A new wave of institutional critique threatens to land in San Francisco, starting with this month’s Warhol show at SFMOMA


On April 23, 2017, a United States drone strike killed eight men lunching at a security checkpoint in the Shabwah province of Yemen. Five of them, according to locals, were tied to terror groups. The remaining three were reportedly civilians, killed by a second missile when they came to the others’ aid — a “double tap,” in the gamified parlance of drone warfare.

Three days later, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosted a lavish “Birthday Bash,” co-organized by trustee Penny Coulter. Her husband and fellow museum donor James Coulter’s private equity firm in 2011 acquired a “significant stake” in Artel, the largest provider of satellite bandwidth to the U.S. military, including the type used by Reaper drones buzzing over Yemen.

The mounting drone death toll in the Middle East — as many as 880 civilians killed since 2011, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism — seemed far from the minds of the museum’s moneyed guests. The dress code was monochrome; the Coulters, namesakes of a gallery upstairs, wore black and white. Dinner tables, where some seats required a six-figure down-payment, bore neon signs with the word “one” in many languages — including Arabic.

The theme’s “deeper meaning,” said Penny Coulter, was that “we’re all one as a people.”

The call for unity from a trustee whose marital wealth derives in part from drone warfare isn’t the only example of cognitive dissonance at the Bay Area’s cardinal modern art museum, an institution decorated with the names of donors with munitions investments and business ties to the Trump administration while it plies the liberal reputation of San Francisco.

Museum patrons with similar connections have lately provoked the ire of cultural workers in New York. So, is the new art world referendum on toxic donors poised to likewise seize the Bay Area?

Since November, museum staff, artists, and activists in New York have been protesting Guggenheim and Whitney museum donors’ investments in military and pharmaceutical firms. This started when 100 Whitney staffers in 2018 signed a letter condemning trustee Warren Kanders after federal agents used his company’s tear gas canisters against asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, prompting artists and scholars to publicly join their call for his ouster.

SFMOMA’s upcoming Andy Warhol survey, which Kanders supported in its original Whitney exhibition, opens in San Francisco next week. It connects New York’s turmoil to the Bay Area, and local arts patrons are beginning to receive similar scrutiny.

Last year, the California College of the Arts’ Wattis Institute co-published a catalog of SFMOMA and other museum board members’ political donations by social practice artist Andrea Fraser. The UCLA Professor of Art was motivated by a “sense of horror at discovering radical right-wing politicians serving on the boards of arts organizations with which I work.”

And some SFMOMA workers are similarly questioning the institution’s equity push and progressive posturing in light of the military hardware investors and Trump donors on its board. At a time of dismantling public monuments to injustice and exploitation nationwide, museum staffers are eyeing the “generous supporters” named on the walls of their own workplaces.  

Yet what New York artists and cultural workers are saying loudly — in joint letters and disruptive actions — is still relatively muted at SFMOMA, where most of the five current and former staffers interviewed for this article requested anonymity, but agreed that it’s an overdue conversation for the Bay Area.

Jennifer Fieber, a San Francisco Tenants Union organizer who’s worked at SFMOMA as an audio-visual technician since 2011, said staff’s awareness of the trustees is limited, and that they’re reluctant to voice criticisms because there’s so little job security. “These institutions enjoy a reputation of being really progressive, when they’re actually hugely conservative,” she said, adding she believes staff should work to “burst the liberal bubble.”

Dena Beard, executive director of alternative art space The Lab, is one of the few local arts figures publicly drawing attention to what she considers objectionable trustees at SFMOMA. She endorses New York artists and activists’ demands for an ethical gift acceptance policy, or at least a rejection of the longstanding norm that any wealthy person with an inclination to buy art is qualified for museum board membership. She believes such caution is just as urgent for San Francisco.

“There’s no such thing as a gift,” Beard said. “We all know it’s a negotiation of debt. And right now SFMOMA is in debt to some very dangerous people.”

Arrivals to FMOMA’s “Birthday Bash” walked past feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation Be No More, a “response to Trump” that climaxed with flares illuminating the word “Truth.” This preceded a cocktail reception in the Helen and Charles Schwab Hall, named for the billionaire financier and then-board chairman Charles Schwab. Trump’s inauguration ceremony months earlier was supported in no small part by $1 million from Schwab, who would soon donate $100,000 more to the president’s legal defense fund.

Next to Schwab Hall, an immense Richard Serra sculpture sat in the Roberts Family Gallery. The room is named for trustee Linnea Conrad Roberts and her husband and fellow donor George Roberts, whose private equity firm KKR profited from the 2018 merger of military contractors Engility and SAIC. Like Artel, the latter company is also involved in the U.S. drone warfare market, as well as maintaining nuclear weapons and ballistics missiles.

Schwab himself spoke to supper patrons in the sculpture garden. Less generous attendees, proceeding upstairs for “art encounters,” passed the Jim Breyer Galleries, named for a trustee who’s heavily invested in the Jared Kushner-cofounded real-estate firm Cadre. Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, helped architect “opportunity zone” tax incentives that real-estate analysts say Cadre is using to accelerate gentrification in Los Angeles and Seattle.

Many SFMOMA trustees champion liberal causes, but the board’s political profile, measured in donation dollars, skews conservative: Federal Election Commission data show 10 trustees gave mostly to Republicans and 31 gave mostly to Democrats in the 2016 election, yet the 10 outspent the 31 by more than $4 million. (34 of the museum’s 75 trustees gave little or nothing.)

To activists here and in New York, though, more important than political donations is how donors make their profits and then burnish or launder their names by giving to art institutions.  

Securities and Exchange Commission filings further reveal at least 13 SFMOMA trustees or their spouses, who donate to the museum as pairs, are senior figures at firms invested in military contractors and arms dealers. The holdings include companies such as nuclear weapons manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne, which the government of Norway once deemed an ethically unfit investment vehicle for its public employees pension fund.

At the Whitney in New York, just one trustee’s ties to a tear gas company have prompted a near staff revolt, a cascade of protests, and widespread calls for resignation.

After staff publicly decried trustee Warren Kanders’ ownership of “Less Lethal Weapon” outfit Safariland, the activist group Decolonize This Place launched “nine weeks of action” before the Whitney Biennial opening this month on the 17th. And Working Artists and the Greater Economy called for biennial artists to withhold their work in solidarity with Whitney staffers, prompting Chicago conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz to forego the event.

New York artists and activists are also pressuring New York Museum of Modern Art trustee Larry Fink to divest his financial firm, BlackRock, from the private prison industry. And a coalition led by New York photographer Nan Goldin has protested institutions for accepting donations from the Sackler family, which owns Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma.

Some of these demands – especially those against the Sackler family – are gaining traction. The National Portrait Gallery in London and the Guggenheim in New York in March pledged to decline the Sacklers’ philanthropy, showing the kind of results a similar wave of activism could yield in the Bay Area.

So will this new wave of institutional critique land with the same force in San Francisco? Kanders underwrote the Whitney-organized Andy Warhol survey From A to B and Back Again, which opens at SFMOMA May 19. Kota Ezawa, a Bay Area artist and Whitney Biennial participant who signed the letter condemning Kanders, recently said that the Warhol show should be a conversation starter — but stopped short of calling it a worthy target for protest.

Still, Ezawa and other local arts figures sympathize with Whitney staff’s demand that “we not be afflicted with any Board member whose work or actions are at odds with the museum’s mission.”

Mission Local provided SFMOMA with an outline of this report, as well as specific questions about board committee assignments, gift acceptance policies, and its strategic plan. The museum declined to make leadership figures available for interviews and, after repeated requests, declined to provide a statement for this article. After Mission Local extended its deadline for comment, a museum spokesperson wrote, “We will not be participating in your piece.” 

The staircase in SFMOMA’s main atrium posits weighty questions. Photo by Sam Lefebvre.

SFMOMA reopened in 2016 after a six-year, $305 million expansion and with an annual operating budget doubled to more than $70 million. At the center of the new museum is an agreement to reserve some 60 percent of indoor galleries primarily for works from the heavily male, Eurocentric modern art collection of Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher.

The institution’s current strategic plan promises a more “human-centered, community-driven” institution and to acquire and exhibit more works by women and people of color. Recently SFMOMA earmarked proceeds from the sale of a Mark Rothko painting for diversifying the collection. The museum also wants to attract more diverse audiences; lately it has increased free admission days, and strengthened partnerships with smaller organizations.

The gestures acknowledge the perception that SFMOMA is indentured to donors such as the Fishers. The shift, though, also exposes the museum to structural critique. Five current and former workers said they’ve closely watched the protests in New York, identifying with Whitney staff’s frustration with, for example, promoting immigrant artists in a museum underwritten by the owner of a Border Patrol contractor.

But SFMOMA doesn’t appear to be on the brink of rebellion as its eastern cohort is. While some staffers believe being “human-centered” should involve cutting ties to war profiteers and Trump associates, others consider the ask premature, even unrealistic. Workers have been meeting with an equity-focused leadership taskforce, and some worry challenging SFMOMA to ethically condition gift acceptance or board membership would jeopardize their seat at the table.

Fieber, the housing activist and SFMOMA technician, is frustrated by the staff’s coy stance. During contract talks last year, she said she encouraged union leadership to publicly challenge SFMOMA’s liberal reputation for leverage as management resisted cost-of-living raises, but was rebuffed. “I make less than a hotel cleaner — less than I’ve ever made working at a museum,” she said, adding that after events her job involves “picking up the beer cans of the 1 percent.”  

On the other hand, one former employee argued that public callouts are counterproductive; museum staff is applying pressure behind the scenes, and the protests just redirect leadership into crisis management busywork. “The reality is that there is no clean money in our global society,” the former employee added. “Tell me who would pass scrutiny on that level.”

Lise Soskolne, core organizer at Working Artists and the Greater Economy, which advocates fair remuneration of artists’ labor in nonprofits, sees things differently. She maintained that  ousting toxic trustees begins the process of developing ethical standards for donors and board members. Especially with institutions now severing ties to the Sacklers, she said, “‘Be realistic’ isn’t a serious counterargument.”

When measured in dollars, the political profile of SFMOMA’s Board of Trustees skews to the right. Photo by Sam Lefebvre.

In 1969, the Guerrilla Art Action Group called for the immediate resignation of members of the Rockefeller family from the board of MOMA in New York. The group accused the museum of “destroying the integrity of art” by accepting “dirty money,” stressing the family’s profits from the Vietnam war. “The protests then and now center on symbols,” said Mills College art professor Sarah Miller. “Kanders’ teargas canister is playing the role that napalm did 50 years ago.”

Miller pointed out that the Bay Area doesn’t have as deep or sustained a tradition of institutional critique as New York. “Our institutions weren’t founded in the gilded age,” she said. “They have less obvious relationships to entrenched corporate power.” For example, a trustee tied to satellite bandwidth for military drones — the Silicon Valley spin on war profiteering — isn’t as likely to catalyze protests as a donor in the old-fashioned bombs and bullets racket.

Of course, the Bay Area art scene is much smaller, heightening the risk undertaken by attacking funders. Beard, The Lab director, said local artists also expect less of large institutions than in New York; they don’t move here to be near SFMOMA. “We’ve seen our art institutions as ancillary to the art scene,” she said, adding that local cultural life has been rooted in alternative spaces. “Artists here don’t necessarily feel like SFMOMA was ever theirs to begin with.”

Equally relevant, Beard continued, is that the idea of art institutions as part of the public trust — the notion underlying nonprofit tax exemption — has largely lost currency: The pervasiveness of privatization obscures how museum boards are being used as vehicles for tax-subsidized reputation laundering, and at citizens’ expense. “It isn’t appreciated that the donations are meant for the public,” she said. “The onus is on us to scrutinize how they’re using our money.”

Miller believes the resurgence of institutional critique differs from the past with its emphasis on the arts as a safe space and workplace. “That’s a huge difference from the ’60s, when art was not conceived as a restorative social-justice project,” she said. But she seriously doubts institutions will ever codify policies that disqualify donors or trustees based on political affiliations or income sources. “It’s the slipperiest of slopes,” she said.   

What to expect next, Miller said, is for today’s controversies to be recuperated as art and calmed through piecemeal reform.

“Institutions like the Whitney and SFMOMA know perfectly well that they’ll weather these protests every so often,” Miller said. “Museums have actually done a great job absorbing criticisms of themselves into their collections.”