The Art & Justice of Agnes Gund

Dispelling misconceptions is but one function of Art and maybe this blog.  This week we peek into the life and times of Agnes Gund.  Lost in the swirl of today’s chaotic world is Gund’s recent and surprising creation of the non-profit organization Art for Justice Fund.  

Gund created, only in 2017, this non-profit by selling one of her most prized possessions, the 1962 Roy Lichtenstein painting titled Masterpiece.  Hedge fund entrepreneur and art collector Steven Cohen bought it for $165 million.  

To put this painting into perspective, Roy Lichtenstein is considered the number two Pop Artist after Andy Warhol, and some consider Lichtenstein number one.  Both artists shattered the reigns of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  Both Warhol and Lichtenstein challenged and changed culture; the effects of which we are still experiencing today.  With them, elite art moved out of rarified late-modern metaphysics and into ordinary social worlds.  Think Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman.  Or Banksy and Kerry James Marshall.  Or to prove a historical point, the much earlier Honoré Daumier or Jean-François Millet.    

One may think it easy for a wealthy art collector to part with one painting.  However, the Lichtensteins, Roy and Dorothy, are close friends of Agnes Gund.  Though Roy had long passed, Agnes personally broke the news to her friend Dorothy.  It was for a good cause.  

The year is 1962.  Roy Lichtenstein surrounded by his game-changing paintings in the justly famous Leo Castelli Gallery, NYC.  To his right, Masterpiece, 1962; on his left, Aloha, 1962.  Photo by Bill Ray, courtesy of the website ifitshipitshere.

The cause got $100 million from Gund to begin the effort to end mass incarceration of African Americans in America.  

In February 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsberg presented Gund with the inaugural award of the “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg Woman of Leadership Award” established by the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation.  

How we got here is interesting.  

Gund at home, a Mark Rothko on the dining room wall, browsing a book open to a detail of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride.  Photo by Annie Leibovitz, 2014, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Agnes Gund hails from Cleveland, Ohio where her father George Gund II, owned one of the largest banks in Ohio.  Gund attended the best schools, Miss Porter’s School, the Connecticut College for Women, and later, Gund earned a Master’s in Art History from Harvard University’s Fogg Museum.   

After her divorce Gund moved to New York City.  She joined the Museum of Modern Art’s International Council in 1967, and was invited to the museum’s Trustee Board in 1976.  

Gund started in 1977, Studio in a School, a non-profit that taught art in public schools with artists in resident.   This was during New York City’s infamous financial crisis when art education was the first to be cut from public schools.  Studio in a School is still going strong today.  

Elected President of the MoMA Trustees in 1991, she served her “five-year” term until 2002.  Gund was that good.  While at MoMA Gund consistently asked that women and underrepresented artists of color be shown.  Gund’s civic service to foundations and non-profits is noteworthy and long.   

In 1997, Gund received the highest award given by the government to artists and arts patrons, the National Medal of Arts.  

For the bigger picture, see Aggie, the documentary on Gund by her daughter, the filmmaker Catherine Gund.  

And now we arrive at the moment where Gund, at 78, encountered her next cause.  

In 2016, Gund watched 13th, the Ava DuVernay documentary on mass incarceration and racism in America.  Watch 13th for free here.  

DuVernay is a force in her own right. 13th unpacks the stories of slavery and its continuing evolution in America.  How we tried to abolish it, but because of economic market forces and misuse of law, slavery continued in America by morphing into different systems of oppression sanctioned by the market and the law.  Mass incarceration is market driven and racist.  

Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, (MoMA not coincidentally, is a much criticized institution and structurally flawed in many ways, and at the same time, culturally valuable, significant, and worth rehabilitating) wanted to do something about mass incarceration and for her black grandchildren.  Gund knew firsthand from her long philanthropic support of art education the power of art to change lives.   

Ava DuVernay declared “Art and justice are the same thing.  They’re both about imagining something that’s not there and believing in it and working to make it so.”  

DuVernay had posited, or theorized, a structural equivalence between Justice and Art.  

Looking closer into the words, we can bridge Art and Justice together.  As DuVernay showed and Gund sanctioned.  

To be “just” is to be right, true, appropriate, morally right, adhering to high moral standards, fair, evenhanded, equitable, well-founded, substantial.  

To be “art” is to represent something.  Art’s function is to “represent.”  Art historically has been an instrument-methodology-practice seeking to establish, to determine for all the highest values, the most just values.  The practice of Art (the written word, 2D visual, 3D objects, music, song, dance, and nowadays especially, movies) was used, is used to seek, to establish, Truth and Beauty. 

Check out a Daumier, or a Goya, or a Mark Bradford

Or this from Common and Bilal, “Letter To The Free.”  

In artworks and songs like these the moral melds easily with and flows out of aesthetic form.  

Both words, Justice and Art, are about imagining something that is not there, yet, and then making art to represent those ideals.  Believing in the ideal and working to make it so.