When Your Money Is So Tainted Museums Don’t Want It

Nonprofits should not allow themselves to be used by the wealthy to scrub their consciences.

When it comes to blood money for the arts, how bloody is too bloody?

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided that money made from selling the opioids that have killed several hundred thousand people is too bloody. It announced it would no longer take donations from members of the Sackler family linked to OxyContin. “On occasion, we feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest,” Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president, said.

Gifts that are not in the public interest.” It is a pregnant, important phrase. Coming on the heels of similar decisions by the Tate Modern in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the spurning of Oxy-cash seems to reflect a growing awareness that gifts to the arts and other good causes are not only a way for ultra-wealthy people to scrub their consciences and reputations. Philanthropy can also be central to purchasing the immunity needed to profiteer at the expense of the common welfare.

Perhaps accepting tainted money in such cases isn’t just giving people a pass. Perhaps it is enabling misconduct against the public.

This was the startling assertion made by New York State in its civil complaint, filed in March, against members of the Sackler family and others involved in the opioid crisis. It accused defendants of seeking to “profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.” And the lawsuit explicitly linked Sackler do-gooding with Sackler harm-doing: “Ultimately, the Sacklers used their ill-gotten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a philanthropic campaign intending to whitewash their decades-long success in profiting at New Yorkers’ expense.”

It was strong stuff: The State of New York was officially claiming that in taking Sackler money, arts institutions had allowed themselves to be used as lubricant in a death machine. “It’s a remarkable statement,” Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, told me this week, “the sort of thing we heard from critics of philanthropy on the periphery of power but rarely, in recent decades, from those at the center.”

Are museums, opera houses, food pantries and other nonprofits to be held responsible for how their donors have made their money? It is a question being asked more and more as a century-old taboo shatters.

“No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them,” Theodore Roosevelt said after John D. Rockefeller proposed starting a foundation in 1909. It was not a lonely thought at the time.

But in the decades since, not least because of the amount of philanthropic coin that has been spent (can it still be called bribing when millions are the recipients?), touching all corners of our cultural life, attitudes have changed. And, as I found in spending the last few years reporting on nonprofits and foundations, a deeply complicit silence took hold: It was understood that you don’t challenge people on how they make their money, how they pay their taxes (or don’t), what continuing deeds they may be engaged inso long as they “give back.”

When I speak privately with people working in nonprofits, as I often do, especially younger people, I hear this complaint again and again: They agonize about having to stay quiet not only about their donors’ membership in a class that has benefited from an age of inequality but also about specific conduct by many donors that often worsens the problems the donors and nonprofits are working to solve.

And so the decision by the Met and the other museums may be a small sign that this compact is cracking — and perhaps that nonprofits are taking a broader view of their role in public life: not only as doers of good in a particular area of work but also, if they’re not careful, as enablers of broader, if more generalized, societal harm.

“Turning down money runs against the grain of the thinking that’s long governed charitable boards — that they are stewards of the interests of particular institutions, with considerations of broader public interest being peripheral,” Mr. Soskis, the historian, said when I asked him about the Met. “What we are seeing more and more of, through the spread of social media, and an increased willingness to critically engage major philanthropic gifts, is the assertion of the public’s interest in the philanthropic exchange.”

It remains to be seen whether other arts institutions will follow the lead of the Met, Tate and Guggenheim — and more broadly, whether the nonprofit sector will begin asking itself some deeply uncomfortable questions.

Should anyone working to make cities better and more equitable take money from JPMorgan Chase, which paid a huge sum for its role in helping to bring about the 2008 mortgage disaster and financial crisis? Should anyone working to help families affected by President Trump’s immigration policies take money from Mark Zuckerberg, whose soft-pedaling of Russian interference in the 2016 election allowed anti-immigrant hate to spread and potentially helped Mr. Trump gain votes?

It remains to be seen whether other arts institutions will follow the lead of the Met, Tate and Guggenheim — and more broadly, whether the nonprofit sector will begin asking itself some deeply uncomfortable questions.

Should anyone working to make cities better and more equitable take money from JPMorgan Chase, which paid a huge sum for its role in helping to bring about the 2008 mortgage disaster and financial crisis? Should anyone working to help families affected by President Trump’s immigration policies take money from Mark Zuckerberg, whose soft-pedaling of Russian interference in the 2016 election allowed anti-immigrant hate to spread and potentially helped Mr. Trump gain votes? Should any health institution take money tied to Pepsi or Coca-Cola?

Make no mistake: To ask these questions opens a can of worms. The Sacklers are an easy case. Once the complicity turns more diffuse, it is hard to say whether a nonprofit is participating in an injustice by taking money — or doing the best it can in a flawed reality. What’s next after this? Is there a statute of limitations on looking for blood money? What kind of moral purity test are these institutions supposed to use? Once you begin to raise these dilemmas, how do you actually draw those lines around what’s acceptable?

The Met has already drawn some lines. It won’t remove the Sackler name from its galleries; it won’t return money already donated. What it should do is go beyond a single act of rebuffing to model a new process for evaluating money.

Past and future donations could be judged on various criteria:

  1. Was the money legally and fairly made?
  2. Is the money owed to tax evasion or extreme legal tax avoidance?
  3. Is the museum effectively selling a modern papal indulgence for a sin that shouldn’t be so easily pardoned?
  4. Does the donor have a duty of reparation to people they have exploited or harmed that gives those parties more of a right to the money?

And the public should be brought into the process. Public-facing institutions enjoy the privilege of being untaxed, so citizens should be able to comment on and scrutinize prospective donations.

These questions will long be with us. These museums have forced an essential conversation. For far too long, generosity has been allowed to serve as a wingman of injustice; giving back disguises merciless taking; making a difference becomes inseparable from making a killing — sometimes literally. It is high time to reject these alibis for treachery.

Companies will Pursue Profit. It is up to Society to be a Countervailing Force

When Goldman Sachs went to their shareholders with the 10,000 women program ..

I actually think that it is there job to be companies and society’s job to look after the public good.

Companies will primarily act for profit so other countervailing forces must.

A little bit of demonization of people who are stealing the dream is fine.

Trump and plutocrats are demonizing immigrants (punching down) instead of doing something to address the problem.

Davos: A Family Reunion for the People who Broke the Modern World

For the past several decades, world leaders, CEOs, tech titans, billionaires, philanthropists, and celebrities have descended upon Davos, Switzerland with the goal of “improving the state of the world.” Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, says they are part of the problem.

Trade wasn’t working for everyone.

Dynamic scheduling, underpaid, contractors, fight minimum wage, more flexible labor, tax cults for the wealthy anti-inheritance taxes, evade existing taxes, rewards offshoring, expresses no loyalty to communities. (5 min)

I don’t think arsonist need to attend at a firefighter’s convention.

Poor people are very accessible. They want someone to bear witness. They don’t have publicists.

You can’t understand inequality without understanding rich people and the systems they use to justify themselves (10 min)

Today’s elites are among the most socially away, yet also predatory

I don’t think we have free markets, we have a capitalism of monopoly, and rent seeking

Jane Meyer’s Dark Money: how we got here.

Business didn’t have power (Nixon started the EPA) and worked to understand it. They used an alliance with evangelicals and philanthropy to build power.

History is life a mob boss: we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.  It can go down like the civil war or women’s suffrage.

82% of new money was in the 1 percent’s hands.

It’s going to require many to become traitor’s to their class.  If Gates devoted as much to pushing an estate tax, he could have a bigger impact.

I think things are changing.  There aren’t going to be as many Goldman Sachs and McKinsey people in the next administration.