I read this Art News article today and it gave me pause. The focus of the article: a just-released book ( 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics) about nonprofit board wealth and the intersection of these board members with politics. I am struggling with the actual so-what or what to do or even what is the best advice for boards given the revelations detailed in this book but at very minimum, the topic is worthy of exploration and conversation and hence, my highlighting it today.
Perhaps one takeaway: how certain as a board member are you that you are fully aware of the values and actions of the board members with whom you sit? Do your fellow members support activities that are counter to or consistent with your own values and beliefs? And if so, so-what? And, how often if ever has your board had an agenda-scheduled conversation about the world in which your nonprofit operates and how or what might it do different given the state of the world. All this is of course good generative conversation material and yes, I do believe that every board meeting should brave these discussions as vehicles for informing fiduciary and strategic discussions and decision-making.
Here's some of the article excerpts:
2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics examines the intersection of electoral politics and private nonprofit arts organizations in the United States at a pivotal historical juncture. It documents the reported political contributions made by members of the boards of 128 arts organizations in the course of the 2016 US election cycle and its aftermath. Located throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia, these organizations include the majority of art museums in the United States with budgets over $2.5 million that exhibit contemporary art. The research presented in this book includes records of over 36,000 political contributions linked to 2,411 of the roughly 5,460 individuals serving on the boards of these organizations, revealing the scale of the interface between political campaign finance and cultural patronage.
(The recent election) was the most expensive election cycle in US history, with over $6.4 billion raised for presidential and congressional races combined. Of these contributions, 68 percent came from the 0.68 percent of the US adult population that gives over $200 to political campaigns, while over 50 percent of the total amount given came from just 350 wealthy families and their companies.
The growing political influence of wealth on, and in, government in the United States has led social scientists and other observers of politics to conclude that our system of government is no longer a democracy—government by the people through elected representatives. Instead, the United States has become a plutocracy—government by the wealthy.
Arts organizations in the United States also have benefited from increasing concentrations of wealth. Almost all public and nonprofit arts organizations in the United States are structured as charitable corporations governed by self-appointed voluntary boards, which manage their collections and assets in “public trust.” Most of these boards also support their organizations with financial contributions.
The size and number of museum boards and the wealth of their members also grew, funding new museums and museum buildings, high salaries for senior staff, and the purchase of art at skyrocketing prices, while raising concerns about the influence of board members and patrons on museum programs and acquisitions.
This study shows that museum boards have also become prominent hubs of political finance. Over 42.5 percent of the 5,458 individual board members researched were found to make political contributions of over $200, the threshold for reporting, dwarfing the 0.68 percent of the US adult population as a whole who made such contributions during the 2016 election cycle.
The extent of the interface between cultural patronage and campaign finance revealed by this study raises significant questions for the field of art. Do private, nonprofit arts organizations funded and governed by wealthy patrons serve to legitimize government by and for the wealthiest members of society? Are the political activities and influence of the board members of arts organizations consistent with their trusteeship of our collective cultural heritage?