Andrea Fraser on Art, Money, Politics, and Power
by Andrea Fraser
May 13, 2021
This interview with Andrea Fraser, a performance artist and professor at UCLA, was conducted and condensed by franknews. This interview was first published in 2018.
Andrea | My book, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, started as the publication component of a year-long program of events about my work organized by the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco. Originally, it was supposed to be a completely different book.
But then the election happened, I became involved in an action here in LA, about the presence of Steven Mnuchin on the Board of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, a museum that has my work in its collection. I had been aware that Steven Mnuchin was on the Board and around the time he became Trump's Campaign Finance Chair. There had been some protests about his presence on the board, both inside and outside of the museum, but these had no effect.
Shortly after the election, I collaborated with a curator named Eric Golo Stone on writing an open letter to MOCA, which we circulated and got a few dozen prominent artists and historians to sign. We were about to release it to the press when we were told by MOCA that Mnuchin had stepped down.
frank: You didn't release it anyway?
We didn't release it. The museum knew that we planned to release the letter to the press on a certain day. We got the call first thing that morning. Part of the discussion was: He's off the board. His name is off the website. Please do not circulate the letter.
In a sense, I feel like we missed an opportunity with our success. Of course, his departure from the board wasn't represented as a consequence of activism in the community – it was represented as a consequence of his upcoming appointment as Treasury Secretary.
So that was part of the context for the book. When I became involved in that letter, I thought, "Well, I should find out who the other board members are supporting. What's the context here?" I started looking up the other board members of MOCA and was appalled to find quite a number of contributors to the Trump campaign on the board. Then I started looking up other museums, and that's when the idea for the book developed.
Was the information you were seeking all public?
Was it easy to find?
There were stages. The first stage was putting together the list of museums – and I needed criteria for that. One of the criteria was that they had to meet a certain budget threshold. For that, I went to guidestar.org, which is a nonprofit organization that maintains a website with the 990 tax forms of almost every nonprofit organization in the United States.
Then the next step was putting together the list of board members. Now, there might be different sources for that. I could have found that in the 990s as well, but I basically went to the museums' websites, which I also assumed would be the most up-to-date. There were a couple of cases where the boards were not listed on the museum websites, so we went to 990s, or annual reports, or contacted the institutions directly.
The third and biggest chunk of research in the book was in the political contributions themselves. There are a number of organizations with websites that track and publish political contribution data, including the nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a website called OpenSecrets.org, as well as a few for-profits that serve an industry of political operatives.
But all of that data comes from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which maintains its own, very user-friendly website.
In the end, we just used the FEC website. Although then I went back to OpenSecrets.com to determine the partisan affiliation of many of the recipients and the Political Action Committees, it was much harder to get out of the FEC website. OpenSecrets.org collects data on almost all of the registered political action committees and super-PACS, including information about where their money goes and where it comes from.
We were able to use that to identify the partisan lean of various PACs, which then influence how we identify the partisan lean of the board members who are giving to those PACs.
I'm surprised this doesn't exist as its own dataset already. It's a massive amount of work.
Yeah, it is. I had a team.
Most of the book was never a manuscript. It went directly from spreadsheets to design. The fact-checking and copy-editing happened in the spreadsheet stage.
Was the goal to collect all of this so that it existed publicly, for transparency's sake? Or was it action-oriented?
Early on I envisioned an appendix for the book with template letters to board members, saying, "Dear so-and-so, as an artist in the collection," or, "As a member of the community," or something like that. And in these letters develop an argument, tailored to the nature of the contributions being made by the board member, about the conflict of interest between their political support and the missions of the organizations they serve.
For example, the conflict between their role in the governance of a cultural institution with a mission to support diversity, and their support of politicians who are, if not advocating for, apologizing for white supremacists and promoting intolerance and xenophobia.
Did you get pushback on that?
No, I didn't. I didn't do it because, in the process of developing the book, the emphasis shifted away from the partisan inspiration for the book in finding people like Steven Mnuchin and other supporters of Trump and white supremacist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist, politicians on the board of cultural institutions that they're responsible to support and protect.
As the project developed, it became about philanthropy and plutocracy and about the donor class being more than just the class of political donors, but being largely identical with the class of nonprofit donors.
My research for the introduction, more than my research of the political contributions themselves, brought into focus the pay-to-play culture of governance in for-profit institutions, which, I argue, serves to legitimize a pay-to-play culture in public governance.
As it became more about plutocracy, the strategy of influencing the influencers started to feel cynical to me. Artists might have a certain amount of access to the donor class and might be able to use that access to influence the influencers. But if that's where we invest our political energy, aren't we buying into the whole plutocratic system? Aren't we buying into the political influencing machine? To the political inequality that results from economic inequality?
That's why I decided not to do it.
I didn't want the book to become about that.
What surprised you about the research?
I assumed there would be more of a correspondence between the political leanings of the board and the political leanings of the state and the district in which the museum was located.
I did expect to see more of a correspondence between the boards and the districts, if not the states—most of these museums are in urban centers, which, even in the reddest states, are usually represented by Democrats in congress.
Regardless of the political lean of the district and state, the bigger you get in terms of the financial scale of the institutions, the further to the right they go.
In a way, it's not surprising. This is true in New York City, and it's true in LA, and it's true in San Francisco, and it's true in some of the bluest cities and states in the country. And it’s more true of the money than the board members.
Sometimes that has to do with one or two major Republican donors that just swing things way to the right with regard to the money. At the end of the book, there are two big pie graphs. One shows the partisan breakdown of all 5,460 board members, and the breakdown of the partisan money we found, and you see a significant rightward shift.
It shows that right-leaning politics have a close correspondence in many cases to wealth and to financial scale in these institutions.
Do you feel strongly about that money disappearing from the institution? Immediately when I hear this I think of Lincoln Center and the Koch Brothers.
Yeah, there are also Koch spaces at the Metropolitan Museum.
Exactly. You think of the big ones, and what happens in them. Are the shows at Lincoln Center, with the New York City Ballet, made possible by financial contributions like those from the Koch Brothers? Do you think those institutions have a responsibility to reject that money?
I do think so. There's been reporting in The New York Times and a few other outlets recently identifying particular trustees with glaringly obvious conflicts of interest between their political patronage and the mission of the museum they serve.
The most obvious is Rebekah Mercer who is on the board of the Museum of Natural History in New York, which is just obscene. The Mercers are among the biggest funders of science-denying, climate-change-denying organizations that directly threaten the very mission of the Museum of Natural History, which includes promoting science and conservation. How is that possible? There's also been press about the Sacklers.
The Sacklers are major philanthropists of cultural and educational institutions.
The Metropolitan has a Sackler Wing and the Brooklyn Museum has a Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The Sacklers' money comes from pharmaceuticals and particularly from Oxycontin. Their wealth is built on the opioid epidemic.
Do you have a proposed solution? Ways in which you think these institutions should be financed? Is the answer to collect small donations?
That’s one solution. I have done quite a bit of research on the history, not only of arts organizations in the U.S., but also of philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, and trusteeship. When you take in the whole picture, it gets harder, unfortunately, to envision change. But when you extend that picture beyond cultural organizations and the nonprofit sector to include civic, professional, and other kinds of community organizations, one does find other models. In the visual arts and in the big cultural and educational institutions, the model is self-selecting and self-perpetuating boards who are usually required to make personal financial contributions, which collapse patronage and governance.
There are many other types of organizations that have a board elected by the membership, in a democratic process, and in which all the members support the organizations directly through small contributions and participate in governance.
I know of almost no cultural institutions in America that have that structure. I do know of cultural institutions in Europe that have that structure, such as Kunstvereins, or art associations in Germany, that have histories that go back to the early part of the 19th century. They are supported by their members, who also elect the board and participate in governance.
There are a lot of organizations that have that structure. Museums have not, for the most part, had that structure, although there are museums in the book that started out as art associations.
Museums in the United States developed as private nonprofit corporations; they did not develop as democratically governed or structured institutions.
When I finished writing the introduction, I just didn't have it in me to write up recommendations. I needed a bit of distance. I do need to get that out somewhere. One, to diversify museum boards, not only racially and ethnically, but also so they represent the full range of stakeholders and community members, and not just patrons. Another is to develop more rigorous guidelines to ensure that patrons and board members are not subverting or threatening the organization’s mission in their other professional and political activities. Another is to organize to advocate for public funding.
The most basic recommendation I have for arts organizations based on my research is to draw a clear line between patronage and governance.
More and more museums and more and more cultural nonprofit organizations, generally, nationally, have developed a policy of requiring personal financial contributions from board members.
That's something that a few observers of the nonprofit world have noted and tracked. I've found some data suggesting that it went from less than 50% in the '80s to over 75% today.
That's a big jump.
Yes, it’s a significant jump, and the incidence of board members making contributions is even higher than organizations requiring it, which may indicate that this has become an implicit norm.
Again, this isn't just in museums, but I think museums have among the highest requirements with regard to personal financial contributions. This is largely anecdotal because most board members have to sign nondisclosure agreements. There's very, very little transparency about this, which is another big issue. In the nonprofit sector, we don't have the disclosure laws that are like the last vestiges of campaign finance regulation, the disclosure laws, which is what allowed me to do this book.
Reportedly, it costs $5 million to get on the board of MoMA, and then it's a quarter of a million dollars a year to stay on the board. $10 million for the Met. I'm not sure what it costs to get on some of the other boards that I've looked into, but I have been told that a lot of mid-sized institutions cost about $150,000 a year.
These are serious thresholds of wealth that become barriers to diversity of all kinds on these boards. It's part of what makes these boards overwhelmingly white, and also overwhelmingly loaded with people in finance.
When you go back to the '70s or the '80s, particularly in smaller institutions, one would find a much broader range of people. You'd find more artists. You'd find more professionals, more academics, more people who are coming out of families with long traditions of collecting, who are knowledgeable about culture. At a certain point, the financial structure of museums and the ways they started to fundraise became more and more focused just on wealth, with waves of new board members who reflect the boom industries of the day.
First, it was the leveraged buyout guys. Then it was the hedge fund guys. Then the private equity guys. Or in some cities, it's all real estate. It's whoever has that kind of money.
How influential is the board on the space itself?
You mean on the programs?
That's a big question that comes up. I did a conversation that just came out in the magazine BOMB with Helen Molesworth, who was the Chief Curator at MOCA and was fired very abruptly by the director. I asked her about this because I've never heard a museum professional admit publicly that the board has any influence on programs. Everybody pretends, and I would say pretends, that there's a firewall there, because the legitimacy of that world depends on it in some sense.
But what I say is, if museums have to raise money for everything they do, if they can't do a show or buy an artwork unless they can find someone who's willing to give them the money to do it, that's a tremendous amount of influence. It's veto power, essentially. There are very, very few other sources of funding for programs.
Then there are instances that have gotten a little bit more discussion, such as restricted gifts, like the Fisher Collection which is on long-term loan to SFMOMA with the requirement that the museum show a large percentage of it, in a large percentage of their space, continuously.
This is incredibly restrictive and imposes the tastes of particular patrons, who in this case were also trustees, on the institution and on its public, restricting not only the art that the public can see and the museum can represent, but the whole narrative of culture the museum presents.
They wield a tremendous amount of power then.
A tremendous amount of power. In that case, the collection consists almost entirely of white men who are either German or American and work in painting or sculpture. It represents a very, very narrow slice of art, even in the period that they're focused on, and excludes most of what has been important in art in the last 50 years. And it’s already very dated. It's basically like going to a very high-end art gallery at this point.
It can't serve its purpose as an open forum for culture, or as a center for research. It’s awful. There are other examples of those kinds of restricted gifts, which are the most glaring instances of patron influence on programs.
What about The Broad?
LACMA thought they were going to get Broad’s collection and built a whole building for it. But then he decided to open his own museum. In some ways, I would say that LACMA is probably better off without it. We should note that we are sitting in the Broad Art Center at UCLA, which is my place of employment.
Right. I saw the sign.
The Broad is part of a trend of collectors creating their own museums for their own collections. These are sometimes called private museums.
But the history of museums in the United States is that a lot of them started by individuals focused on a very specific collection and were originally governed by those individuals and their family members, along with their lawyer and accountant, basically.
The Broad. There is the Whitney. The Guggenheim, The Walker. But they evolved into institutions that we think of as serving a broader public and a broader set of cultural agendas. The Broad may develop in that way.
You've riled me.
Yeah. I know. I've spent my life riled. I'm an artist, and I do a lot of work on museums, but I don't really like them that much. There are a few museums I like.
Well, I was just at the Berkeley Art Museum recently. That's a good one.
You think about these structures from the top down, and the influence on people entering their spaces. What we're allowed to look at, the cultural narrative that follows, what we're exposed to.
Yeah. What gets legitimized, presented to us and legitimized as, well, as legitimate culture, as public culture. By virtue of their nonprofit status and often also of land grants for sites in parks and other public support, museums represent public culture.
But, in fact, they represent the culture of their board and patrons and the artists who have developed professionally into specialists in that arena. It needs to be broader than that.
I was just in New York and I went to the Whitney to see the David Wojnarowicz show. He was an artist that died of AIDS in the early '90s. His work is incredibly visceral in its politics and in its rage at the genocide that was being tacitly, if not explicitly, condoned by the politicians of that time. It was a very powerful show. But it was also shockingly cut off from the broader context of AIDS activism.
But that’s what museums do.
They take this person who was also part of a major mass movement and a moment of tremendous collective activism and represents him almost as an individual alone in a fight, which is then reduced to an artistic rather than a political struggle.
Nevertheless, I have been impressed by what the Whitney is representing from the collection since they moved. They are presenting a narrative of American art that I’ve never seen on view anywhere, that includes outsider art and artists who are Communists and labor organizers and involved in the Civil Rights Movement. By the time you get to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, which was always the pinnacle of the classic narrative, you can see it’s politically conservative as well as its formally “progressive” aspects. Or at least that’s how I saw it.
One of the other important conclusions I reached by doing the book is that we can’t just complain about the donor class, whether we’re talking about political donors or nonprofit donors more broadly.
We also have to examine ourselves as the donee class, because the power and influence of the donor class works through us, through the people who are constantly pursuing them for donations, and who make themselves dependent on those donations.
Whether we’re politicians or other political professionals, curators or other nonprofit professionals, artists, educators, or scientists, we give the donor class its power. We can argue that we have no other sources of funding, but very few of us are fighting for public funding. It can't just be about criticizing the donor class.
It also has to be about looking at the ways in which we're complicit in that corruption through our own relentless pursuit of the wealthy to support us and what we do.
We so readily accept these systems as they are, because they feel historic...
We've been working on a new project that's an update of something "old". Everyone keeps telling us we're insane. And the thing we keep hearing is, "Yeah, but it's been this way forever." And I'm like, "No, it's been this way since 1986."
People have short memories.
If I didn't update my computer since 1986 it wouldn't work. We'd all be using...
Rotary phones. What are you talking about, since 1986?! Everything in the world has updated since then.
Philanthropists often like to present themselves as innovators, but they're not. They're just further institutionalizing existing relations of power!
Well, this was great. Thank you again.