Fall 2017 Issue

The Bigger Picture

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons speaks with Alison McDonald and Maura Harty about his longstanding commitment to protecting the rights of children.

<p>Jeff Koons, <em>Seated Ballerina</em> (2017) installed at Rockefeller Plaza, New York. On view May 5–July 17, 2017 © Jeff Koons. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging</p>

Jeff Koons, Seated Ballerina (2017) installed at Rockefeller Plaza, New York. On view May 5–July 17, 2017 © Jeff Koons. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging

Jeff Koons, Seated Ballerina (2017) installed at Rockefeller Plaza, New York. On view May 5–July 17, 2017 © Jeff Koons. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging

In 1994, Jeff Koons’s son Ludwig, then one year old, was taken from his Manhattan home to Italy by his mother, Ilona Staller, despite a US court order requiring that he remain in New York State and granting joint custody to both parents. An international legal battle would slowly make its way through the courts for many years to come. Even the simplest legal questions lacked clarity and resolution—such basic issues as who had jurisdiction over the case, for example, were in dispute. Ultimately US lawmakers sided with Koons while Italian lawmakers sided with Staller. Meanwhile, amid this long swirl of legalities and irresolution, a young child was growing up.

At the time, there were limited resources to which Koons could turn for guidance or assistance. Yet around that same moment in the mid-1990s, the urgent need for such resources was becoming obvious on a wide scale.

The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) was born out of the deepest of tragedies. It traces its roots directly to a crisis in Belgium: in 1996, police captured a vicious serial killer named Marc Dutroux, now infamous for his crimes against six girls, aged eight to nineteen. The case was devastating not only because of the unbelievably heinous nature of the crimes but also because it revealed, in an unprecedentedly high-profile way, a series of grave missteps and oversights on the part of the law enforcement and justice systems during the investigation. Ultimately, over 300,000 people joined a Brussels protest march, known as the White March, demanding reforms for the protection of children.

In response, the Belgian government looked to the international community for assistance and guidance. Their prime minister visited the United States and invited the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) to establish a base in Brussels. The president of NCMEC at the time, Ernie Allen, was eager to help, but he understood the complexities involved in the effort. His response was, “You do not need an American solution to this problem—you need a Belgian solution.” NCMEC did work with the Belgian community to provide immediate assistance, though, and helped to establish the Brussels-based group Child Focus.

Even then, the depth of the problem on an international level was just beginning to be understood, as more and more countries began reaching out to NCMEC for assistance. In 1999, the NCMEC Board of Directors created ICMEC to engage these issues more deeply and on a global scale. Koons was involved right from the beginning.

ICMEC has expanded and evolved over the last eighteen years. It has established relationships with citizens in more than 122 countries as it works to enhance communication, share successful methods of outreach, educate first responders, support law enforcement, and advocate for legal systems capable of swift response. It also works to establish globally recognized definitions for various offenses and to provide benchmarks that can act as guidelines in future cases. Currently, for instance, it is mounting an initiative to raise awareness about differences among nations in how and when children are considered “missing.” By way of example, more than 460,000 reports of missing children were filed in the United States alone in 2015, while the numbers are 45,000 and 20,000 in Canada and Spain respectively. It’s not that children are more likely to go missing in the United States, or that they are in greater danger, it’s simply that the definition of what constitutes a missing child is not universal.

Koons’s personal history led him directly to this great organization. He knows firsthand the impact ICMEC has had in raising awareness and pressing for the greater effectiveness of international legal instruments. He became a board member at ICMEC in 2002, and in 2007 he cofounded The Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy as the organization’s research arm. The mission of the Institute is to provide authoritative, impactful research on the most current trends in the child protection field. This information is critical to policy makers and first responders, and informs the curriculum that ICMEC provides through its Global Training Academy.

In the interview that follows, Koons shares his family’s story and explains how this philanthropic pursuit has affected his life. And Ambassador Maura Harty, the President and Chief Executive Officer of ICMEC, gives us insight into the agency and its hugely ambitious goals, and helps us see how its work is changing the world.

ALISON MCDONALDJeff, what was your first encounter with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children?

JEFF KOONsBack in 1994 I was a left-behind parent—my son was abducted and taken to Italy by my ex-wife. I really didn’t know where to turn and a friend recommended the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Washington. I connected with the Center. Ernie Allen was the director at the time, and it was through speaking with him that I started to get involved. A few years later he asked me if I wanted to be on the Board of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, a new organization they were just creating at the time. The purpose of ICMEC was to gather all the information that we had already developed in the United States on how to try to protect children from abduction and sexual abuse and to share that information internationally to create a network. ICMEC was an NGO, a nongovernmental organization, but at the same time it was making a lot of resources available to other countries around the world.

122 countries have working relationships with icmec to enhance communication, outreach, education, and support for law enforcement and legal systems.

AMCDSo you were involved right from the beginning, when ICMEC was formed.

JKYes, at the beginning of ICMEC, but not of NCMEC, which had started earlier with John Walsh, the famous television presenter from America’s Most Wanted. His son was abducted and murdered in the 1980s and he didn’t know where to turn. He went to Washington and realized there was no organization there to help him, so he helped to create NCMEC, which began to make great progress finding abducted children. Back then, when it was getting started, the percentage of abducted children who would get returned was very low, I think around sixty-two percent. Today that has been raised up to more than ninety-five percent.

AMcdIn the United States.

JKIn the United States, correct.

AMCDAs I understand it, there is currently no global definition of what it means to be “missing.” Numbers of missing children vary widely between countries. Maura, this is currently an initiative for ICMEC. Why is creating a global definition such a challenge?

MAURA HARTYYes, there is no common global definition for what constitutes a “missing child,” and no uniform global response to the issue. In addition, few countries collect reliable statistics on a national level and thus they don’t keep track of the dispensation of cases. So we don’t know who comes home and who doesn’t. Why is this important? Because there is no way to compare any given country’s response to this issue with any other country’s response, simply because of a lack of a common protocol.

In many countries, statistics on missing children are not even available; and even available statistics may be inaccurate due to underreporting, under-recognition, inflation, incorrect database entry of case information, or deletion of records once a case is closed. For all of these reasons, ICMEC developed the Model Missing Children Framework in an effort to harmonize a global approach and assist countries in building strong, well-rounded national responses.

At ICMEC we firmly believe that one missing child is one too many, and we are committed to improving the global understanding of and response to missing and abducted children.

AMcdJeff, if you might speak directly about your personal history, how has your commitment built up over the years? How has your engagement changed?

JKSo what happened to me, Alison, was that I tried for almost two decades to get my son back, but at a certain point I realized I just never would. And I decided to take that energy and to try to help other people. You have to find something to hold on to so you don’t lose faith in humanity. Working with ICMEC and trying to help other families—to help other children avoid the situation that my son ended up in—that’s how I directed my energy.

AMcdMaura, I know you work hard on awareness and training. Who are your most effective change agents on the front lines? Teachers? Nurses? Police officers?

MHOur most effective change agents can be found in every field. Professionals who leave our courses and apply what they have learned can change a situation and help make the world a safer place for children under their care.

AMcdTo pioneer radical changes on a global scale is an ambitious mission. What’s your most important long-term goal? What would that success mean for children around the world?

MH We see a world without child sexual abuse or exploitation and a world where no child even runs the risk of going missing. While this is ambitious, we do not think it is radical in any way. It is simply the way the world should be. Every child deserves a safe childhood. Every child deserves to be a child.

AMcdSo how do you take steps towards that? What is achievable in the short term when trying to tackle child exploitation on a worldwide level?

MHWe need to raise awareness. We need to give adults in child-serving professions the information they need to respond properly to a vulnerable child. And we need to make sure that children are empowered to reach out to a trusted adult when faced with abuse or exploitation.

AMcdAnd what about missing children?

MHWe have twenty-five countries in our Global Missing Children’s Network [GMCN], a community of child-protection workers, both NGO and law enforcement, who share data and best practices in an effort to make the world a safer place for children. We’d like it to be five times as many. We’d like to increase global cooperation and information-sharing. Together with partners such as Facebook we are introducing “rapid emergency child alert systems” worldwide, and we’re further expanding the use of technology in the recovery of missing children, especially through continuous upgrades of the GMCN.

AMcdJeff, do you remember the first issue tackled by The Koons Family Institute on International Law & Policy?

JKThe Institute has been involved with trying to introduce laws internationally that affect children, as far as abductions, and also with helping to outline research activities. For instance, it’s tried to come up with numbers so that ICMEC can show a government how many children went missing last year. Without the numbers, without the statistics, a lot of people don’t realize how many children are missing, but once we bring that awareness they understand that it’s a problem. And the Institute is involved in a lot of other activities. Over 100 laws have been initiated or enacted internationally because of the Institute.

AMcdMaura, could you describe the role of The Koons Family Institute within ICMEC? How does the research done there lay the groundwork for your strategies?

MHThe Institute is ICMEC’s research arm. Research underpins everything we do. We research laws in existence around the world so that we can better understand how different countries deal with child-protection issues. Our groundbreaking report Child Pornography: Model Legislation & Global Review, for example, first released in April 2006 and now in its eighth edition, offers a “menu of concepts” that countries can consider when drafting anti-child-pornography legislation. Key topics covered include definitions, offenses, reporting, preserving data, sanctions, and sentencing.

Ten years ago, the first edition of the report revealed a dismaying prospect: only twenty-seven countries had enacted legislation sufficient to combat child pornography offenses. Since then the situation has improved. Our most recent edition, published in early 2016, finds that eighty-two countries have in place legislation deemed sufficient to combat child-pornography. But a great deal of work remains to be done: thirty-five countries still have no legislation at all dealing specifically with child pornography.

AMcdJeff, how do you determine or feel the success of the project? Can you see the impact? You’ve been committed to this cause for so long, yet the work must be a bit abstract in terms of seeing results.

JKSatisfaction is in the numbers, Alison. Seeing the numbers change. Those numbers connect to real children, real lives. Over time I have continued to see these numbers grow higher as progress is made, as children are returned. And children end up being returned in a lot of different ways—police departments today are very well informed about how to respond, the AMBER Alerts are in place. It’s been gratifying to see all of these things enacted over the last eighteen years.

AMcdMaura, how does ICMEC measure success?

$700,000 has been raised for ICMEC through Koons’s initiatives with Kiehl’s in an effort to create safe, sustainable, and positive environments for children.

MHSince we’re not a direct service provider, measuring success can be a challenge. Since we opened our doors to the world, we have trained over 12,000 law enforcement officers, investigators, prosecutors, and other specialists from over 120 countries. We have contributed substantially to both new and refined laws against child pornography in 127 countries. We have expanded the GMCN. We have advocated for the commemoration of International Missing Children’s Day, which is presently recognized on May 25th in seventeen countries across four continents. And we continue to expand our global partnerships.

But we also should not dismiss the impact we have through our training programs, and on the children who are beneficiaries of the new knowledge and skill sets acquired by the adults who participate in those programs. There’s a multiplier effect: as we raise awareness and provide skills, everyone who is impacted by our programs changes their behavior. And so an ICMEC training class is a pebble in a pond, but the ripple is worldwide.

AMcdYes, Jeff just installed his Seated Ballerina in Rockefeller Center earlier this year to raise awareness about International Missing Children’s Day. Jeff, how do you feel that installation is helping ICMEC accomplish some of its goals?

JKOn a basic level, it raised $100,000 from Kiehl’s that went directly to ICMEC. On a broader level, it brings awareness. Everyone who views Seated Ballerina might then become informed about ICMEC, and that May, when the piece was installed, was National Missing Children’s Month. That makes people interested to know more, and then they can get in contact with people to see how they can help with protecting the rights of children.

AMcdCan I ask why you chose Seated Ballerina in particular for communicating to such a large audience about this topic? Were there other artworks you considered during the selection process?

JKI first installed Seated Ballerina in a stainless steel version outside MALBA, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. When I saw how the public interacted with it, I realized that it really communicated hope. So when the opportunity came to create something for the Art Production Fund with the support of Kiehl’s, I immediately thought that the Ballerina would be able to connect to children and to all the hope and potential that they have, that we all have, and that we have for our children. That hope and potential are taken away from some children is unacceptable. We have to be able to bring those children back so that they can fulfill their dreams.

AMcdMaura, the AMBER Alert system seems to be raising awareness in the United States—what are some of the other ways that you use technology in your advocacy?

MHOne of the courses we’ve been teaching for over a decade is called “Computer-Facilitated Crimes against Children.” Regularly updated, this course aims to provide state-of-the-art techniques and technology tools to police officers, prosecutors, and judges. And the GMCN provides a platform for members to share information about missing-children cases in their respective countries and to disseminate photos quickly. Members also have access to age-progression technology, which can assist in long-term missing-children cases. And we play an active role in fostering the adoption of rapid-emergency-child-alert systems (such as the AMBER Alert) around the world. We’re proud of a strong partnership with Facebook, which helps to advance that goal.

AMCan you discuss other important global technology partners? How are they helping?

MHCollaboration is in ICMEC’s DNA. We are fortunate to have a network of friends and colleagues around the world with whom we collaborate on research, roundtables, social media campaigns, and training opportunities. We are very grateful for the support we receive from Facebook and UNICEF and we note with pride that Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, and C5 Capital are members of our board. We often work with the Motorola Solutions Foundation and with the World Bank, Google, Terre des Hommes, and several pharmaceutical companies who support our work on global health issues related to child sexual abuse and exploitation. These relationships are important because they provide both financial support for our efforts and broad platforms to help disseminate information about the issues we address.

AMcdHow do you know what works? How do you test?

MHWe seek feedback from participants in every course we teach. We peer-review our research projects to ensure that our research is on the mark and accurate.

AMcdJeff, your wife, Justine, is also very committed to the cause. How has her involvement grown over the years?

JKJustine is very active and her commitment has grown alongside mine. We try to help in fundraising and just trying to make people aware throughout our community.

AMcdWhat do you feel philanthropy brings to your daily life?

JKI was brought up to be very self-reliant. At a certain point you’re able to take care of yourself and your family, and you want to extend that out to giving support to your community. As an artist, you make your work and you do it for the sensations that you feel and the development of the intellect, but then you want to share that, you want other people to have those feelings and that sense of possibility and transcendence. It’s the same with trying to give support to a community. At the end of the day, everything’s a metaphor for self-acceptance and the acceptance of other people. All the objects and images that we work with every day, they’re wonderful, they’re transponders—they help us inform ourselves and inform others—but really it’s giving support to each other that has the most relevance.

10,877 law enforcement officers from 118 countries have been trained since 2003.

AMcdWhat is the best and most effective way for people to get involved?

JKBy contacting ICMEC. There are all different ways to help—ways to be supportive financially and ways people can just bring their energy. One of the things I’ve done over the years is to try to generate attention. It’s been a privilege to be able to help with their platform.

AMcdHow does ICMEC use donations?

MHA gift to The Global Impact Fund supports strategic initiatives that allow us to continue advocating for changes to laws, training professionals who interface with children, improving prevention, facilitating treatment, and building international networks of people across disciplines who all support the cause.

AMcdWhat will the future hold for The Koons Family Institute?

JKWe plan to remain committed, and we hope that our children will become involved with it as well. We hope that it will continue to grow and help others.

For more information about ICMEC, please visit: ICMEC.org

Black-and-white portrait of Maura Harty

Ambassador Maura Harty is President and CEO of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC), an organization working worldwide to advance child protection and safeguard children from sexual abuse, exploitation, and abduction.

Black-and-white portrait of Jeff Koons

Since his emergence in the 1980s, Jeff Koons has blended the concerns and methods of Pop, Conceptual Art, and the readymade with popular culture to create his own unique iconography, often controversial and always engaging. Working with everyday objects, his work revolves around themes of self-acceptance and transcendence. Photo: Branislav Jankic

Black-and-white portrait of Alison McDonald

Alison McDonald is the Chief Creative Officer at Gagosian and has overseen marketing and publications at the gallery since 2002. During her tenure she has worked closely with Larry Gagosian to shape every aspect of the gallery’s extensive publishing program and has personally overseen more than five hundred books dedicated to the gallery’s artists. In 2020, McDonald was included in the Observer’s Arts Power 50.

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