Pistachio Billionaires Accused of Artwashing California’s Water Crisis

LOS ANGELES — “The Hammer Museum artwashes climate criminals!” shouted Yasha Levine through a megaphone in the middle of the institution’s courtyard yesterday, November 8. He and Evgenia Kovda, his wife, were there to stage a two-person protest targeting Lynda and Stewart Resnick, whose $30 million donation, the largest in the Hammer’s history, made possible a recent expansion and renovation dubbed the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Cultural Center.

But while the Resnicks may be best known for their philanthropy in Angeleno cultural circles, their vast orchards in California’s Central Valley require immense amounts of water, more than all the homes in Los Angeles combined. And it is their water use, and its environmental impacts, that were behind this action as well as another last Saturday outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), to which the Resnicks donated $45 million for a namesake exhibition pavilion.

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Yasha Levine outside the Hammer Museum, November 8, 2023

Both the LACMA and Hammer demonstrations were admittedly small, attended only by Levine and Kovda, and somewhat awkward, more like performance art than a traditional protest. But they come in the wake of a much larger exposé on the Resnicks, a forthcoming documentary titled Pistachio Wars that Levine has been working on for the better part of a decade with his filmmaking partner Rowan Wernham.

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Stewart and Lynda Resnick at the LACMA 50th Anniversary Gala in 2015 (photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for LACMA)

The Resnicks’ funding of not just museums but also schools, hospitals, and community grants, is made possible by their $5 billion Wonderful Company. The agribusiness empire includes POMWonderful Pomegranate juice, Fiji Water, seedless mandarin oranges known as Cuties, and pistachios, making it the “largest agricultural company in the world,” according to Forbes. Pistachio Wars alleges that the Resnicks’ water usage has had a calamitous impact on the environment of the surrounding communities and the state as a whole.

Levine, a journalist who was researching the financial crisis of 2007–2008, traveled to California towns where the cycle of cheap mortgages, rapid development, and subsequent foreclosures had played out. In these new developments and subdivisions on the edge of California sprawl, he found that water — how to get it, from where, and from whom — was a major problem.

“How did a handful of people manage to control so much water? The deeper I got into this story, Lynda and Stewart were at the center of it,” Levine told Hyperallergic. “When I began, no one knew who they were, or if they did, it was as philanthropists.”

His interest in their story took him and Wernham to the farming towns of the Central Valley, where they found residents who lacked clean drinking water and suffered health problems allegedly as a result of Wonderful’s farming and irrigation practices. The film claims that their monumental extraction of water has drained rivers, led to the mass extinction of fish, and exacerbated the state’s ongoing drought crisis.

The Wonderful Company has not responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment. LACMA and the Hammer have also not replied to inquiries.

Still from a teaser for Pistachio Wars. The film examines Wonderful Company’s activities during the worst droughts in California’s history. (image courtesy the filmmakers)

Despite fairly exhaustive articles in Mother Jones and the Los Angeles Times, a general lack of awareness was evident on Wednesday afternoon as Levine and Kovda addressed a reserved and largely disinterested crowd of museum-goers who responded to their slogans and flyers with a mix of disdain and curiosity. “No one even knows who the fuck these people are!” scoffed one museum patron standing in the building that bears the Resnicks’ name, suggesting that the activists’ efforts could be better put to other causes.

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A flyer handed out during the Hammer Museum protest on November 8, 2023

Despite the request of museum security and three police officers for Levine and Kovda to leave, or at least stop using their bullhorn, they made their way up to the museum’s second floor, where they continued to address the crowd below. After about an hour, they went to exit through the museum’s lobby when museum director Ann Philbin emerged from the landing above them to survey the disturbance. Philbin recently announced her retirement from the museum after 25 years, a period during which she worked to transform the Hammer’s image of a vanity museum housing the collection of its namesake founder, oil tycoon Armand Hammer. Part of that transformation was a $90 million, two-decade renovation project of which the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Cultural Center was the final piece.

As Philbin turned to walk back up the stairs to her office, Levine asked her through the megaphone, “Do you know the kind of people this museum artwashes?”

Levine says he was inspired by photographer Nan Goldin’s efforts to expose the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis, which ultimately led to their name being removed from galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and elsewhere. He recognizes, however, the challenges of demonstrating a link between the Resnicks’ agriculture practices and the state’s water crisis.

“The effect of removing so much water from natural ecosystems is not obvious … It’s not like an oil spill you can point to. It’s difficult to show the damage,” he said. “I see this as the beginning of something. Trying to get a reaction from the community, to get people to understand what’s actually happening.”

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