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Artists Call for Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art to Drop Trustee Tied to $130 Million Lawsuit over ICE Detainees

Above: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
Above: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI—Mariner Kemper, the CEO and chairman of the UMB Financial Corp (UMB Bank) and a trustee of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri—which was founded by his parents, R. Crosby Kemper Jr. and Mary “Bebe” Hunt, in 1994—is under fire for his connections to President Trump’s controversial immigration policies. Artists began calling for his removal from the museum board after learning that UMB Bank represents the bondholders for the publicly owned and privately operated Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island, which began housing undocumented immigrants detained by the US government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in March.

The Wyatt had previously held ICE detainees, but it ended the practice after a man died in custody ten years ago. Following Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng’s death in 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which claimed Ng endured “cruel, inhumane, malicious and sadistic behavior” at the facility before he died of liver cancer—the suit was settled in 2012. Steven Brown, executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter, told the Providence Journal: “What happened with Jason Ng was absolutely horrendous. I’m sure things have changed over the course of a decade, but it is absolutely essential that there be critical oversight if they’re going to start holding these detainees again. What happened before simply cannot happen again.”

In March, the prison received 133 inmates from the custody of the US Department of Homeland Security. Two weeks later, the Wyatt’s board suspended the government contract in a 4-to-0 vote and ordered warden Daniel W. Martin to return the ICE detainees to the federal government. According to the board’s chairman, Joseph Molina Flynn, the warden signed an agreement to reserve 225 beds for ICE prisoners without the consent of the board of directors. The move prompted UMB Bank to file a lawsuit against Flynn and several officials of the city of Central Falls, including mayor James A. Diossa.

According to the lawsuit, Central Falls breached its agreement with investors when it decided to cancel the government contract. UMB Bank claims that the prison must reinstate the contract or pay up in $130 million to investors. As a result, the US District Court in Providence has temporarily blocked the city from breaking the contract, and the city has filed a countersuit stating that the prison owes the city a minimum of $100,000 in property taxes.

Since then, several protests have taken place at the facility. According to the ACLU, eighteen members of the Rhode Island branch of Never Again, an activist group that focuses on tackling the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, were arrested for blocking the entrance to the prison in July. In mid-August, a senior corrections officer at the Wyatt resigned after he drove his truck into a crowd of peaceful protesters, injuring at least five people.

In a statement provided to KCUR 89.3 on August 31, the museum’s communications director, Breeze Richardson, said the institution has fielded fewer than a dozen calls related to the situation. However, a social media campaign urging the museum to distance itself from Kemper is gaining traction. Driven by artists such as Molly Crabapple, Sarah Ray, and the Fang Collective, the campaign claims that Mariner is “profiting off of human misery” and must be removed from the museum’s board.

June Kramer, a member of Fang Collective, told Hyperallergic that “the Kemper Museum has five people on their board of trustees who either currently or recently worked for UMB: Mariner Kemper, Sandy Kemper, L. Joshua Sosland, Clyde Wendel, and Dennis Rilinger. 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.”

The social media outcry also inspired Kansas City, Missouri–based artists to stage a protest outside of the museum on Sunday, September 1. UpriseRI reported that around forty to fifty people attended. A banner stating “Kempers Make Money Off ICE Detainees & Private Prisons” and “Tell Mariner Kemper & UMB Bank to Stop the Exploitation of Our Country” was unfurled on the building’s lawn. The action was organized by artists Carmen Moreno, Alex Martinez, Kiki Serna, and Chico Serria, who raised doubts about Richardson’s statement about the number of complaints. Moreno said that many of the participants in the demonstration attempted to complain to the museum by phone and many said that they were unable to do so. Martinez added that the group came together because they wanted to inform the community about what’s happening in Rhode Island.

September 4, 2019