A University Museum Has Come Under Fire for Displaying the ‘Terrible’ Art of a Self-Help Author and Major Donor

For museums, the largesse of the rich rarely arrives without strings attached, and one especially clear example has come to light at California State University, Long Beach.

Three years ago, it accepted a multimillion dollar check from a poet and author of self-help books named Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld. Fast forward to today and you can find on view in the Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Gallery at the school’s Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum an exhibition of works by—you guessed it—Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld.

In 2019, Kleefeld gifted $10 million to the university—by far the largest donation received during the school’s $24 million fundraising campaign to expand the University Art Museum. And the benevolence didn’t end there: months later, she also bequested 120 of her own artworks to the institution’s permanent collection (as well as her library, personal archive, and more than 20 inspirational books she has written, including The Alchemy of Possibility: Reinventing Your Personal Mythology and Soul Seeds: Revelations and Drawings). 

That grouping of artworks—which includes 74 of Kleefeld’s paintings and 104 drawings—now constitutes six percent of the institution’s holdings, according to Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight. Moving forward, examples of Kleefeld’s work will be on view indefinitely as part of rotating shows mounted within the gallery named in her honor.

Reviewing the current Kleefeld exhibition, titled “In-Between the Silence,” Knight wrote that “the art is frankly terrible—by far the worst I’ve seen on display in a serious exhibition venue, public or private, for profit or nonprofit, in years.” He called the museum’s deference to the donor a “train wreck,” arguing that “a serious disservice is being done to students.” 

An anonymous professor at the university added a similar sentiment, telling the paper, “If that was a student applicant’s portfolio, they wouldn’t get admitted to the program.”

The Kleefeld Contemporary’s director, Paul Baker Prindle, did not respond to our request for comment, but told the Times that Kleefeld approached the museum about donating her work several years ago. The institution, in turn, asked for a cash gift in addition to the art—an exchange that certainly suggests an “I’ll scratch your back” type of agreement. (Prindle was not with the institution at the time.)

“We are grateful for the investment that this and other donors have made to the museum and the arts at Cal State Long Beach,” Gregory Woods, the director of news media services at the university, said in a statement. “These gifts are essential in expanding educational opportunities available for our students and provide cultural enrichment for our community.”

Included in “In-Between the Silence” are 10 canvases and 13 works on paper, most of which fall in an expressionist gray space between figuration and abstraction and come bearing new-agey names. Mirrored Souls (2013) shows two lovers in a Klimtian embrace; Oracle Caves (2015) depicts a rough, gestural landscape in the colors of a sunset. 

A wall text from the artist greats exhibition visitors: “My life’s passion has been to create art from an unconditioned well of being and to inspire such a journey in others. To live our ultimate purpose is to thrive in our soul’s calling, sculpting ourselves into our highest ideal so that we may give our best away.”

Kleefeld’s previous show was in 2014, at ​a luxury hotel and spa in Big Sur. 

Four thousand square feet were added to the museum’s footprint as part of the renovation effort, which has been in the works since 2020, and its exhibition space doubled. Of the $10 million donated by Kleefeld, $7 million went to construction while the remainder will be put toward operational costs and endowing scholarships.

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