Tainted money

who paid for this?The New York Times reports on a stunt by New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, in which at the Metropolitan Museum of Art he registers his protest of the plaza named for donor David Koch:

Mr. Saltz was carrying a long strip of paper that had been printed to blend in with the granite used for the fountain. The words on it matched the typeface of the fountain’s inscription. Mr. Saltz then attached his sign to the fountain, so that it no longer read “David H. Koch Plaza.” Instead it declared, “Climate Change Denier Plaza.”

This is not the first, nor will it be the last, protest over donations to an art or educational institution from a questionable source. How should we think about this? The Times styles the dilemma like this:

The question of what cultural institutions should do with money offered to them by individuals whose beliefs are often contrary to those of their directors and audiences is again the subject of intense discussion. On one side are those who argue that all money is tainted, so why make a fuss? And on the other are those who believe that we should not allow certain unpalatable rich people to use museums as whitewashing tools, as mechanisms for ingratiating themselves with factions of the liberal and cultural ruling class and rehabilitating an unpopular image.

But even Mr. Saltz, in all of his newfound rebel spirit, does not believe that unattractive money should be rejected altogether. “I know we need the money of rich people in America to fund the arts. I’m very glad that the government doesn’t control art in this country,” he said. “I just don’t think that museums should sell out so easily.”

But I think this is all a bit too easy. Is all money tainted? That avoids the fact that we know distinctions can be made: profits from the tobacco industry really are more tainted than the riches of those who have invented and developed more benign products. There really are differences. And if we want our institutions to make distinctions between the sources of the donations they receive, they will have to have some ‘line drawing’ mechanism, that outlines a fair and transparent process for determining which donors fall on which side of the border between acceptable and not. Mr. Saltz doesn’t “think that museums should sell out so easily”, and so he is interested in a different placement of that line. All right then, let’s look into how we might go about that, keeping in mind that there is not going to be an awful lot of unity on how that line ought to be drawn.

And there is another consideration. In a piece earlier this year, the same Mr. Saltz lamented the introduction of admission fees at the museum. In that same piece he is glad that in the US we do not rely on the state as the primary benefactor of the arts. So: we want to keep admission fees low, keep the state role to a minimum, and, in terms of donors, insist on clean hands. But if we want to do all that, something has to give. Our elite arts institutions will be poorer, and the Metropolitan Museum, or the Metropolitan Opera, and others, will have less funding at their disposal, less funding for exhibits, staff, or the opulence of productions. That’s not necessarily the worse thing in the world; the ‘costs’ of running our elite institutions in the arts (and in higher education as well) depend upon what they think they can afford with the funds they have available, and they can certainly survive with less (though scaling back an organization is always more difficult than growing it). But that’s the necessary outcome of what seems to be being advocated here.

Our elite nonprofit institutions are designed around funding from very, very rich donors, making very, very big donations. That is, to use the arts journal term, the ‘business model.’ It doesn’t have to be that way, but if we are going to have the kind of elite arts institutions to which we’ve become accustomed, then admission fees, a few more dollars from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a slightly larger gift from the donors we all agree to admire, isn’t going to cover the cost of turning away major donors who have earned their riches in industry, with all its messiness. I think our debates on whether to accept Koch or Mercer money ought to treat this consequence a bit more rigorously.

Footnote: I don’t usually make a point of adding this, but in this case I will say for the record that the above is my view; I do not speak for anyone else.

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  1. Well said, as usual. One place to start with this interrogation: a gift acceptance policy that is rooted in the values of the institution. Most museums have such in place to allow them to make decisions about the donations of art that they will/will not accept. Revisiting that same policy specifically looking for a values match for gifts that might provide naming rights seems prudent.

    • I agree that would be very prudent. In truth though, I do not see in practical terms the acceptance policy and values-match that would, as some people seem to hope, exclude the Koch’s without at the same time excluding an awful lot of other donors. You and I agree I think – exclusions cannot be ad hominem…

  2. What does it take for money to be tainted?
    The Koch brothers are in fact responsible for children dying of asthma and lung disease and are active in eliminating even the possibility of medical treatment for kids ( and the vulnerable ).

  3. There are about 30 European countries where almost all arts funding comes from the government. In most cases, theaters, orchestras, and opera houses are owned and operated by the government. I do not know of any instances of government censorship or even meddling. Can anyone cite any examples? If we want to have a fact based discussion, that information should be included.