Leon Black to Step Down as MoMA Chairman
In the wake of protests from artists and activists over his ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the investor agreed not to stand for re-election in June.,
In the face of mounting pressure from prominent artists and activists about his financial ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the investor Leon Black told colleagues Friday that he would not stand for re-election as the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, according to two people with knowledge of his decision.
Mr. Black announced his decision to the board’s executive committee at a specially convened remote meeting on Friday afternoon, according to someone with knowledge of the meeting who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it. He planned to inform the full board of his intentions when it meets next week.
The news that Mr. Black did not plan to run for re-election as the museum’s chairman in June was the latest fallout from the revelation earlier this year that he had paid $158 million to Mr. Epstein for tax and estate advisory services — payments that began several years after Mr. Epstein had pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting prostitution from a teenage girl.
After the size of his payments was revealed in January, Mr. Black had initially announced that he would step down this year as chief executive of Apollo Global Management, the giant private equity firm he co-founded, but added that he intended to remain Apollo’s chairman. On Monday, Apollo made the surprise announcement that Mr. Black, 69, was stepping down as chief executive earlier than anticipated and giving up the chairmanship, citing his and his wife’s health as major factors in the decision.
It was not an easy decision for Mr. Black to suddenly step away from Apollo. A review for Apollo’s board, conducted by the law firm Dechert, had not found any wrongdoing on his part. But that did little to quiet the controversy about his dealings with Mr. Epstein, who killed himself inside a Manhattan jail cell in 2019 while facing federal sex-trafficking charges.
By several accounts, Mr. Black had also wrestled with how to proceed at MoMA. Mr. Black decided to tell the executive committee that as a longtime supporter of MoMA, he did not want to become a distraction to the institution by seeking another term, said two people briefed on his decision. He is expected to remain on the board after stepping down as chairman.
Several artists and supporters of MoMA had said that Mr. Black’s decision to pay large fees to Mr. Epstein after his conviction — he also lent Mr. Epstein $30 million — raised questions about whether he should continue to represent the institution. Several MoMA trustees came to believe that Mr. Black had become a damaging distraction.
“I would feel ashamed to be associated with the MoMA if it takes a firm position in keeping someone who has been confirmed to have hurt basic values or has worked against truth and fairness,” the artist Ai Weiwei said in an email interview last month. “If so, I hope they won’t include any of my works in their collection.” He said Friday that it was “the right decision” for Mr. Black to step down.
Michael Rakowitz, one of more than 150 artists who in February had spoken out about Mr. Black, said that he believed that Mr. Black, and several other MoMA board members, should step down from the board altogether.
“MoMA has refused comment on every story that has emerged about Leon Black,” he said in an email. “The museum stays silent while we as artists are asked to speak. Beyond speaking, I look forward to collectively imagining an ecosystem that does not enlist our content to go on display in institutions whose board members create the very conditions in the world that many of us are devoted to dismantling.”
It was not immediately clear who would succeed Mr. Black at MoMA. Among those expected to be in contention are the board’s several vice chairmen as well as Marie-Josee Kravis, its president emerita.
There has been some concern among MoMA trustees that Mr. Black’s stepping down as chairman might jeopardize his potential future gifts of art or money to the museum, given his wealth and his museum-quality personal art collection.
In 2012, he lent MoMA Edvard Munch’s 1895 version of “The Scream” — which he purchased for nearly $120 million — and in 2016, Mr. Black won the right to keep a large Picasso bust for which he had paid about $106 million and that featured prominently in MoMA’s acclaimed Picasso sculpture show.
People close to Mr. Black, including several board members he is friendly with, had been advising him to reduce his visibility at MoMA, said a person briefed on the matter.
Had Mr. Black chosen to seek re-election, MoMA could have faced the messy prospect of a knock-down, drag-out leadership fight. And it could have sparked disruptive activity outside the museum in the months ahead, just as MoMA hopes to return to more normal operations amid improving pandemic conditions.
For months, MoMA’s director, Glenn D. Lowry, has been noticeably silent on the subject of Mr. Black, who extended Mr. Lowry’s contract until 2025, making him the longest-serving director since the museum opened in 1929. Mr. Lowry did not respond to requests for comment.