Amid Epstein revelations, Leon Black remains Chairman of MoMA
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Amid Epstein revelations, Leon Black remains Chairman of MoMA
Leon Black, chairman and chief executive of Apollo Global Management, at a benefit gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Dec. 8, 2016. After the disclosure that Leon Black had paid Jeffrey Epstein $158 million, some art world figures have called for his removal as the chairman of Museum of Modern Art board of trustees. Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- After Leon Black announced this week that he would be stepping down as chief executive of Apollo Global Management amid revelations that he had paid $158 million to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, several art world figures called on the Museum of Modern Art to remove him as chair of its board of trustees.

“What does @MuseumModernArt board chair Leon Black have to do for MoMA to finally give him the boot?” tweeted Nikki Columbus, a curator who in 2019 settled a claim of gender, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination against MoMA PS1.

The museum has yet to make any statement about Black, and its director, Glenn Lowry, declined a request for comment. Members of its board and staff have not publicly voiced any disapproval of Black, whose personal fortune is estimated at more than $8 billion. And there have been signs that Black, who became chair of the museum’s board in 2018, plans to stay on.

In a brief email addressed to his “Fellow Trustees” at the museum that was sent Monday and which was obtained by The New York Times, Black wrote that he “wanted to continue my transparent communication with our MoMA family and share with you the letter I sent to Apollo’s limited partners today.” He signed off by saying that “I look forward to seeing you at our February board meeting.”

Some activists in the museum field are calling for Black’s removal. “An educational, tax-exempt institution like MoMA should not tolerate individuals like Black on its board,” the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist art collective, said in a statement. “Time for him to go.”

The Guerrilla Girls said that it had broken its book contract with Phaidon Press, which was bought in 2012 by Black, after learning about Black’s dealings with Epstein. “The art world has some dark corners,” the group added in its statement, “and Leon Black lives in one of them.”

In 2019, the Guerrilla Girls posted an ad on a phone booth across the street from MoMA that called on the museum to oust Black as well as hedge fund manager Glenn Dubin, another trustee, both of whom have MoMA galleries named after them.

“Leon Black and Glenn Dubin had very close personal ties, transactions, and exchanges with Jeffrey Epstein, both before and after Epstein’s conviction for sex trafficking,” the Guerrilla Girls told Hyperallergic at the time. “MoMA galleries named after Black and Dubin are an insult to museum-goers and to everyone who has experienced sexual assault.”

In recent years several major cultural institutions have found themselves facing questions about the actions of the donors they count on for their survival. Carnegie Hall is standing by the chairman of its board, Robert F. Smith, a billionaire philanthropist who admitted to playing a supporting role in what federal prosecutors called the largest tax evasion case in U.S. history — and who acknowledged that he had “willfully failed to report” over $200 million in income. (Smith signed a nonprosecution agreement in which he agreed to pay large fines and cooperate with investigators.)

In 2019, a contingent of activists succeeded in forcing Warren Kanders to step down as a vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, over his company’s sale of tear gas that was reportedly used against migrants at the United States-Mexico border (Kanders subsequently got out of the tear gas business).

Decolonize This Place, the group that led the Whitney protests, said in a statement on Tuesday that Black’s continued leadership of MoMA “is only the latest example of how the oligarchic composition of museum boards is complicit in grave social harms.”

“It underscores that what is at stake here is not just toxic philanthropy,” the group added, “but a toxic system of wealth and power that must be overhauled.”

Inside MoMA, there are several women on the board who have privately expressed concern about Black, 69, remaining as chair, according to two people who have spoken with them. But overall, the trustees seem to feel indebted to Black for his board service, his largesse and the valuable artworks he may eventually give to MoMA from his extensive private collection.

He and his wife, Debra, gave $40 million to the museum in 2018, in honor of which MoMA created the Debra and Leon Black Family Film Center, which includes multimedia exhibition galleries and two theaters.

Black’s art collection is considered among the finest in the world. Those who have visited his Upper East Side town house — which housed the former Knoedler art gallery — describe it as comparable to a private museum.

In 2012, Black paid nearly $120 million at Sotheby’s for Edvard Munch’s 1895 version of “The Scream,” making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction at the time. Black then lent it to MoMA for six months.

In 2016, Black won the right to keep a famed Pablo Picasso bust for which he had paid about $106 million after a member of the Qatari royal family claimed he had bought the work for about $42 million.

Like Apollo’s biggest clients — including major pension funds and charitable foundations — MoMA had been awaiting the results of an independent review, ordered by the firm’s board in October after the Times reported that the total amount sent by Black to Epstein could be as high as $75 million.

But the report’s conclusions were mixed, finding that Epstein had provided “legitimate advice” on financial matters, including some related to Black’s art collection, and that Black believed that Epstein deserved a second chance after a 2008 prostitution charge involving a teenage girl. The report said that Epstein had advised Black on the contested Picasso sculpture and his art loans, and given tax advice on the Phaidon purchase.

The review, conducted by the law firm Dechert, also found no evidence that Black participated in Epstein’s criminal activities or that Epstein ever introduced Black to any underage girl.

In his letter to the limited partners, Black said that he would step down as Apollo’s chief executive — a move he had long been contemplating — but that he would stay on as chair.

Black also said that he would donate $200 million “toward initiatives that seek to achieve gender equality and protect and empower women,” including those in the arts, “as well as helping survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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