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    Local Columns
    Friday, January 27, 2023

    My new hero is a Conn College graduate

    I don't have a lot of money to give away.

    So I don't spend a lot of time deciding who I would give it to if I did. Still, I often find the great philanthropy of others inspiring.

    My new favorite donor, a hero, really, is Agnes Gund, a member of the Connecticut College Class of 1960 and banking heiress who apparently has quite a bit of money. She's an art collector, well known for her generous donations to art institutions as well as other social causes over the years.

    She is, in fact, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art.

    But it was the sale of the 1962 "Masterpiece" by Roy Lichtenstein, which hung over the mantel of her Park Avenue apartment in New York, that has put $100 million into a new fund aimed at criminal justice reform and reducing mass incarceration, especially of blacks.

    The new Art for Justice Fund, which is partnered with the Ford Foundation, hopes to double Gund's $100 million founding contribution over the next five years, in part by inspiring others to also take advantage of soaring art market prices, sell their works and donate the proceeds.

    Laurie M. Tisch, chairwoman of the Whitney Museum, has announced a half-million dollar donation to the fund from her sale of a Max Weber painting.

    The fund would like to reduce the nation's prison population by 25 percent in the next seven years. Strategies will include addressing sentencing disparities, reform of prosecutors' offices, reducing the number of private prisons and raising awareness about the history of racism.

    "This is one thing I can do before I die," Gund told The New York Times, in explaining her reasons for establishing the fund. "I have always had an extreme sensitivity to inequality."

    Among the causes she has donated to are art instruction in New York public schools and opposition to repealing the estate tax. Lobbying against repealing the estate tax needs to go into overdrive about now.

    The cause to correct inequality in the criminal justice system is personal, she told NYT, since six of her 12 grandchildren are black and she is worried about their future.

    She was alarmed by the recent shootings of unarmed black men and moved by Michelle Alexander's 2010 book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," as well as the 2013 documentary "13th" about African-Americans in prison.

    "Masterpiece" sold for $165 million, including fees, making it one of the 15 most valuable paintings ever sold. 

    Curiously, it was purchased by a rich Connecticut hedge fund executive, Steven A. Cohen, who lives in a 35,000-square-foot mansion in Greenwich.

    The Lichtenstein, it seems, has fallen into a new home a bit further to the right on the political spectrum, given Cohen's $1 million donation to the Trump inauguration.

    Something tells me he is not pursuing efforts to stop the elimination of the estate tax.

    I don't really foresee the day when a painting hanging over my mantel might be able to do anything to further social justice. But I would like to think that, if it did, I could come up with an effort as generous, kind, socially aware, forward-thinking and public spirited as Agnes Gund, Connecticut College Class of 1960.

    That's one alumna of whom the college should be very proud.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


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