Agnes Gund and Mark Bradford on Art and Social Justice

Bradford in the Process Collettivo organic garden, Giudecca Women’s Prison, Venice, Italy. Photo: Agata Gravante

  • Sep 17, 2019
  • Excerpt from Ursula: Issue 4

Agnes Gund, the pioneering collector and former president of the Museum of Modern Art, has devoted her life to a form of activist arts philanthropy that stands as a paradigm not only for her generation but also for those to come.

To address the near-elimination of arts education in public schools during the New York City fiscal crisis in 1977, she used her resources to begin Studio in a School, a nonprofit that sends professional artists into schools and community organizations to lead classes and assist teachers; to date the organization has reached more than 850,000 students with its programs. For that and other efforts, she received the 1997 National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and art patrons by the United States government. Two years ago, in what may come to be seen as the defining act of her charitable career, Gund sold one of her most prized paintings, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 Masterpiece, and devoted $100 million from the proceeds to found Art for Justice, a five-year initiative aimed at addressing the failings of the criminal justice and penal system—particularly its racial biases—through cultural grants, administered with the help of the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Agnes Gund, 2014. Photo: Annie Leibovitz. Courtesy Agnes Gund

Mark Bradford in his studio, Los Angeles. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Mark Bradford, one of the most esteemed painters of his generation, has worked for much of his career to address the community needs of the South Los Angeles neighborhood where he was raised, efforts that have broadened in recent years into wide-ranging social-justice initiatives. The recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award and the 2017 representative of the United States at the Venice Biennale, Bradford co-founded Art + Practice (A+P), a nonprofit organization that grew out of his community work, with the assistance of his partner, Allan DiCastro, and philanthropist and art collector Eileen Harris Norton, in 2014. A+P houses the nonprofit social-service provider First Place for Youth, which helps foster youth who are transitioning from the foster care system find housing, education and employment support; it also hires youth from First Place as paid interns and helps pay for their education. A+P welcomes world-class museums and other institutions to its campus to organize exhibitions and public programs that champion artists of color and seek to diversify contemporary art audiences. This year, the sale of a limited-edition sculptural print created by Bradford—‘Life Size,’ an unsettling and purposely ambiguous rendering of a police body camera—has raised several hundred thousand dollars in support for Gund’s Art for Justice program.

Against a backdrop of powerful social-justice movements now underway in the United States and around the world—deeply embattled efforts to bring about what the essayist Masha Gessen has described as ‘an entirely different structure of power’—Gund and Bradford sat down recently to talk. This is an edited transcript of their conversation, moderated by Randy Kennedy.

Randy Kennedy: Maybe it would be best to start by talking about when the two of you first met. And because it’s what both of you do, I thought that the heart of the conversation might be about social justice and its relationship to the art world, which you’ve thought about in overlapping ways.

Mark Bradford: What struck me about what Aggie did with Art for Justice was the simplicity. I’m reading a lot of articles now about museums selling off certain artists’ work to buy other artists’ work, to try to fill big holes in their collections, such as a lack of women of color. And Aggie sees that and has an idea: she takes a single work, one of the best she has, one of the best of its kind, and she decides to turn it into a kind of endowment. That simple gesture was even more meaningful because of who you are, Aggie, and what you’ve already done. I’d heard of you, obviously, for years. I’d heard of the collection in your home. Honestly, I can’t remember the first time we actually met, but I know when we did meet, it was just so comfortable.

Agnes Gund: It really was…Wait, before we get into it, I have to ask you, Mark, did you hear about your friend Jesse Krimes? He’s got this new fellowship with the Civil Rights Corps. [Krimes, a Philadelphia artist who served most of a six-year prison sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, became a vocal prison-reform activist upon his release and now works to help formerly incarcerated artists. The Civil Rights Corps, founded in 2016 and based in Washington, pursues criminal-justice reform litigation, primarily against bail practices that discriminate against the poor.]

MB: Oh, yes!

Jesse Krimes, Tumbling Blocks, 2019; hand-sewn fabric, image transfer, acrylic paint

Youths in the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network program work on a mural, Camp Rocky, 2016. Courtesy AIYN and Art for Justice. Photo: Cam Sanders; Bradford and a foster youth install a photo mural wrap to the outside of the Art Deco building on Art + Practice campus, Leimert Park, L.A., 2014. Photo: Sean Shim-Boyle

AG: Jesse is teaming up with people to create something called the Mass Incarceration Quilt, which will be a touring show of quilts with images made by prisoners, and that is really due to you. I was with a bunch of people visiting your studio, and I remember you honed in on him. Jesse and another man in the group, Russell Craig, were both artists who had recently been released from prison. You got both of them to talk. I hadn’t known them to be very talkative in the past, but they were really open with you. Jesse and Russell are both Art for Justice grantees.

MB: I didn’t know that they had been incarcerated when they came with the group. Russell had been in foster care. In just talking, he casually mentioned, ‘Oh, I was in care.’ And I was so surprised because you don’t typically see that in museum groups—someone who’s been a foster kid—when they come to your studio. But he felt safe enough to talk, and then it led to a conversation that really became a sharing thing. I asked both of them what the critical needs were for the people they help. They said, ‘We need employment and we need mental-health support.’ Just getting a job sometimes is not enough; people need those wrap-around services once they leave that system.

AG: Thank you for pointing that out, because I think that’s one of the most important things that these young men and women don’t get. Many of them were convicted for low-level drug possession—mainly marijuana—and the state courts gave out sentences that were mandatory. And because they couldn’t pay for a lawyer to properly defend them, they ended up getting such incredibly stiff sentences, sentences that put them into a kind of cycle that is very difficult to escape.

‘What keeps me up at night is the Mark before art school, when I was in the public school system, and I kind of fell through the cracks. When I could not find that safe space in my local neighborhood to express myself…it’s a miracle I got out.’—Bradford

RK: Aggie, you’ve been involved in various aspects of social justice—can you talk about what led you to want to put a lot of resources into the issue of incarceration as opposed to, say, education?

AG: Well, I think the decisive moment was seeing Ava DuVernay’s movie 13th [the Academy Award–nominated 2016 documentary, which makes the case that mass incarceration and many aspects of the criminal justice system are racialized systems of control deeply related to slavery and Jim Crow]. But really, the reason I started Art for Justice was because I have six black grandchildren and their lives have opened my eyes to many things. I thought, ‘I’ve just got to do something.’ Our system is so skewed towards putting black people in prison. In California, where you live, Mark, and in New York, where I live, there’s more of an interest in addressing systemic racism, but on the whole, in many states, it still very much exists. Do you find discrimination even now, as a well-known, successful artist?

MB: Oh, yes. The discrimination now is just more subtle. And it’s always taken its own forms in the art world. I remember when, 25 years ago studying painting, there were a lot of questions around abstraction and figuration, and questions to me, like: ‘Why don’t you want to depict your culture more figuratively?’ Or it would be suggested that identity should be more upfront, that I should spell it out more.

Of course, now there has been more opening up, but if you look at art history, it’s far from balanced. There are still huge holes in the art world. I think we are addressing some of that now. The deep historical disparities among races, genders, classes—those are all conversations that we’re finally having now in ways that seem to be sticking.

AG: It’s gotten much looser in many ways, in art and in society in general. But not, I think, in many places in the middle of the country. Not in Ohio, where I come from, or even in Cleveland. And a lot of that can be traced back to huge ongoing problems in the education system, in school systems that are still essentially segregated and so lopsided in resources. Which is something that I wish I could do more about, but it’s a big problem and there’s only so much money.

Rally on the steps of the State Capitol for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives Coalition Lobby Day, 2019. Courtesy Voice of the Experienced and Art for Justice

MB: There are the people and then there are the power structures. Looking at the power structures, you see a construct of America that badly needs to be questioned and challenged. And I think that we’re also questioning what a philanthropist looks like in the 21st century. What does an artist look like in the 21st century? Those are questions we’ve both been asking. When I first started becoming an artist, there were so many rules—I found a lot of it old-fashioned. I thought, ‘Well, who said?’ There are as many different ways to be an artist as there are artists. And on the philanthropy side, I’ve always been obsessed not with the resources of a Mark Bradford when I finally got to CalArts and found my tribe in the art world and started having shows where I could speak in my own voice. That’s not what keeps me up at night. What keeps me up at night is the Mark before art school, when I was in the public school system, and I kind of fell through the cracks. When I could not find that safe space in my local neighborhood to express myself, and it’s a miracle I got out. That’s what keeps me up at night.

AG: You don’t think that’s changing enough?

MB: It is changing. What you’re doing is changing it. What many people are doing is changing it. Art and artists and writers and collectors and philanthropists and everyone, we can belong wherever we choose to belong. Your background, Aggie, certainly did not prepare you to build bridges between who you are and mass incarceration. You did it because you chose to do it, because you decided to put yourself on the line for it. More than the financial help that’s involved, I look at the importance of it as bridge building. A lot of unexpected bridge building.

AG: What have you been surprised by?

MB: I’ve been surprised by how simple it really can be. We make the idea of building the bridge too complex in our minds, and we’re not prepared for the conversations once we get there. We’re talking so much about building the bridge, and then once we get to the site that the bridge will take us to, sometimes we’re unprepared for it. I say let’s build the bridge really quick, and let’s get the conversation going. Don’t wear yourself out talking about how to help and overthinking and overpreparing. Just go out and do something.

RK: In your position now as an artist with considerable power in the art world, Mark, have you found that such bridges aren’t as hard to build as people think?

AG: You do have to have a clear idea that you can unite people around.

Mark Bradford, Frostbite, 2019 © Mark Bradford. Photo: Joshua White

MB: And you also have the intent and the purpose. I knew, for example, that being chosen to represent the United States in Venice was a big thing, and I started thinking, ‘Okay, what exactly does that mean to me?’ What I knew for sure was that it wasn’t just about what I was going to do in the American pavilion with the art. I didn’t know anything more than that. I didn’t even know where to start, but I did know that I wanted to do something else. And what I found when I started working with Rio Terà [Rio Terà dei Pensieri, a social cooperative in Venice with which Bradford is collaborating to establish job opportunities for formerly imprisoned women and men] was that it was not that difficult to build a bridge—people just want to be heard, they want to be validated. And as long as you do a lot of listening, you can have a conversation.

AG: Don’t you think that you’ve already built a solid background? People know that you care about certain things, and you’ve become a place for people to direct attention and seek help and get advice. It makes me think about Bryan Stevenson [founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which has challenged entrenched bias against the poor and minorities in the justice system]. He’s built such a wide audience, and he’s gotten so many people to go to Montgomery and other parts of the South to see firsthand how things are. And that, to me, is one of the best ways to spread ideas: It’s to get people together in places where they might not necessarily be together, to talk to each other in ways that they might never, ordinarily.

MB: You’ve got to have passion for it—Stevenson has a tremendous amount of passion, which persuades people. And you have to have a lot of intent. You really do have to do it for the right reasons. I know it sounds super corny, but on some level, you have to sincerely want to leave the world a little bit better than how you found it. I always say that the best way to heal any trauma, for me personally, is to do something for someone else. That has made a big difference in my own life.

‘I think I’m happiest when I go to the schools and look at our program. Art really does take you away from the ordinary. I can only get that through art...It transforms me.’—Gund

AG: When did you start to think about that? Was it before you started doing your art?

MB: God no. I was just trying to survive. But I saw something in the faces of the people that I would come to work with later. I would see their kindred spirit. I saw it in Jesse’s face. You know when you’ve touched someone, when you’ve helped someone meet a goal that they have been struggling to reach. It reminds me of me. And it just heals something.

RK: I’m curious what both of you think about the ability of art itself—the work itself, aside from financial support and arts philanthropy and art education—to effect social change. There’s the strain of thought running through the 20th century, but going back even further, to figures like Oscar Wilde, who wrote, ‘All art is quite useless,’ that holds that art has, or should have, no real social utility other than for itself. But there are a lot of young artists now who make art very much as activists and feel that art is not worthwhile unless it is working actively for social change.

MB: Well, all art starts with an idea, right? You’re activating a young person’s thinking process to use their imagination as a space that they can enter into and they can move things around—the sooner they learn that, the better. It’s giving that child permission to use their imagination and their ideas. When the world was sometimes not a safe place, before there was such a thing as an Xbox or a smartphone, you could go in and use your imagination. I do believe that if you’re not simply looking at a piece of art as something that hangs on the wall or as a sculpture you walk around, but if you really expose the young person to the ideas of why Henry Moore made that sculpture or why Jasper Johns made that target, it gives young people permission to think about ideas, and that is endless and powerful. I think it goes with everything.

Mark Bradford, stills from Dancing in the Street, 2019 © Mark Bradford

RK: When you were young, was that space of the imagination, of finding some kind of power in imagination, important for you?

MB: Oh god, yes. It saved me. When the world was a little too hostile—and the world was oftentimes hostile towards me—I always had my imagination. Walking down a block with bullies, maybe the block frightened me, but I could go inside of my own imagination and be somewhere else walking down another street. I could be walking down a street on Mars and thinking about what Mars would look like, instead of walking down that scary street.

AG: Was that something that happened to you a lot?

MB: Oh, absolutely. We didn’t call it bullying in the ’70s; we just called it getting your ass whooped. That space of the imagination and creativity might seem to some people to be different in the digital era. But if you look at young people and the way they use their phones, and the way they send texts and Instagram and use filters and emojis, they’re still using the same impulses of creativity, just with different tools. They’re editing, they’re filtering, they’re splicing, they’re posting and messaging. It’s not what we did: We used paper and glitter and macaroni, man! But there’s still a basic impulse in people to create that will never really change. They’re just doing it in a very different way than we did it. It’s still completely alive, just in a different space. So yes, I do think art itself is important. And believing that is not corny.

AG: I agree that art does change minds. I watched Glenn Ligon come to one of our schools the other day to talk about his art with kids, a group of sixth graders. When he started, I thought, ‘Will he be able to capture them?’ But he really got them thinking by going systematically through how he worked and how he used his imagination. He talked about how he began and what he did to get where he is, and why he used the materials he did. And they were able to do some things after he left that they wouldn’t have done before because he transferred a sense of imagination to them. It was wonderful to watch. That’s why I’m happiest when I go to the schools and look at our program. Art really does take you away from the ordinary. I can only get that through art. If you are interested in theater or dance, of course you can get it that way too. But for me it’s always been art. It transforms me. For instance, you look at this Twombly that I’m looking at now [Gund points across her living room to an imposing, spare, highly calligraphic Cy Twombly painting in her collection], you look with a sense of complete wonder at what Twombly did to make that work. It’s so subjective. It could be seen as just so many…splotches. But it works powerfully in a way that cannot be explained.

MB: It just works. I feel the same.

RK: In talking to younger people in L.A., through your Art + Practice programs, do you find that young people have hope in the face of the political crisis taking place in this country? Especially students of color, who are just now becoming politically aware and realizing that they have a president who is stoking the racism and xenophobia of his base and reenergizing the monsters that have always been there in the cracks in American history.

‘When you put enough pressure on a people…it often causes an explosion of arts and film and culture, which leads to change. It’s almost like the context creates it. Squeeze culture hard enough and something meaningful comes out, as it did during the AIDS crisis.’—Bradford

MB: I’ll tell you that it is really kind of great. We’ve seen record numbers of young people getting involved in the political process. They’re talking about it, they’re talking about Trump, they’re talking about policy. That is one positive thing that is coming out of all this. Many more people are aware of the political climate. You would never have had this 10 years ago—so many more young people are aware. I think young people are always hopeful, but this is a new kind of involvement. And I lived through the ’80s and the AIDS crisis.

AG: My daughter Catherine had a friend who had AIDS, and she would go to see him. He had fallen out of bed one night before they went, so they had to set up an around-the-clock watch in his room to make sure he wouldn’t fall again. It was just awful to think of so many young people dying and other young people eulogizing their friends who had died, an entire generation. You have to remember how often it was artists, like Keith Haring, who helped bring the crisis of AIDS to the fore.

MB: When you put enough pressure on a people or when a policy or crisis presses down so much on them, it often causes an explosion of arts and film and culture, which leads to change. It’s almost like the context creates it. Squeeze culture hard enough and something meaningful comes out, as it did during the AIDS crisis. It does remind me a little bit of this moment, which was hard to see coming and then you’re just right in the middle of it. So what do we do with it?

RK: Meaning Trump?

MB: Trump’s just the gasoline. Obviously, a lot of these ideas had to be here or they wouldn’t have taken flight to the extent they have. First you go, ‘I can’t believe we’re here.’ But at a point you have to say, ‘We’re here. Now what am I going to do with this moment? How am I going to make work out of this moment? How am I going to live out this moment and be in this moment?’ We are all thinking of living through this moment, but living with our eyes very open.

Students from ICEF Innovation Charter School watch Maren Hassinger: The Spirit of Things at A + P, Leimert Park, L.A., 2018. Photo: Natalie Hon

Opening reception for ‘Head Back and High: Senga Nengudi, Performance Objects (1976–2017)’ at A + P, Leimert Park, L.A., 2018. Photo: Josiah Green

AG: How do you erase something like the Trump phenomenon?

MB: You can’t erase it.

AG: When he did things like the public crusade he undertook to vilify the Central Park Five? How can you try to make sure that something like that never happens again in this city, or anywhere?

MB: By doing what you’re doing. By activating yourself. By being more present and lifting your voice publicly. I think people are getting busy. Lots of people are woke, and I think they’re going to stay woke. The way the commander in chief thinks and acts and speaks does hurt, but I don’t wallow that long in the hurt. I work, I take that energy, and I put it somewhere where I can help. What else are you going to do with it? The help can lead to a bigger conversation.

AG: It seems to me you’ve done that with ‘Life Size,’ which makes people think about police body cameras and what effect they have on policing when they are used.

MB: It’s a very loaded image. It’s this thing that’s supposed to protect us, but doesn’t always protect us, and sometimes is a false comfort.

AG: Don’t you think the cameras have had some effect for good?

MB: Yes, they have.

AG: The police know they’re being watched in a way they maybe weren’t before…

MB: Sometimes. But it only goes so far. It’s so much more fundamental than bad cops, bad policing. We have an environment where people in power tell other people they don’t have value. This administration tells people of color and immigrants that over and over and over again. We can’t wait for other people to tell us that we have value. We have to make it for ourselves.

RK: The image of the body camera reads as such an ambivalent symbol—powerful, like an ancient totem as you rendered it in the print, but also almost ominous.

MB: I wanted to leave in that ambivalence. It’s not Superman. It’s loaded, and I wanted to highlight that. It’s in the same realm of ambivalence as the penal system itself, which says that it just wants you to pay your debt to society and learn your lesson and get out and become a productive citizen, but when people get out they’re penalized again and set up to fail. They can’t find a job because of their record. They can’t find this, they can’t find that.

AG: They have no place to go.

MB: These men and women have done their time. But they have this indelible mark.

AG: I feel very much that that’s why I wanted to do something about it. They are so marginalized when they go into the system and when they come out. There is still not much help, even after all these years of mass incarceration. I have a friend who went to prison for only four months. He was at Rikers. I asked him to tell me some of the things that affected him, and he said, ‘It really comes down to the way people are treated.’

MB: It’s the stigma. And to be sustainable, you need a job. If you have a job, you can find a place to live. But without a job, because you have that stigma, it’s always going to be a struggle. People also need mental health support because you have to have help after being in that kind of system. I find that working with foster youth as well. Those are the big tenets: a job, a place to live and mental health all go hand in hand.

RK: There seems to be some movement toward changing sentencing laws for drug-related offenses. Do you have any sense that the political fulcrum is tipping?

MB: There’s definitely more conversation around it in the public. We have officially acknowledged that this is an epidemic problem, even on the political right.

AG: I think it is changing. And some of the people that you would least expect to be interested in talking about it are interested in what prisoners have to go through.

MB: Bryan and other great people have done a lot of work around this, and the films that have come out recently—it is part of the national conversation now. But we have to work to keep it in the conversation.

Process Collettivo, Malefatte Recycled PVC Lab, Venice, Italy. Photo: Agata Gravante

RK: I wanted to ask you both about the institutional art world. There have been recent upheavals over museum support by the Sackler family, because of the role it played in the opioid crisis, and the Met and the Guggenheim have said they are no longer accepting donations from the family. [After this conversation, the Louvre removed the family’s name from a wing.] There is the opposition to Warren Kanders, the Whitney vice chair. [Kanders stepped down in July, after months of protests over his company’s sale of tear gas.] These protests seem to be headed into some very difficult territory in the world of museums and boards. Do you think the institutional art world is doing enough to examine its sources of support to make sure they aren’t antithetical to their missions?

MB: As we try to move more towards transparency, man, you really start to see the foundations of some things, and quite frankly, it’s troubling. I mean, that’s part of what we’re addressing. I’m talking also, broadly, about art history and about who’s in that history in museums. Even just with abstract painting in the Americas, you start to see who’s not there. And you start to see the politics around who makes those decisions and who’s on the boards and who gets hired on the staff. It’s the same kind of lens that I think we’re opening up in other areas and, man, some of it is real uncomfortable. Should you not do it because it’s uncomfortable? I don’t think so.

RK: Aggie, what’s your sense regarding boards of large institutions like ones you’ve been involved with?

AG: I really don’t see boards on their way to becoming more open yet. I think the trouble is that what it takes to buy yourself onto a board is a lot different than it was a few years ago. I mean, it could be 10 million dollars now. It used to be much less in some cases, around 200, 300, 400 thousand dollars. The kind of wealth that becomes necessary changes the nature of boards and makes them less diverse.

MB: You just have to bring people onto boards for more than monetary reasons. You have to bring people from different areas—from activism, from art, from public planning. The metrics can’t always be who’s going to write the biggest check. If you let people say, ‘I can write the biggest check so I have the biggest voice,’ that’s always dangerous.

RK: Who can change that? Can artists like you help change that conversation? In your city, MOCA has had artists on the board for years.

MB: I think all of us are going to change it. Like a lot of things, it can’t keep going on the way it is.

AG: MoMA PS1, for instance, has artists on the board now. MoMA still doesn’t, but I think they’re willing to open it up, and I think eventually it is going to change.

MB: It has to. The conversation about art and what gets seen and who sees it involves all of us. So we all need a place at the table.

Forming the largest exhibition to date of the artist’s work in China, ‘Mark Bradford: Los Angeles’ is on view at the Long Museum in Shanghai from 27 July – 13 October 2019. Bradford has created a new work ‘Float’ responding to the architecture of the museum, which will expand across 12 meters from floor to ceiling. Included from a diverse selection of other recent works are Bradford’s new series of large-scale paintings (2018 – 2019), which use material to investigate the civil unrest experienced in 1965 in Los Angeles during the Watts Rebellion. This fall, Bradford will present an exhibition of new works at Hauser & Wirth London entitled ‘Cerberus.’