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Here’s a new approach to funding prison reform: sell your artwork. According to the New York Times, that’s exactly what an art collector and patron has done. The patron donated $100 million from the proceeds of a $165 million sale of her pop art painting. New Yorker Agnes Gund,78, sold her 1962 Roy Lichtenstein painting “Masterpiece” to raise money for prison justice reform. She earmarked the funds to be used for the reduction of mass incarceration and established the Art for Justice Fund.

This is real. NPR reports that on June 11, 2017, “the New York Times confirmed the sale. . . noting that the painting becomes one of the 15 most expensive pieces of art known to have been sold.”

What’s Going on Here?

After reading this account of generosity, I wondered what compelled Agnes Gund to take the public-spirited steps leading to her altruistic justice fund. Why is Ms. Gund interested in prison justice reform? What’s compelled her generosity when there are so many other avenues for distribution of her wealth?

The answer is that the perceived threat to family members, with good cause, created a visceral awareness for her cause. In my post What Does Prison Reform Mean?, I identified the four categories of prison reform people I’d been exposed to: (1) the detached, (2) the ill-informed and content, (3) the vicariously exposed, and (4) current and past inmates.

Ms. Gund’s generosity is grounded in category 3. Category 3 people have had—or fear they may have—a vicarious prison experience through someone they love or care about. The prospect of a loved one becoming enmeshed in the prison system is a repugnant thought.

My post points out additional traits of Category 3 people:

  • A desire to learn more about the politics behind current prison conditions
  • A humanistic view of how overcrowding can harm people
  • A realistic view of how prison is punitive and not rehabilitative

The Times report identifies Ms. Gund’s incentives to raise a large sum of money for prison reform:

  • Gund, who is Caucasian, has twelve grandchildren, six of whom are of African American decent.
  • Gund worries about her grandchildren’s futures as they mature, “particularly in light of shootings of black teenagers like Trayvon Martin.”
  • “The criminal justice system in its current state—particularly in its treatment of people of color—is unfair and unjust,” Gund said in a statement reported by NPR.

The Art for Justice Fund has some very specific criteria for the use of the $100 million donation. Watch this short video to understand the details of Ms. Gund’s motivation—the information is impactful.

Ms. Gund has also educated herself on prison reform issues. According to the Times coverage about her generosity, she was “deeply affected by Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and by Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary ‘13th,’  about African Americans [actually all prisoners] in the prison system” that rules by enforced slavery, allowed by the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

DuVernay’s documentary inspired me to research and write about the racial disparities in incarceration and the racial drug-sentencing disparities in this country. What I found was an exception to the generally accepted principle that there is no slavery in this country.

I came to four conclusions after studying the data in the context of contemporary social norms. The impact of the Thirteenth Amendment exception to prison slavery can be applied to black inmates using deductive reasoning that goes like this:

  • All inmates are enslaved by the Thirteenth Amendment exception.
  • There are over 2.3 million inmates in the United States.
  • There are more than one million black inmates in this country.
  • Therefore, there is a disproportionate number of blacks in our prisons.


Agnes Gund should be recognized for her significant contribution for creating the Art for Justice Fund. Her motivation for getting involved is the purest and most amicable. Her fear that her family will be touched by an overbearing, insensitive, and racially bent criminal justice system is a compelling cause to use her wealth as a vehicle for education and change.

Ms. Gund’s urging of other art collectors to sell their art to fight for justice makes her a heroic champion for change for incarcerated people without voices or the power to make change happen.


Roy Fox Lichtenstein painting images courtesy of 123rf

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