Are Museums Helping Arm the Police?

I refresh my Twitter feed and wait for the next video. A line of police officers, clad in black riot gear, march forward towards a handful of protesters sitting cross-legged in the middle of the road. The protesters defiantly hold up their cardboard signs as the police advance and use their batons to shove them into the concrete. People are shouting and cursing at the police amid the pressurized, thudding sound of tear gas or rubber bullets being launched into the crowd. The person taking the video begins to flee from the approaching line of cops, turning towards a larger group of protesters gathered in a parking lot and obscured behind an ashy, white cloud of tear gas.


The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo Credit: Callie Lipkin Photography, Inc.

In another video, a group of protesters are cornered on the steep hillside of Interstate 676 in Philadelphia by two advancing police units. They are pressed against the steep concrete and chain-link fence and, though the panicked crowd cannot escape, officers continue to fire tear gas towards the group. Occasionally, a protester picks up one of the canisters and flings it back towards the police. The Philadelphia police later claim that they were forced to fire tear gas on these protesters because the crowd turned hostile, despite contradictory evidence.

These images of excessive police violence against peaceful protesters went viral across social media as demonstrations against police brutality erupted in all 50 US states and D.C. in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade—among countless unnamed Black people routinely murdered by the police.  

George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed on May 25th by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down in the street. Two months earlier 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot eight times after three Louisville police officers Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove forced entry into her home under the authority of a “no-knock” search warrant. Two days later Tony McDade, a 38-year-old trans man, was shot by a yet-to-be identified Tallahassee police officer who claimed McDade pointed a handgun at the officer; However, an eyewitness claims that the officer did not give a warning beforehand and that the officer jumped out of the car and immediately opened fire on McDade. Their names were invoked in protesters’ chants during a weekend of riotous demonstrations as calls to defund police departments nationwide mounted.

The art world began to respond: The Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute for Art announced that they would cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department “until the MPD implements meaningful change by demilitarizing training programs, holding officers accountable for the use of excessive force, and treating communities of color with dignity and respect.”

The Teen Creative Agency, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s creative, youth development program, addressed an open letter to MCA leadership calling for the museum to be transparent about the extent of their relationship with the Chicago Police Department and to “cut ties completely with the Chicago Police Department.” The MCA responded, releasing a statement after a week of intense public scrutiny and unflattering media coverage pledging “not to engage in future contracts with CPD until we see meaningful changes that respect Black Communities implemented in our city.”


Image of TCA 2019-2020 members. Photo courtesy of the MCA.

We should not be pacified. The MCA’s statement is mostly an empty gesture considering the museum “is not currently engaged in any current or ongoing contracts, special services, or funding of the Chicago Police Department (CPD)”. While the MCA and other art museums may not explicitly contract police services or have business relationships with local police departments beyond what is considered normal, we must be critical of these statements that avoid addressing museums’ less visible relationships with law enforcement agencies.

As we watch fleets of armored vehicles transport hordes of police officers to tear gas and maim protesters with rubber bullets, we must ask: How much money do our beloved art museums funnel into the companies that manufacture the chemical weapons being used on civilians during a respiratory pandemic, or the dubiously-named “less-lethal” munitions that have left some protesters with lifelong injuries?  

There is an overwhelming lack of transparency regarding museums’ financial policies for the investment of their endowment’s significant financial resources. Specifically, there is no transparency as to whether or not their endowments are invested in defense contractors that profit from the ongoing militarization of the police and/or private prison corporations.

The largest US museums often depend upon their endowment—a pool of assets, typically donated money or property, that is invested to cover portions of general operating funds. The standard policy for most endowments is that 5 percent is available for spending each year, the remaining amount “invested in a range of securities, bonds and other financial instruments that are selected to… ensure the continued growth of the endowment.”

However, none of the largest US art museums have publicly committed to sustainable impact investments that are “made with the intention to generate measurable, positive social and/or environmental impacts, alongside risk-adjusted, market-rate financial returns,” and often attempt to minimize exposure to objectionable industries. Museum’s reluctance to implement sustainable impact investing policies is largely due to pushback from investment committees who argue that it would compromise the endowment’s performance.

US museums with some of the largest endowments include the Getty Museum, which is backed by the J. Paul Getty Trust with an endowment of nearly $7 billion; the Metropolitan Museum of Art with an endowment of $3.6 billion; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston with an endowment of $1.2 billion; the Museum of Modern Art with an endowment of $1 billion; and the Art Institute of Chicago with an endowment of nearly $800 million. Their investment portfolios are often divided among a complex array of investments, which may include directly owned shares of companies, hedge funds or index funds, real estate, or investments in private equity firms.

US: Thousands gather in DC to protest Floyd√¢s death

A military vehicle amid Black Lives Matter marchers, Washington, D.C., June 2, 2020, Photo Credit: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Laura Callanan, founder of Upstart Co-lab and former senior deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote in 2019 that, since “cultural institutions generally invest in public equities. It is reasonable to assume at least a portion of their public equity allocation is in an index fund.”  

Essentially, when an investor buys a stock index fund, they purchase a portfolio of stocks represented in a financial market index (a hypothetical grouping of companies designed to mimic a segment of the stock market or economy.) Index funds have low maintenance fees because they do not need to be actively managed by a portfolio manager. They are also considered low-risk because the investor’s money is dispersed across a number of companies, meaning that you would not lose all your money if one company in your portfolio goes bankrupt.  

Popular index funds such as the S&P 500, S&P 400, and Russell 2000 include major private prison corporations like CoreCivic and GEO group—which build and manage detention centers across the US—and countless defense contractors such as Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Huntington Ingalls Industries. Since many museums favor domestic and international index funds for their low cost and long-term performance, it is highly likely that their endowments are earning income from global violence and incarceration.

In 2019 a group of 220 artists, curators, and academics denounced the Museum of Modern Art’s ties to the prison industrial complex in an open letter to the museum’s board and director, Glenn Lowry. They demanded that the museum divest from Fidelity, which it uses for pension funds, and also urged trustee Larry Fink, the CEO and chairman of the investment firm BlackRock, to divest from “prison companies, the war machine, and the destruction of the global environment.” Both Fidelity and BlackRock hold substantial shares in CoreCivic and the GEO Group. 

During the past several years, a number of public pension funds, including the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, the New York State Common Retirement System, and the Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirements, divested from private prison companies. They cited rampant human rights violations in privately-held prisons as grounds for divestment. Yet, we should note that most pensions only divest their direct stock holdings and have not assessed their asset managers, such as private equity firms, for exposure to the military or prison industrial complex. For museums to completely divest, they must also screen all potential asset managers for exposure to the military and prison industrial complexes. 

The ties between the military and prison industrial complexes and art museums is perhaps easier to identify when we examine trustee members. The Chair of MCA’s Board of Trustees, Michael O’Grady, is the CEO of Northern Trust, which also holds substantial shares in GEO Group and CoreCivic. Northern Trust was the 2019 presenting sponsor of Expo Chicago, an annual contemporary art fair which hosted an opening night benefit for the MCA.

Nancy Crown, another MCA trustee, is a member of the enormously wealthy Crown family. The MCA’s Crown Family Room, overlooking both the MCA’s galleries and sculpture garden is often used to host lavish dinners for exhibition sponsors and lenders and was built during the MCA’s Vision Capital Campaign. On their website, the Crown family is credited as having made a gift between $1 to $5 million to the capital campaign. The Crown family owns 10 percent of General Dynamic stock, one of their largest assets. General Dynamic has had contracts worth millions of dollars from the Office of Refugee Resettlement—which manages federal detention centers for migrants alongside ICE—since 2000. General Dynamics adamantly claims “the company does not operate or construct any migrant shelters, but instead offers training and technical assistance to the shelters and provides other administrative services to the government,” despite advertising data-entry and tracking positions for monitoring youths’ new cases and their progression in ORR-funded care.

Notoriously, former vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren Kanders, and CEO of Safariland, a manufacturer of military and police equipment, resigned after months-long protests against his affiliation with the museum. The protests were organized after it was discovered he profited from tear gas fired at a group of migrants, including women and children, in November 2019. Kanders recently announced that Safariland would sell its subsidiary companies, Defense Technology and Monadnock, which sell chemical agents, batons, restraints, and other items sold to law enforcement and military agencies. While the announcement came as nationwide protests continued, Kanders did not explain the reasoning behind divestment and did not clarify whether he would continue to hold stock in the subsidiary or receive continuing payments as part of the deal.

Activists took over the lobby at the Whitney Museum of

Activists took over the lobby at the Whitney to protest Warren B. Kanders in July 2019. Photo Credit: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Understanding the relationships of museum trustees to the prison and military industrial complexes is important because these are the individuals who sit on the committees that determine how museum endowments are invested, as well as draft and ratify institutions’ financial policies. If we hope to change how our art institutions fundamentally operate, it is the Michael O’Grady, the Nancy Crown, the Warren Kanders that we have to pressure and persuade.

Yet, solely tracing museum’s ties to companies that manufacture riot gear or less-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, or pepper spray does not account for the enormous volume of excess military equipment transferred to local law enforcement agencies. Over the past two decades, the Department of Defense has transferred $7.4 billion in military equipment to US law enforcement agencies as part of the 1033 program, including many of the Mine Resistant, Ambush Protection vehicles that have been used by police departments to face down protesters. We must turn our attention to museums’ investments in the defense industry at large. 

Even as the National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the US economy entered a recession in February, defense and defense-related stocks are often considered ideal investments. This is because defense spending increased during all but one of the six recessions that occurred between 1970 and 2009. In 2019 defense and defense-related stocks soared for companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics, as the United States defense budget was increased to $750 billion for 2020. Museum investment committees who prioritize a high-performing endowment without concern for social responsibility likely see defense stock as a safe investment option, since they remain relatively stable, and often increase rapidly during times of unrest.

Strict readings of an art museum’s mission as confined to the collection, conservation, and display of art are used to justify policies that prevent divestment from companies on the basis of social or political issues. However, if museums are not neutral, a sentiment echoed by a spokesperson for the Minnesota Museum of American Art and by the director of the Art Institute, then we must acknowledge that museums’ financial investments are not neutral either. If the earnings of our museums’ endowments are tethered to the militarization of the police or prison industrial complex, then our art museums are implicated in these systems of oppression.

 Although art museums may not directly engage in contracts with the police, I hope that I have demonstrated that we should not be placated by museums’ promises to cut ties with law enforcement agencies. Our calls for divestment from the police must be broader and demand that these institutions be transparent in both their overt relationships with the police and their covert ties to the prison and military industrial complexes. We should demand museums adopt sustainable impact investment so that their endowments have demonstrable benefit for the communities they claim to serve. Otherwise, museums will continue to perpetuate the systems of racial injustice that they publicly condemn.


Thank you to Kat Cua for affirming the need for this essay. May I one day be as radiant, welcoming and ebullient as you; You truly are the blueprint.  

And to Azora, Emily, and Becky, I would be nothing without you all.