I did not see much, however, about such urgent matters as income inequality, deindustrialization or the rise of populism. Why, I wondered, was there not more on the impact of Wall Street on Main Street or the continuing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis — the root of so much unrest in the world today?
A spokeswoman for the museum said that its trustees have no decision-making role in its exhibitions, which are determined solely by the museum’s “strong curatorial staff” in regular consultation with artists. Yet a board’s influence need not be overt to be profound; curators are no doubt savvy enough to know how far they can go in challenging a system of which their trustees are such pillars. In the end, it’s hard to measure the impact of trustees’ wealth on a museum’s content, and no doubt someone will be able to point to this or that exception, but it’s a subject that deserves much more discussion than it has received.
For the superwealthy, membership on museum boards brings many benefits, including an increase in social status, access to other powerful people and an enhancement of one’s image. Steven A. Cohen offers a good example. As the head of SAC Capital, the hedge fund he founded in 1992, Mr. Cohen amassed a fortune exceeding $9 billion, but he sought respect and recognition as well, and the art market surely helped him attain them. Over time, he and his wife, Alexandra, put together a collection of works by Picasso, de Kooning, Pollock, Warhol, Koons and others valued at $1 billion.
Mr. Cohen and his firm later came under investigation for insider trading. One of his managers was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison, and SAC Capital had to pay $1.8 billion in fines. Mr. Cohen himself never faced criminal charges, but in January 2016 he was barred from managing outside investor money for two years.
That spring, Mr. Cohen joined MoMA’s board. In June 2017, the museum announced that he and his wife were donating $50 million to its capital campaign and that to acknowledge the gift, it was naming its largest contiguous gallery the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Center for Special Exhibitions. The Cohens, Glenn Lowry declared, are “incredible philanthropists” whose “longtime generosity to the museum exemplifies their deep commitment to sharing the art of our time with the widest possible audience.” The value of such a statement to Mr. Cohen’s reputation was inestimable.
MoMA’s chairman, Leon Black, is also an avid art collector. In 2012 he bought a version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at auction for $119.9 million — the most ever paid for a work at auction at the time. Mr. Black’s net worth is estimated at $7 billion, most of it derived from Apollo Global Management, the private equity company he heads, which specializes in buying up companies, restructuring them and selling them for a profit.