Disaster Capitalism: A Duty to Make Money off the Titanic in Grand Rapids and Beyond
This article is in memory of Kate Wheeler, former GRIID contributor, who passed away in 2012. Kate wrote an excellent piece last year entitled, The Capitalist Shame of the Titanic, for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster.
On Saturday, the Titanic Artifact Exhibit opened at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which was cause for the media to contact one of the owners of this collection of artifacts, local bar owner Mark Sellers.
On Sunday, MLive ran a story with Sellers, entitled, Bar owner Mark Seller reflects on ‘duty’ to protect Titanic shipwreck as exhibit opens in Grand Rapids. The article spending very little time on the exhibit itself and focuses on Seller’s motivation for buying the company that owns the Titanic artifacts, along with some history of the acquisition.
We learn from the MLive story that Sellers company, Sellers Capital Management Inc. (there is little public information about this company), had acquired Premier Exhibitions, the company responsible for the Titanic Exhibit, along with several others such as Bodies Revealed, Real Pirates, Cleopatra, Tutankhamun, America I Am and Dialogue in the Dark.
The MLive story presents some of the controversy around the acquisition and even cites Robert Ballard, the explorer who discovered the Titanic wreckage. Ballard, according to MLive, refers to Premier Exhibitions as “grave robbers.” Ballard has been very vocal in his opposition to taking anything from the wreckage. Here is a longer commit from an article in the National Geographic from last year.
Robert Ballard, who has long argued that the wreck and all its contents should be preserved in situ, has been particularly caustic in his criticism of RMST’s methodologies. “You don’t go to the Louvre and stick your finger on the Mona Lisa,” Ballard told me. “You don’t visit Gettysburg with a shovel. These guys are driven by greed—just look at their sordid history.”
Indeed, greed seems to be a theme surrounding the Titanic, from its inception to the profitability of the exhibits. Sellers argues in the MLive story that while the previous owners of the exhibit wanted to take more from the wreckage, since he and his partners took it over they have a commitment to leave the wreckage alone. Sellers even refers to the wreckage as, “sacred.”
However, we should not simply assume that this is what motivates those at Premier Exhibitions. Just look at the cast of characters that make up its board and one can see that profits seem to be the common denominator.
The Board of Directors at Premier Exhibitions is made up of seven white guys, all of which have a long history in investment capitalism. In addition to Sellers, the board consists of Sam Weiser, Bill Adams, Doug Banker, Ron Bernard, Steve Palley and Bruce Steinberg.
Weiser, before coming to Sellers Capital Management Inc, worked for the Hedge Fund Consulting Group within Citigroup Inc.’s Global Prime Brokerage division. Weiser, who also sits on the board of Paragon technologies, was paid $281,250 from Premier Exhibitions in 2011 for his services.
Bill Adams used to work for the Mitchell Madison Group, a global strategic consulting practice, and sits on the boards of Direct Marketing Solutions, Inc., CarHop, McKissock and YLighting.
Doug Banker is currently Vice President of McGhee Entertainment, which manages several musicians, including Ted Nugent and KISS. Banker was compensated by Premier Exhibitions with $150,000 in 2011 for his services.
Ronald Bernard has been involved with several large media companies over the years, as well as the National Football League. He was President of VIACOM Network Enterprises from 1987 – 1993. Bernard was compensated $90,000 in 2011 by Premier Exhibitions for his services on the board.
Steve Palley has also been involved with numerous media companies, most notably King World Productions, Inc., which manages TV shows like Oprah Winfrey and Rachel Ray.
Bruce Steinberg has been involved in the media world in his role as General Manager of Broadcasting at BSkyB and Chief Executive Officer of UK Gold and UK Living TV. Steinberg was also compensated $90,000 for his time on the board of Premier Exhibitions in 2011 alone.
What this look into those on the board of Premier Exhibitions reveals is that they are a well connected company to the world of finance and media, with several board members sitting on other boards, which solidifies inter-locking systems of power. These inter-locking systems of power function in such a way to create a network of private economic power that assures that their collective interests will be maintained.
It seems to this writer that the primary motivator, like that of the people who owned the Titanic before it sank, is greed. Those who own the artifacts and exhibit what has been salvaged seem to be acting, in the words of Naomi Klein, as disaster capitalists…….making money off the natural and human made disasters. In fact, one could argue that it is their duty as capitalists to do so.