America’s super-rich give philanthropy a bad name

Extravagant generosity – or desperate bid for status? Funding saga at Lincoln Center exposes the truth

Charles Laurence

New York - Is philanthropy really the saving grace of the America super-rich?

A tale has been unfolding at the New York Philharmonic's home at the Lincoln Center, the city’s equivalent to London’s South Bank, which redefines the relationship between the giver and the given-to.

It turns out that philanthropy – supposedly “the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes”, according to my dictionary - is actually about buying status for the giver, rather than the welfare of others.

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The Philharmonic Hall opened, along with the rest of the Lincoln Center, in 1962. But in 1973, it became the Avery Fisher Hall when the said Avery Fisher, a multi-millionaire who owned an electronics company, donated $10.5 million for renovations and improvements.

This is familiar practice in America: a grateful institution carves the name of its benefactor above the door. A mile or so away from the Avery Fisher Hall, for instance, you have the Carnegie Hall. In the fund-raising profession this is known as exchanging “naming rights” for really juicy gifts.

Gifts? Ah - that is the point. The tale unfolding at the Avery Fisher Hall has revealed that the super-rich do not “give” their money at all. The arrangement is a legally binding deal better described as branding, or “brand marketing”.

The Avery Fisher is now falling apart, looking dowdy and in dire need of a renovation of its acoustics, deemed poor by musicians, and the Lincoln Center is looking for a whopping $500 million to do the job. Their problem has been that they cannot persuade any of the billionaires whose “philanthropy” is the only source of this kind of money to step up to save a building and an orchestra with another man’s name over the door.

So after years of legal wrangling, the Lincoln Center has agreed to pay the Fisher family – Avery’s widow and heirs - $15 million for the right to remove the name, and so be able to offer “naming rights” to a new source of funds. The family would have earned more, for sure, if old Avery had plonked his cash on Wall Street and kept out of the limelight, but it still amounts to 50 per cent interest.

Bearing in mind the parable of the Widow’s Mite, I am by no means sure that this conforms to the idea of charity prescribed in the New Testament.

And even $15 million does not completely buy out the old benefactor. The New York Times reveals that Lincoln Center has had to further sweeten the pot with “several other inducements, like a promise to feature prominent tributes to Mr. Fisher in the new lobby of the concert hall”.

There is almost no public funding of the arts in America – perish the socialistic thought – and the managers of the great orchestras, opera houses and galleries across the country report hard times keeping up with their budgets. Several regional orchestras have gone under. Executives explain that it is getting harder to find big donors among the super-rich of the new Golden Age. The new billionaires of the internet age are as likely to buy a baseball team as fund somebody else’s orchestra.

This is partly because they lack guilt. A hundred years ago, the great fortunes were born in blood by coarse men who, once rich, wanted to buy the trappings of civilisation and establish reputations as something other than robber barons.

Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, owners of the Homestead Steel Works which at the time was the world’s most valuable industrial plant, hired armed Pinkerton guards to break the steel union at the infamous strike of 1892. Nine strikers and seven Pinkertons died, and many more were injured. There was no steel union at Carnegie plants for the next 40 years, and wages were reduced as new immigrants came through Ellis Island.

Before he redefined himself by declaring that the rich should give it all away before they died, and before his name was immortalised on Carnegie Hall, Carnegie had men killed to ensure his profits.

Frick, who actually ordered in the Pinkertons while Carnegie kept in touch from abroad, has his own Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue. Ironically, it is often considered the most refined of all Manhattan’s great museums.

Across the Lincoln Center Plaza from the Avery Fisher Hall is the New York City Ballet. Their theatre was known as the New York State Theatre until 2008, when, after complete refurbishment, it re-opened as the David H Koch Theatre.

Koch, one of the multi-billionaire brothers who own the oil and coal conglomerate Koch Industries, had donated $100 million for the “naming rights”.

Back in 2008, Koch was known, if at all, as the man who bought Jacqui Kennedy Onassis’s Fifth Avenue apartment after she died, and then sold it again because he found it too small.

Now he is notorious as the “dark money” funder of the Republican party’s far right, the best-known face of the oligarchy of a new Golden Age which has been “buying” Washington for its own profit.

I found myself sitting a couple of rows from Koch at the opening gala of this year’s ballet season. He was immaculately dressed and urbane as he held court during the intervals.

It was shortly before the midterm elections which gave the Republicans control of both Houses on Capitol Hill, promising to fulfill the Koch agenda by dismantling any and all of President Obama’s attempts at pollution control to counter climate change.

We applauded the grace and vigour of the ballerinas. Yet beyond the enclave of high arts in New York City, Koch’s money was at work promoting legislation to restrict the rights of workers to form unions, and funding “voter ID laws” which even the courts mostly agree are designed to stop the poor in general and black Americans in particular from voting at all, because they vote Democrat.

His deal with the ballet is that they cannot take his name off the theatre until 2058, and then the Koch family has first refusal on any new “naming rights” that go back up for sale.

They call this philanthropy?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected since it was first posted - the author meant 'Widow's Mite' not 'Window's Mite' (see complaint below). Apologies.

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Charles Laurence is a US correspondent for The He is a former New York bureau chief for The Daily Telegraph. He divides his time between Manhattan and Woodstock, upstate New York.