The Frick Collection, New York, Fifth Avenue Garden and façade (image courtesy Frick Collection, photo by Michael Bodycomb)

What connects the Brooklyn Museum and other art institutions to the ongoing measles outbreak, which has surged to its highest point in nearly three decades with more than 1,000 documented cases this year? A name.

An investigation by the Washington Post claims that Lisa and Bernard Selz have contributed more than $3 million in recent years to organizations that empower the anti-vaccine movement through online and live events. The couple is also a fixture of the art philanthropy circuit. Bernard Selz is currently a trustee for the Frick Collection; previously, he served on the Walters Art Museum’s board from 2011–2017. At the Brooklyn Museum, an endowed senior curatorial position in Asian art is named after the couple and is currently held by the art historian Joan Cummins. Columbia University has a professorship for Medieval art under the couple’s name, which is currently held emeritus by Stephen Murray. This is the second position at the university endowed by the Selzes. In 2002, Esther Pasztory became the Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor in Pre-Columbian Art.

According to the publication Inside Philanthropy, the Selzes have given substantial donations through their foundation to cultural institutions including the Dallas Museum of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, the American Classical Orchestra, the Jacob Burns Film Center, and Montana’s Livingston Center for Art and Culture.

Public records also indicate that the family gave over $4.75 million to the World Monuments Fund since 2003, an organization dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture and cultural heritage sites. Bernard Selz currently sits on that organization’s board of trustees; he is also on the director’s council of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

Alongside their financial support for the arts community, the Selzes have used their wealth to bolster a handful of determined individuals who have played an outsized role in disseminating misinformation about vaccines and the diseases they prevent.

The epicenter of the measles outbreak is only miles away from the Brooklyn Museum in the Hasidic-Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg. There, the chief executive of the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) has headlined forums advocating against vaccinations. The Selz Foundation has provided the organization with roughly three-fourths of its funding, and Lisa Selz serves as the group’s president. The public face of ICAN, however, is Del Bigtree, a former daytime television show producer.

“They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles,” Bigtree told reporters outside of a Brooklyn meeting earlier this month. “It’s crazy that there’s this level of intensity around a trivial childhood illness.”

According to tax filings obtained by the Washington Post, the Selz Foundation contributed over $1 million to ICAN. The organization also works closely with other anti-vaccination groups like the Children’s Health Defense (run by John F. Kennedy Jr., a nephew of the late president) and the National Vaccine Information Center (a Virginia-based nonprofit led by a woman named Barbara Loe Fisher). The three organizations often work together, appearing at the same panels and hosting livestream broadcasts together.

The Selzes accumulated their wealth largely through the financial markets. Bernard Selz has worked more than 40 years in the securities industry and runs his hedge fund, Selz Capital, which has a portfolio value of more than $500 million, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Lisa Selz has worked for Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Tiffany & Co. Since 1993, she has helped manage her family’s foundation. She also served as a board member of LaGuardia Community College from 2011 to 2016.

“The science is crystal clear. Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said after signing a bill last week ending vaccination exemptions based on religious beliefs. “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

The measles outbreak is worst in New York, but a handful of other states are facing the emerging public health crisis. California, Mississippi and Arizona have already passed laws banning vaccine exemptions on religious grounds. In April, New York City declared the problem a public health emergency and warned that parents of unvaccinated children could be fined $1,000 for not complying. Opponents of these measures have argued that it impinges on their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Anti-vaccination activists have rallied around disproven and discredited research by Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist who in 1998 published a paper in The Lancet, an influential British medical journal, linking the MMR vaccine to autism in eight children. An investigation by Britain’s General Medical Council, which regulates doctors, found Wakefield guilty of professional misconduct in 2010 and revoked his license. The panel concluded that Wakefield had financial and ethical conflicts of interest, and had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.” Twelve years after the study’s publication, the Lancet retracted it.

Wakefield himself has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said he was motivated by children’s suffering.

“You have probably heard in the newspapers and elsewhere that I am guilty of scientific fraud,” Wakefield said via Skype to a forum this spring in Rockland, N.Y. “And I want to reassure you that I have never been involved in scientific fraud. What happened to me is what happens to doctors who threaten the bottom line of the pharmaceutical companies.”

Since the Lancet paper, 21 studies have found no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism. The latest and largest study published this spring involved 657,461 Danish children born between 1999 and 2010. Experts observe that the first symptoms of autism appear around 12 months old, the same age they receive their first MMR shot — causing many parents to blame the vaccines.

The Washington Post reported that the Selz Foundation has directly supported the disgraced doctor since 2012, when they gave $200,000 to a legal fund for Wakefield. And after he launched two nonprofits in 2014, the organization donated $1.6 million to the groups over several years, according to tax records. One, the AMC Foundation, was registered as a public charity to fund documentaries about public health issues. The other was a Texas nonprofit corporation.

Wakefield used money from the Selzes to fund a documentary film called Vaxxed, which detail his allegations of a government coverup of vaccine dangers. It became an effective piece of propaganda, touring the country with its film producers who interviewed parents suspecting their children had been injured by vaccines at churches, libraries, and even chiropractors’s offices. The Selz Foundation is listed first among 16 donors who financed the film’s production.

One of the documentary’s coproducers was Bigtree. Tax records state that in 2016, the same year that the film was released, she established ICAN with $100,000 from the Selz Foundation — 83% of the charity’s funding. The next year, the organization’s donations increased to more than $1 million — 74% of ICAN’s total revenue. $600,000 of that was used on legal fees in preparation for Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, for information related to vaccine safety. And from ICAN, Bigtree earns a six-figure salary of $146,000.

“Like many charities, we receive funding from multiple sources and we do not discuss our donors or their donations as a matter of policy,” Bigtree wrote to the Washington Post. “None of our donors make decisions on the science we research, or the lawsuits that we file.” He declined to answer questions about his relationship with the Selzes.

Bigtree has become a leading lobbyist for the anti-vaccination movement, reportedly racking up $148,000 in travel expenses for 2017. He has testified across the country in places like New York, Washington state, and Oregon. Speaking before an Orthodox-Jewish audience in New York this spring, he used Holocaust imagery, including the yellow star of David he wore on his lapel during a March rally in Austin.

Bigtree said he did so to protest Rockland County’s attempt this spring to ban unvaccinated children from public places. “They were going to quarantine them during Passover,” he said during a Brooklyn forum earlier this month. “They weren’t going to be allowed in their own synagogues. I pulled out a yellow star of David … and I said, ‘I stand with the Orthodox Jewish Community in Rockland County, New York.’” Critics have accused him of using the imagery as a scare tactic to convince Jews that vaccination is an anti-Semitic ploy.

The ICAN leader has also downplayed the effects of measles, saying that “we haven’t had a death in decades from this disease” at the Brooklyn forum. The last measles-related death in the United States was four years ago, but hundreds have died around the world. Before the measles vaccination was developed in 1963, an estimated 3–4 million Americans were infected each year with thousands developing lifelong complications. Between 400–500 people died ever year.

The Selzes have not responded to requests for comment made by the press at this time.

Hyperallergic has reached out to the Brooklyn Museum, the Frick Collection, the Dallas Museum of Art, the World Monuments Fund, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology for comment. As of this writing, none have responded.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

4 replies on “This New York Couple Has Donated Millions to Museums — And the Anti-Vax Movement”

  1. The Flat Earth Society is harmless enough; but Antivax, like Climate Change Denial effects the rest of the World, to serve the fads and beliefs of a minority.

  2. “The last measles-related death in the United States was four years ago”, so measles deaths isn’t a problem in US. So Del Bigtree is right. Del Bigtree talks about vaccine safety studies. This seems logical. How do I donate to Del Bigtree?

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