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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Nonprofits and 'dirty money'

Deborah and I got to view the 2019 Whitney Biennial show in New York in early August. There was still buzz around Warren Kanders’ resignation on July 25 from his position as vice chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board of trustees, thus resolving a conflict that had threatened to disrupt the most prominent showcase of current U.S. visual art.

The conflict had begun last December, when 95 museum staffers who had learned of Kanders’ control of Safariland, a manufacturer of tear gas, wrote to the museum’s director asking for Kanders to step down. Later that month, protesters filled the lobby with smoke from burning sage, and in February one invited artist announced he wouldn’t show his work. But it wasn’t until July 20, when eight artists announced their intention to pull their work out of the show, that Kanders resigned.

What triggered the unrest was the revelation that U.S. Border Control agents had fired Safariland tear gas into a group of migrants, including women and children, on the Mexican side of the border in late November. Tear gas is not a very noxious product compared with more lethal forms of crowd control. Further, as Kanders said, it wasn’t he who made the decision to use it on that occasion. So, in my view, Kanders wasn’t especially tainted, and had it not been for the widespread outrage about the Trump administration’s general treatment of asylum-seekers, I doubt if he would have become a focus of protest.

But it’s easy to cite many instances of dirty money washed clean via philanthropy. A currently high-profile instance is the Sackler family. The Sacklers are far wealthier than Kanders (about $13 billion vs. $700 million), and much of that wealth came from their Purdue Pharma drug Oxycontin, which fueled the opioid crisis. The family has given generously to major museums: Among others, the Smithsonian has the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Sackler Wing, as does the Louvre.

Noted photographer Nan Goldin, who for a time was addicted to Oxycontin, has conducted a personal campaign to spotlight the source of the Sacklers’ donated money. It’s succeeding. In March, Britain’s National Portrait Gallery announced it was canceling a planned $1.3 million donation from the Sackler Trust, and then both the Guggenheim Museum and the Tate announced they won’t accept any further Sackler money. In May, the Metropolitan and the American Museum of Natural History followed suit.

These episodes raise an intellectually challenging question: should nonprofits accept donations that are in some way morally tainted? Relatedly, if they choose not to accept them starting now but have done so in the past, should they return such donations to the donors (none of the museums mentioned above said they’ll do that)?

In my remaining space, I’ll offer some relevant considerations. Next week I’ll share my own conclusions. Please share yours.

How hard should a nonprofit look into the sources of a donor’s money?

How dirty does “dirty money” have to be, and how does one decide?

Suppose the donors are dead?

Is there a meaningful difference between just accepting donations and putting the donors on the board or their names on a building?

Are there other ways of “making things right” that the nonprofit can pursue?

To what other uses would we have such donors put their money? Would it be better if they just kept it to themselves?

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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