Image via Dan Kitwood/Getty

Five months ago, art collector Agnes Gund sold one of the most valuable paintings in her collection—Roy Lichtenstein’s “Masterpiece”—for an eye-popping $165 million. On Monday, she explained why she did it: to start a fund supporting criminal justice reform.

“This is one thing I can do before I die,” Gund, who is 78, told The New York Times.


“Masterpiece” used to hang over Gund’s mantel. In January, she sold it to hedge fund manager Steve Cohen. When she made the sale, she had her grandchildren in mind.

Gund, who is white, has twelve grandchildren, six of whom are black. She told the Times she had long worried about their safety, “particularly in light of shootings of black teenagers like Trayvon Martin in Florida.”

Image via Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images.

The art collector, who is the president emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, was also inspired by the Michelle Alexander book The New Jim Crow and by Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th. Both works extensively document the way African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the U.S. mass incarceration industry.


After Gund saw the film, she called Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, to see if there was any way she could personally help.

Eventually, she and Walker decided to create a new fund, called “Art for Justice,” with the goal of giving financial support to other organizations that are currently working to promote criminal justice reform. According to the fund’s website, specific goals include “safely cutting the prison population in states with the highest rates of incarceration” and “strengthening the education and employment options for people leaving prison.”


Grants will also be given to artistic organizations dedicated to projects that “bear witness to the injustices” of the incarceration system.

In a statement, Walker cited the moral imperatives laid out by Martin Luther King when explaining why the Ford Foundation had decided to partner with Gund on the initiative:

I’m reminded of a turbulent time in America – 1968 – when Dr. King was asked at the height of the Civil Rights movement whether America had become a “burning house”—and he replied, “we’re just going to have to become the firemen.”

Aggie is one such firefighter for justice, running courageously and selflessly toward one of our nation’s most daunting crises.


Other prominent art collectors, including Laurie Tisch, a chairwoman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, have already pledged to follow in Gund’s wake.

Splinter Editorial Intern and Breakfast Cereal Enthusiast

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