The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why art collector Aggie Gund is spending $100 million to combat mass incarceration

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, with Agnes Gund, founder of the “Art for Justice Fund,” in Walker’s office after their interview with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart for the “Cape Up” podcast on July 26. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

“Six of my 12 grandchildren are black or brown.”

Agnes “Aggie” Gund is known around the world for her philanthropy and her art collection. In June, the president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art stunned the art world when she sold “Masterpiece,” a 1962 painting by Roy Lichtenstein she owned for decades. As the New York Times reported at the time, the sale “plac[ed] it among the 15 highest known prices ever paid for an artwork.”

But Gund stunned the social-justice world when she announced that $100 million of the $150 million proceeds would be used to start the Art for Justice Fund. Gund’s goal is to end mass incarceration, a decision driven as much by her grandchildren as by Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary “13TH.”


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“I thought I should do something about something that to me is so wrong about our system,” Gund told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “We’ve just loaded up our prisons with mostly people of color and given them different penalties. … And I thought I should know more about it and then I thought, maybe this is something I could address. But if it, again, hadn’t been for Darren, I wouldn’t have ever been able do it.” Gund is referring to Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and past guest on the podcast. He is also a longtime friend of Gund, so it is only natural she would turn to him for help this extraordinary effort.

“We have set some numerical targets that we want to achieve: 25 percent reduction in the number of men and women incarcerated in America over the next five to seven years,” Walker told me during the interview with him and Gund at the Ford Foundation offices in midtown Manhattan. “And that will happen through a series of investments in states across the country because remember, most people in prisons are in state penitentiary systems and county jails. They’re not in federal prisons.”

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker: Using privilege to fight privilege

“And so, the funds, the $100 million plus the funds that we are raising in a matching campaign,” Walker continued, “will be directed to organizations working both nationally and in states on specific strategies: strategies that address disparities and sentencing, that aim to reduce private prisons, that seek to reform prosecutors’ offices, that seek to raise awareness and educate the public about the history of racism, slavery and the implications today for this legacy that we must address.”

Listen to the podcast to hear Gund talk about how a trip to Mississippi opened her eyes even more to disparities between blacks and whites, how a discussion about the Holocaust while visiting Germany forced her to confront her lack of knowledge of lynchings in the United States, and how she got some of the most prominent names in the arts, finance and philanthropy, names such as Tisch and Joyner, Walton and Chenault, to sign on to the Art for Justice Fund.

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“Well, I can’t take any credit for that aspect,” Gund said as she gave all the credit to Walker for bringing them on board. “I was never a good fundraiser.”

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever else you listen to podcasts.