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Major Artists Demand LACMA Remove Board Member Who Owns Prison Telecom Company

Tom Gores owns a telecom company that “rakes in more than $700 million per year charging egregious rates for phone calls from prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers.”

(via seaternity on Flickr)

LOS ANGELES — On the morning of Wednesday, September 16, an open letter was delivered to the leadership of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) urging the museum to remove Tom Gores from its Board of Trustees. Gores is the the billionaire CEO of Beverly Hills-based private equity firm Platinum Equity, which, in 2017, purchased Securus Technologies, a telecom company that “rakes in more than $700 million per year charging egregious rates for phone calls from prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers — funds that are primarily siphoned from impoverished families and Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities of color, further constricting the urgent resources of marginalized people,” according to the letter.

The letter was authored by Los Angeles-based artist and writer Jessica Simmons, and follows in support of a similar letter sent to LACMA leaders last week from two organizations: Color of Change, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest online racial justice organization,” and Worth Rises, which is “dedicated to dismantling the prison industry and ending the exploitation of those it touches.”

According to a 2019 Los Angeles Times article, “Securus is the second-largest prison telecom by market share, serving 3,400 correctional facilities and handling some 240 million calls” in 2018. Their rates can be as high as $25 for a 15-minute call from jail.

According to Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, this letter is just the latest step in a campaign targeting Gores that has lasted over a year.

“We’ve been trying to get him for some time to take meaningful action,” Tylek told Hyperallergic. “For a while he delayed, and now we’re at a point where he’s run out of time.”

Tylek outlined a series of meetings and negotiations held between Worth Rises and Gores and his team beginning with a March 2019 letter delivered to Gores with three demands: that he sell Securus; that before selling, he implement reforms; and that he commit to never purchasing another asset in the prison industry. Those talks broke down this past January when, according to Tylek, Gores canceled a meeting with families impacted by Securus’s phone call rates at detention centers and prisons. Since then, Tylek says Gores has not returned her emails.

Around the same time that Gores canceled the meeting, Securus announced reforms aimed at bringing down the overall costs of calls throughout its prison telecom network, and said it would offer contracts without commissions — charges added to the price of calls that go to the prisons and jails. Tylek felt the reforms didn’t go far enough, telling the Los Angeles Times at the time that “there are plenty of independent actions Securus and Platinum Equity could take to create immediate relief for families, but these would hurt their bottom line.”

The open letter joins a series of campaigns targeting museum board members whose businesses have questionable ethics. In 2019, Warren Kanders, CEO of Safariland — which manufactures tear gas that was used against migrants on the US-Mexico border — resigned from the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art after months of protests. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, which invests in weapons manufacturers and private prisons, has also been pressured to resign from the board of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

“These connections between board members and their sources of private wealth have become significant to our community,” Simmons told Hyperallergic. “I thought this was something people in LA would want to know about. This kind of movement hasn’t happened here in our institutions the way it has in NY.”

Since she wrote and posted the letter online less than a week ago, it has been signed by over 100 artists, curators, writers, and other art professionals, with signatures still being collected. Influential Los Angeles artists including Andrea Fraser, Sam Durant, EJ Hill, Eve Fowler, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Monica Majoli have all signed on.

“The purpose of this is to target his position at LACMA, a position of prestige,” said Simmons. “Having that disrupted will remove a source of unethical funding from the museum.” A request for comment emailed to LACMA was not returned by press time; however, they told the Los Angeles Times that the board had received the letter and is “working to come together to discuss it.” A message left with the media relations department of Platinum Equity was not returned by press time.

For his part, Gores, who also owns the Detroit Pistons, paints himself as something of a progressive, issuing a statement earlier this year outlining how the sports team would work towards racial justice. In 2016, he pledged $10 million towards relief efforts during the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where he grew up. And then there are the planned reforms announced in January to lower the overall cost of inmates’ calls.

For the activists who have been trying to work with Gores for the past 18 months, this is perhaps too little, too late.

“Gores loves to say he wants to be a ‘change agent,’” said Tylek. “Changing something from evil to less evil is not a respectable business for someone on a museum board.”

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