Agnes Gund Sells “Masterpiece” for $165M to Seed Criminal Justice Fund

Photo: A visitor stands in front of Masterpiece during a press preview of “Lichtenstein, a Retrospective” at the Tate Modern in London in 2013. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Celebrated art collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund has sold Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 painting, Masterpiece, for $165 to raise money for criminal justice reform.

The famous painting, which shows a blonde woman crowing to a young man, “Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!” is one of the greatest works of Pop Art, combining comic book style with tongue-in-cheek commentary of world of fine art.

Billionaire hedge fund manager and art collector Steven A. Cohen reportedly purchased the work in January through Acquavella Gallery, according to The Baer Faxt, an art industry newsletter. On Monday, The New York Times confirmed the sale, noting that the $150M price tag puts it “among the 15 highest known prices ever paid for an artwork.”

Also: Ava DuVernay’s Documentary “13TH” Exposes the Horrors of Modern Day Slavery in the USA

Gund is teaming up with the Ford Foundation to launch Art for Justice Fund, designed to finance criminal justice reform. She is asking other collectors to do the same, with the aim of raising another $100M over the next five years.

Among those who have already committed to being founding donors are: American Express chief executive Kenneth I. Chenault and his wife Katheryn, financier Daniel S. Loeb, chairwoman of the Whitney Museum of American Art Laurie M. Tisch, philanthropist Jo Carole Lauder and Whitney trustee Brooke Neidich.

The fund will provide grants to organizations and leaders in the field such as the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL, that are working to reduce prison populations and improve education and employment opportunities for former inmates.

Gund’s decision to start Art for Justice came from a deeply personal place: six of her 12 grandchildren are African-American, and she understands the reality that they face growing up in the nation today.

“This is the one thing I can do before I die,” the 78-year-old told The New York Times.

Gund noted that Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and by Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13TH had a tremendous impact on her.

The New York Times reports that after seeing 13TH, Gund called longtime friend Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. Walker told The Times, “She said, ‘I really want to do something to help here. What if I sold one of my jewels and we used the proceeds to make grants to organizations working on mass incarceration?’”

The film, which premiered last fall was a central catalyst to taking action at the highest levels of society. Gund cuts against the grain by supporting criminal justice reform, an area that Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative tells The Times, “has never been very popular in philanthropy.”

Participation in the Fund does not require the sale of artwork; any kind of support is welcome. For more information visit Art for Justice Fund.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.