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Leon Black to Step Down as MoMA Chairman

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Amid mounting pressure from prominent artists and activists on his financial relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, investor Leon Black told colleagues on Friday that he would not stand for re-election as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, with two people aware of his decision.

Mr. Black announced his decision to the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors at a specially convened remote meeting on Friday afternoon, someone who was aware of the meeting and was granted anonymity for not having the authority to speak about it. He planned to inform the full board of his intentions when they meet next week.

The news that Mr Black was not planning to run for re-election as chairman of the museum in June was the most recent aftermath of the revelation earlier this year that he had paid Mr Epstein $ 158 million for tax and estate advisory services – payments, it began several years after Mr Epstein pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting prostitution from a teenage girl.

After the size of his payments was announced in January, Mr. Black initially announced that he would step down this year as CEO of Apollo Global Management, the giant private equity firm he co-founded, but added that he would intend to remain Apollos chairperson. On Monday, Apollo surprisingly announced that 69-year-old Black had resigned as chief executive earlier than expected and resigned the chairmanship, citing the health of himself and his wife as the main drivers in the decision.

It was not an easy decision for Mr. Black to suddenly move away from Apollo. A review of the Apollo board by the law firm Dechert did not reveal any wrongdoing on his part. But that did little to calm the controversy over his dealings with Mr Epstein, who killed himself in a Manhattan prison cell in 2019 when he was charged with state sex trafficking.

According to several reports, Mr. Black had also struggled with how the MoMA would proceed. Mr Black decided to tell the Executive Committee that as a longtime supporter of MoMA, he did not want to be distracted by finding another term of office to distract the institution, two people briefed on his decision said. He is expected to remain on the board as chairman after his resignation.

Several MoMA artists and supporters had said that Mr Black’s decision to pay Mr Epstein heavy fees after his conviction – he loaned Mr Epstein $ 30 million – raised questions about whether he should continue to represent the institution. Several MoMA trustees concluded that Mr. Black had become a harmful distraction.

“I would be ashamed to be affiliated with MoMA if it takes a permanent position to hold someone who has been confirmed to have violated core values ​​or worked against truth and fairness,” said artist Ai Weiwei last month in an email interview. “If so, I hope you won’t add any of my works to your collection.” He said Friday it was “the right decision” for Mr. Black to step down.

And recent pressure from prominent artists and activists on Mr. Black promised to escalate. A 10-week “strike” against MoMA was due to begin on April 9th.

Michael Rakowitz, one of more than 150 artists who spoke about Mr. Black in February, said he believed that Mr. Black and several other MoMA board members should step down from the board.

“MoMA has refused to comment on any story about Leon Black,” he said in an email. “The museum is silent while we as artists are asked to speak. In addition, I look forward to envisioning an ecosystem together in which our content will not be used for display in institutions whose board members create exactly the conditions in the world that many of us dedicate to mining. “

It was not immediately clear who would succeed Mr. Black at MoMA. The likely controversial people include the several deputy chairmen of the board of directors and the emeritus president Marie-Josée Kravis.

There have been some concerns among MoMA trustees that Mr Black’s resignation as chairman could jeopardize his potential future gifts of art or money for the museum, given his wealth and personal museum-quality art collection.

In 2018, the same year he became chairman of the museum’s board of directors, Mr. Black and his wife Debra donated $ 40 million to the museum, prompting MoMA to name its film center after them.

In 2012, he loaned MoMA Edvard Munch’s 1895 version of “The Scream,” which he bought for nearly $ 120 million, and in 2016, Mr. Black was granted the right to keep a large Picasso bust for which he earned approximately $ 106 million paid prominently in the acclaimed Picasso sculpture exhibition at MoMA.

People close to Mr. Black, including several board members he is friends with, had advised him to reduce his visibility on MoMA, said a person briefed on the matter.

Had Mr. Black voted for re-election, MoMA could have faced the chaotic prospect of a depressed, sluggish leadership battle. And it could have resulted in disruptive activities outside of the museum in the coming months, just like the MoMA hopes to return to more normal operations amid improving pandemic conditions.

For months, the director of MoMA, Glenn D. Lowry, has been noticeably silent about Mr. Black, who extended Mr. Lowry’s contract to 2025 and made him the longest-serving director since the museum opened in 1929. Mr. Lowry did not respond to requests for comment.

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Robert Dunfee