another $3.15 million. The couple has used this money to fund the party’s national committee, individual candidates, and political action committees (PACs). Each donated $100,000 to American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC whose leader Mike Duncan became chair of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 2017 and a member of the US Postal Service’s board of governors in 2018.

Kenneth C. Griffin

Ken Griffin and Anne Dias Griffin at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “American Art Award” event in 2007 (Photo by Joe Schildhorn/PMC © Patrick McMullan)

Citadel Advisors is one of the largest hedge fund management institutions in the world, and Kenneth Griffin has amassed his personal fortune through it. Bloomberg estimates that the company founder and CEO has a personal net worth of $9.81 billion. (Forbes’s valuation is closer to $11.7 billion.) The business, which started in 1990, now manages $30 billion in assets and regularly clears the $1 billion profit mark.

Griffin likes to spend his money on philanthropical pursuits and real estate deals. According to Forbes, he has donated nearly $700 million in his lifetime, including $300 million to nonprofits in his hometown of Chicago. He’s a well-known entity in the art world. In 2006, he donated $19 million to the Art Institute of Chicago for the construction of his namesake Griffin Court, which connects the museum to Millennium Park. In 2017, he gave New York’s Museum of Modern Art $40 million. And just last year, Griffin gave $20 million to Florida’s Norton Museum of Art. His name also adorns the Whitney Museum’s entrance hall. Most recently, he contributed $25 million to the Shed at Hudson Yards where a 500-seat theater will be named after him.

Outside of charity, Griffin is known for his sizable purchases of modern art. He ranks on ARTnews‘s list of the top 200 art collectors. In 2016, he paid a combined $500 million for Jackson Pollock’s “Number 17A” (1948) and “Interchanged” (1955) by Willem de Kooning, which he purchased from billionaire David Geffen. One year earlier, he bought a 10-foot-tall Gerhard Richter painting for $46.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction. More recently, Griffin broke records in the housing market when he purchased the penthouse at 220 Central Park South for $238 million, the highest price anyone has paid for a home in the United States by almost $100 million.

As a political powerbroker, Griffin plays both sides of the aisle. He has an undeniable force on elections in Illinois, where he spent more than $13 million in 2014 supporting Bruce Rauner, the state’s Republican candidate for governor.  He then donated another $20 million to Rauner’s reelection campaign in 2017 — a record for the state. In contrast, Griffin has a record of supporting Democrats in Chicago’s mayoral elections. He donated more than $1 million to Rahm Emanuel’s campaign in 2015; this year, he’s given another $1 million to Bill Daley.

When it comes to national politics, Griffin skews Republican. Ahead of the 2016 elections, he donated more than $11.7 million to conservative PACs and funds. The majority of that money went to the Conservative Solutions PAC, which supported Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) presidential campaign. Another $2 million from Griffin went to Freedom Partners Action Fund, which has in the past supported the libertarian Tea Party and opposed the Affordable Care Act. The PAC is aligned with the Koch brothers’s business interests.

In February, Vice President Mike Pence announced that Marc Short would become his chief of staff. Short was the president of Freedom Partners as recently as November 2015, and has since navigated the Trump administration through a variety of high-profile positions, including legislative affairs director. In 2017, he was also a leading contender to take over the Heritage Foundation. Short has had a long career in Washington, having previously been a staff chief for former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

From 2017 to 2018, Griffin gave nearly $19.21 million to Republicans, according to federal disclosures. That tally includes a $2 million donation to Future45, a super PAC that helped Trump win his 2016 election and is now preparing him for the 2020 presidential race. During the 2018 midterm elections, the committee also poured $5.8 million into attack ads on Democrats, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

In 2018, Griffin also gave $2 million to DefendArizona, a super PAC advocating for a strong military and strong borders. The committee backs Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ), who co-authored the 2018 immigration bill “Securing America’s Future Act.” The legislation, which ultimately failed in the House, would have authorized the federal government “to design, test, construct, install, deploy, and operate physical barriers, tactical infrastructure, and technology” along the US-Mexico border. It also would have called for additional investments in infrastructure at the ports of entry and for the hiring of 10,000 border agents and customs officers. When it was announced, critics predicted that the bill would have criminalized all undocumented immigrants, kept families apart, eliminated protection for Dreamers, and end protections for asylum-seekers including vulnerable children.

Through his company, Griffin also has a stake in private prisons. Citadel is a majority shareholder in CoreCivic, a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers. Contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) compose 25 percent of the company’s business model. More than two-thirds of all immigration detainees are held by private prison companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group. In 2014, the federal government granted CoreCivic a four-year, $1 billion no-bid contract to run a family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Last summer, the facility held about 2,000 people; it can hold 2,400 detainees and the company gets paid in full even when the beds are empty. One day after Trump won the 2016 presidential election, CoreCivic’s stock increased by 43 percent. The company later gave the administration’s inaugural committee $250,000.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) changed its name to CoreCivic in October 2016, four months after Mother Jones published Shane Bauer’s shattering long-form investigation of one of the company’s medium-security prisons in Louisiana. According to CCA’s promotional materials, in 1983, the for-profit prison won “the first contract ever to design, build, finance, and operate a secure correc­tional facility in the world.”

The Whitney Museum has declined Hyperallergic’s request for comment for this article.

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