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Toxic or Tonic? The Late David Koch’s Munificent Cultural Philanthropy (with video)

I did a double-take recently while reading this excerpt from the first paragraph of Robin Pogrebin’s and Elizabeth Harris’ mostly hagiographic eulogy for the late David Koch as arts donor:

Within cultural circles, he was largely uncontroversial, a result of his prodigiously generous support for the arts and the enthusiasm he demonstrated for institutions like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Largely uncontroversial?!?

Here he is with two Met luminaries at the 2013 groundbreaking ceremony for its revamped, fountain-embellished entrance plaza, named for its $65-million benefactor:

In the Metropolitan Museum’s Great Hall: David Koch, sole funder of the Met’s reconceived plaza that bears his name, flanked by then Met president Emily Rafferty, left, and trustee Shelby White, right
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s my 2013 CultureGrrl Video of the groundbreaking and the remarks preceding it. You can see and hear Koch, starting at 1:23:

Although Koch was not exactly “uncontroversial” at the Met, the museum did decide to reverse its initial decision not to name the plaza for him, as recounted in Carol Vogel‘s NY Times report at the time of the groundbreaking ceremony.

Vogel then wrote:

When it opens to the public in the fall of 2014, the words “The David H. Koch Plaza” will be discreetly displayed on the north and south fountains.

“Discreetly”? You can’t miss the shiny gold letters honoring him as you approach the entrance plaza from either end:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In my own report on the plaza’s groundbreaking, I wrote this (which still reflects my opinion regarding Koch’s benefactions):

My view on dedicating the “David H. Koch Plaza”: If $65 million doesn’t entitle you to naming rights (whatever your political persuasion or views on global warming might be), what does?

That said, a museum should eschew project support from donors whose strongly held, publicly expressed views run directly counter to the spirit of the project being funded. In such a case, the temptation to modify content to mollify donors (not to mention the negative fallout from the public’s perception of conflict of interest) should make the gift unacceptable.

Case in point: Pogrebin and Harris noted (in their above-linked NY Times post mortem) that Koch had stepped down from the board of New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 2016, after protesters in the scientific community and environmental activists had urged his removal because he was a climate-change denier whose wealth came, in large part, from fossil-fuel enterprises. (An AMNH spokesperson stated at that time that his departure from the museum was unrelated to the criticism.)

Koch’s strongly held views on climate change may bear upon Edward Rothstein‘s critical comment in the Wall Street Journal, 10 days before Koch’s death on Aug. 23 at 79, about the downplaying of that hot-button issue in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s recently revamped, reopened and renamed David H. Koch Hall of Fossils gallery. That 31,000-square-foot hall for extinct creatures (including dinosaurs), which reopened on June 8, now bears Koch’s name, thanks to his $35-million donation towards exhibition costs.

“As for climate change,” Rothstein wrote in his WSJ review, “it is largely unexplored [in the new D.C. installation].” Rothstein does, however, note the exhibition’s acknowledgement that humans have been “associated with habitat loss, disease, pesticides, overfishing and, more recently, climate change.”

Here’s an installation shot…

Diplodocus in National Museum of Natural History’s reopened David H. Koch Hall of Fossils
Photo by Lucia RM Martino, Fred Cochard & James Di Loreto (Smithsonian Institution)

…and here’s the crowd eagerly awaiting the chance to gain entrance when my husband and I drove by in July:

Queue to enter Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2:19 p.m., July 3
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Curiously, Rothstein, in his review, never explicitly stated that what he perceived as the display’s deficiencies in grappling with climate change might be related to the influence (directly exerted or tacitly understood) of its lead donor. Could it be that the WSJ’s own fossil fuel-friendly editorial stance mitigated against Ed’s making the obvious inference?

By contrast, Lukas Rieppel, in his June 9 Washington Post opinion piece on the reopened fossil hall, pulled no punches:

If the Tate Gallery in London or the Guggenheim in New York will no longer accept donations from the Sackler family because of their connections to the opioid crisis, shouldn’t our natural history museums refuse to take money derived from energy companies such as Koch Industries?

It remains to be seen whether Koch’s cultural benefactions will be augmented by bequests—another reason why the museums beholden to him had good reason to stay on his good side during his lifetime. I’m guessing that museums on the receiving end of such bequests, unless encumbered by unacceptable conditions, won’t abjure them as toxic. Nor should they.

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