An article in Hyperallergic focuses on a single frustrating example of dirty money tainting a public arts institution. A board member of the Whitney Museum owns a company that provides teargas to border authorities that have been gassing migrants. A manifesto calling for a town hall on the issue probably sums up the broader cultural and moral dilemma pretty well:
“Maybe when Kanders, his ilk, and their money are gone, the museum does indeed look like a very different place with a very different system of accounts. A place, for instance, run by and for cultural workers and their communities as a cooperative platform rather than a money-laundering operation for the ultra-wealthy. A place that de-centers whiteness and dismantles patriarchy. A place that acknowledges that it stands on occupied indigenous territory, and takes reparative measures. A place that provides sanctuary and self-defense from ICE. A place that repurposes the remnants of luxury infrastructure in order to build power and make art with and for the people. A place that is hospitable to the healing energies of sage rather than a refuge for tear-gas profiteers. A place that is built on radical love and relationships of care. A place that understands that conflicts can be points of construction. A place, in other words, that is undergoing a process of decolonization.”
The problem is not only endemic but systemic. The characterization, “a money-laundering operation for the ultra-wealthy” is precisely the core of public funding for any civic-minded, socially-good foundation. It is the compromise that, apparently, must be made. Certainly no mainstream art venue outside of a purely local and user-supported community center is immune. It is almost redundant to point out the hypocrisy that underlies all of the basic assumptions at the root of this system. We love our democracy but won’t fund it. The public sector is routinely beggared. We don’t even have to paraphrase to illustrate this. Grover Norquist, an eloquent exponent of the mindset, says it precisely and succinctly: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
A foundation is the most un-democratic institution in the world. It is a convenient moral rationalization and another method of tax evasion for the very wealthy. Foundations sidestep the political process whereby treasury funds are apportioned for public purposes through a process navigated by elected representatives. Instead, our “best” citizens get to pick and choose favorite boutique charities to bolster their brand and their stature. Funding cancer research is an example and a cliché. Billionaire Phil Knight co-opted half a billion dollars of Oregon taxpayer money with a strings-attached “gift” of matching funds to his Oregon Health Sciences University Knight Center Institute. The outrage over the Whitney Museum’s moral and financial entanglements is just and entirely beside the point.