Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Photo: Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Agnes Gund Sells Lichtenstein Canvas to Start Fund for Criminal Justice

Arts patron Agnes Gund has sold a prized Roy Lichtenstein painting to advance criminal justice reform and is challenging other collectors to follow her example.

According to Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times, Gund parted with Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece, 1962, which hung over the mantel of her Upper East Side apartment, in order to establish the Art for Justice Fund. Collector Steven A. Cohen bought the piece for $165 million—one of the fifteen highest known bids for a work of art—through Acquavella Galleries in January. One hundred million dollars from the proceeds from the sale will support the fund, which aims to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.

“This is one thing I can do before I die,” Gund said. “This is what I need to do.” The collector’s campaign for social justice was partially inspired by recent police shootings of unarmed African American teenagers as well as by contemporary works that have shed light on the obstacles facing black communities today, such as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016). On a personal level, Gund was motivated by her concern for her six African American grandchildren.

The Ford Foundation will help Gund administer grants to organizations that have already established a reputation for fighting for criminal justice reform, such as the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which strives to reduce excessive punishments and strengthen education and employment opportunities for former inmates, as well as arts-related programs that tackle mass incarceration.

“There’s long been this criticism that people who have the means to acquire fine art are allowed to surround themselves with beautiful things while they are unwilling to look at the ugly realities that sometimes shape a community or a culture or a country,” Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said. “Right now in the United States, we have the highest rate of incarceration. The Bureau of Justice is projecting that one in three black male babies is expected to go to jail or prison.”

While Gund’s campaign does not require the selling of artworks, the collector is encouraging it. She is aiming to raise $100 million more in the next five years. A number of prominent figures have already answered her call for the art world to mobilize. Laurie M. Tisch, a cochair of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board of trustees; Kenneth I. Chenault, chief executive of American Express, and his wife, Kathryn; philanthropist Jo Carole Lauder; financier Daniel S. Loeb; and Brooke Neidich, a Whitney trustee, are among the donors who have made contributions.

“I was moved by her passion,” Tisch said, adding that she plans to give $500,000 of the proceeds from a Max Weber painting she recently sold. Donald Marron, MoMA’s president emeritus, also pledged to make a donation. “Aggie has been so committed to art her whole life and now she’s using the art to jump-start her efforts in criminal justice,” he said. “That’s a model I hope other people will follow.”

Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (2010), and Glenn E. Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, which is dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030, are expected to be in attendance when Gund formally announces the fund at a press conference at New York’s MoMA on Monday.