In 2017, philanthropist Agnes Gund sold her favorite Roy Lichtenstein painting to hedge fund investor Steven Cohen for $165 million in what was no ordinary private sale. Gund used a portion of the money to launch Art for Justice, a grantmaking fund focused on the racial inequality of mass incarceration. Now, six years later, the organization is shutting its doors.
The closure was always supposed to happen. “We never said we were going to be here forever,” Helena Huang, Art for Justice’s project director, told Observer. The organization opened as a time-limited and catalytic fund, aiming to make as much impact as possible in a six-year span before “sunsetting,” a term used to refer to the discontinuation of nonprofits. “It’s kind of a beautiful euphemism for going away, winding down, shutting its doors,” said Huang.
Who is Agnes Gund?
Gund, 85, has long been a fixture in both the art and philanthropy worlds of New York City. Reportedly giving away two-thirds of her assets annually, she is the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) president emerita and former chairperson of MoMA PS1. Her daughter Catherine also works with Art for Justice, which Gund opened to her efforts on criminal justice after reading the books The New Jim Crow and Just Mercy and watching Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. In its first year, the fund awarded $22 million in grants to 30 organizations. It has since given out $125 million.
“We ran this fund like a campaign: beginning, middle and end,” said Huang. Art for Justice emphasized issues through public policy with funding for organizations working on bail reform, shorter prison sentences and reentry promotion for formerly incarcerated persons. Narrative change around incarceration and its racial influences was another aim, completed through numerous art exhibitions and the promotion of books such as Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed. Huang said she’s also pleased by the fund’s unexpected creation of a community of jointly working artists and activists, in addition to Art for Justice’s centering of people directly impacted by mass incarceration, with 37 percent of its resources going to leaders from this group.
Millions more in donations than expected
The fund’s success is also evident in the amount of money it raised, according to Huang. While Art for Justice initially launched as a five-year project with the goal of moving $100 million, COVID and an influx of $25 million in donations led Gund to extend the fund for another year, with its closure date now set for June 30. “We raised more money than we necessarily expected,” said Huang. Individual donors included philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott and Jo Carole Lauder, wife of billionaire Ronald Lauder, while the fund has also received gifts from the likes of Jeff Koons and Nick Cave and support from institutions like Frieze and Marian Goodman Gallery.
One of Art for Justice’s final grants was a “major” gift of an undisclosed amount to the newly launched Center for Art and Advocacy, which aims to “expand upon [Art for Justice’s] legacy of support for justice-impacted artists.” Led by artist Jesse Krimes, the initiative will consist of the Right of Return fellowship, originally launched in 2016, in addition to a training academy, an upcoming headquarters in Brooklyn and a residency in Northern Pennsylvania scheduled for 2024. “The Art for Justice Fund is thrilled to support our partner’s evolution into a physical hub with expanded programming, all dedicated to transforming the criminal legal system through the arts,” said Gund in a statement. While the Center for Art and Advocacy will help carry on Art for Justice’s legacy, people working on the fund itself will not be crossing over, according to Huang. “I will be employed until the end of the year and then it’ll be time for me to figure out what to do next,” she said.
As for Gund? “Agnes is not done,” said Huang, adding that the philanthropist is currently focusing her energy on reproductive rights and “remains very active and deeply troubled about the state of the world.” In November, Gund sold yet another of her Lichtenstein works, funneling more than $2 million to Groundswell Fund, a non-profit advocating for reproductive rights, and towards Michigan’s Reproductive Freedom for All ballot measure. “She would say that there’s less art to sell,” said Huang, when asked whether Gund will continue to sell artwork for charity. “But she’ll continue to leverage everything that she has.”