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The Kemper Museum Of Contemporary Art Caught Up In National Immigration Debate

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

Some in the art world are protesting the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art because of a tenuous connection to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

The Kansas City, Missouri, museum was founded by the parents of trustee Mariner Kemper, who is also CEO of Kansas City-based UMB Bank. UMB is suing a city in Rhode Island over its decision to ban the federal government from putting undocumented immigrants in a privately run prison there.

Because of that link to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a group called the Fang Collective has been promoting social media campaigns against UMB and the Kemper Museum. That's in the spirit of what's known as "activist capitalism," in which heightened political tensions spark boycotts of everything from Nike to Wayfair to companies who donated to President Donald Trump's campaign.

June Kramer, a member of Fang Collective, told online art and culture magazine Hyperallergic that “UMB, and Kemper, and by association the Kemper Museum, are complicit in the inhumane detention of people by ICE and the prison system. When confronted with this reality, they have ignored it, thereby condoning it.”

UMB stressed in a statement to KCUR that it has no operational control of and no financial stake in the prison. Mariner Kemper was unavailable for comment.

The details

The Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, is a 700-bed facility that this spring began holding prisoners detained ICE. The decision to accept the detainees drew protests, and the governing body for the prison canceled its contract with the government.

But UMB, representing the prison’s bondholders who'd advancd money to expand the prison about 14 years ago, sued to reinstate the contract. That drew the ire of some artists. 

According to court documents, the investors in that prison have not been paid and are now owed $130 million. As a "third-party indenture trustee" (bascially an investors' representative), it’s UMB’s responsibility to ensure the prison investors get the return they were promised. 

UMB argues in its lawsuit that when the governing body of the prison and city of Central Falls moved to cancel the contract with ICE, they breached their agrement with investors. 

The court has granted UMB's request to temporarily block the cancellation of the prison’s contract with ICE. But the city has filed a countersuit saying the corporation that owns the prison owes the city at least $100,000 in property taxes.

And, in reality, the social media push hasn't seemed to become a reality at the Kemper Museum. Communications director Breeze Richardson said the organization has received fewer than a dozen calls  about its connection to the Rhode Island situation.

The museum’s statement regarding the issue said, in part, “We view Kemper Museum as a think-tank, where artists and other visionaries have an intellectual and cultural home – a place where they are free to address local and global issues.”

Frank Morris is a national NPR correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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