‘If you look at the billionaires that keep coming onto this board, it’s mind-boggling,” the businessman and collector AC Hudgins told the New York Times in 2016. “Just mind-boggling.” Hudgins was talking about the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was, and still is, a trustee, but his statement applies to many other institutions in the United States, which often draw a steady stream of cash from a coterie of extremely wealthy individuals. And for many of these people, the art world is but one of the places where they are spending their vast fortunes. The connections between their philanthropic and political endeavors is the subject of artist Andrea Fraser’s new book, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics (The MIT Press).
With a razor-sharp sensibility, Fraser breaks down the contributions of more than 5,000 board members at U.S. art institutions to various party-aligned organizations during the 2016 presidential election. (Diagrams from the book that visualize this spending are currently included in the SITElines biennial in Santa Fe.) At 950 pages, Fraser’s tome is heavy enough to seriously maim a small animal, and it has an appropriately grand thesis: “Our system of government,” Fraser writes in the introduction, “is no longer a democracy—government by the people through elected through representatives. Instead, the United States has become a plutocracy—government by the wealthy.” A glance at recent headlines makes this something of an understatement.
The zeitgeist right now is defined by investigations, with starring roles in popular culture for reporters following #MeToo stories, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and amateur social-media sleuths with varying levels of bona fides. Fraser fits right in, directing her attention squarely on museum boards, which are typically charged with helping institutions buy works and mount shows. The people who fund retrospectives for under-appreciated artists and acquire major works, she notes, are the same ones donating massive amounts to Democratic and Republican organizations.
Who better to take on this cause than Fraser? She’s one of the key artists associated with institutional critique—art that turns its attention to why and how works are exhibited. Museum officials are her frequent targets; she has aped tour guides, curators, and artists in her performances and videos. 2016 is more straightforward and less tongue-in-cheek than her art, but it is no less incisive in its indictment of the American museum world.
Much of the book is spent breaking down, in extreme detail, where and how much museum board members donated between 2015 and 2017. No contribution was too small. Fraser lists Alex Gerassimides, a board member at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, as having given $25 to ActBlue, a Democratic super PAC, in July 2017. Others are larger. Fraser enumerates the 77 times Robert A. Day, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art trustee, donated to a spread of Republican and Democratic campaigns and organizations. Between January 2016 and June 2017, Day gave precisely $1,124,851.42 to political causes, according to Fraser’s book.
Day’s contributions are not the largest in the book, though he doesn’t even crack the top ten biggest donors mentioned. The winner, as it were, is Fred Eychaner, a board member at the Art Institute of Chicago, who reportedly gave $38,486,949.88, almost entirely to Democratic causes, in the period Fraser and her researchers surveyed. In second place is Robert C. McNair, a trustee at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who gave $11,156,160; the lion’s share of that sum went to Republican causes.
And then there are the cases where board members donated to a mix of Democratic and Republican organizations. Take the new chairman of MoMA’s board, Leon Black, who, Fraser reports, gave $100,000 to both Right to Rise and the Congressional Leadership Fund, which supported Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Republican legislative candidates in the 2016 election, respectively, as well as $250,000 to the Democratic Senate Majority PAC. Whose side is Black really on? His own, Fraser proposes. She writes, in her introduction, that she assumes certain politicians “promise to pursue [board members’] professional and financial interests,” and so trustees give where it seems like they’ll get money back, ultimately.
Beyond simply delivering shock and awe through numbers and dollar signs, 2016 aims to show how public and private interests are connected in the art world. That’s nothing new, Fraser argues. Alongside her findings, the book offers a compelling, succinct history of what she calls “privately governed ‘public’ institutions,” beginning with models established in the late 19th century by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and moving through the culture wars in the 1990s. Over the past 130 years or so, there’s been “a high degree of overlap between for-profit success and nonprofit governance, and between charitable and political giving” in museum boards, Fraser explains.
This is all presented quite clearly, if not a little academically. You can stare for hours at the donations of Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, a former Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles board member and ex officio member of the National Gallery of Art, to Republican causes (and to the campaign of California Democratic Senatorial candidate Kamala Harris’s campaign) and still not know what to do with any of it. (And as vast as Fraser’s findings are, plenty of donations to political causes went unrecorded in this period, as U.S. law allows.)
Marshaling a mountain of the publicly available data, Fraser throws into relief just how much remains unknown about went on behind the scenes during the 2016 election, and how much goes on in secret at U.S. museums, as evidenced by the recent firings of various leaders at major U.S museums over the past year. 2016 is a clarion call for transparency.
The slogan of Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct firm employed by the Trump campaign to harvest the private information of more than 50 million Facebook users during the 2016 election, was “Data drives all we do.” That could be the slogan for Fraser’s enterprise, too, but in showing the vast sums of money that flowed between the public and private sectors, she is also pointing to the systems and ideologies that set that money in motion. She suggests that many of the donors surveyed included might “convince themselves that the political and social benefits of their work and their organizations outweigh or even compensate for the other consequences of the highly concentrated wealth and power that enable them.”
2016 is disappointingly light on answers, though it seems unfair to ask Fraser to both diagnose a disease and invent its cure. But, she writes, “the time has come for this to change.” What would that involve? A complete and total overhaul of the way art institutions function? A complete and total overhaul of the way campaigns are financed? Both, and then some. Regardless, such remedies would require a political sea change. For now, 2016 is a welcome provocation. It seems clear that we’ll need a sequel following the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and that that book will have to be even thicker.