Do we want the wealthy to give money to the arts...or not?


Commentary: Today's Wall Street wealthy make the robber barons look good

Jamie Elizabeth Stiehm, US News & World Report, 11/21/11

Aren't the robber barons looking better all the time? At least they shared their wealth with the rest of us, in civic gifts for the greater common good. We the people appreciate that more in these hard times. Here in Washington, steel baron Andrew Mellon bequeathed not only a majestic marble building, but many of the art masterpieces inside the National Gallery of Art collection. Thank you for sharing, Andrew. Admission to artistic inspiration is free to drink, as free as water from the gold fountains. Other great halls strung like gems across the East Coast -- does Carnegie Hall ring a bell? -- are thanks to the good old robber barons. J.P. Morgan, Leland Stanford, and Andrew Carnegie, where are you when we need you? At least you remembered us -- in your cultural good works and in your wills. Railroad, steel, and oil family fortunes were not all squandered for personal glory, but also for educating and enhancing the public squares of America. Yet you have few 21st-century heirs. John D. Rockefeller of Cleveland, the enormously wealthy head of Standard Oil, said Carnegie's philosophy of philanthropy influenced his own. I did not know this stern man established the excellent liberal arts college Spelman College in Atlanta to educate African-American women in the 1880s; did you? Ain't sayin' the robber barons would be fun to hang out with, except perhaps Carnegie. After all the love lavished on Steve Jobs after he left us, it's clear he was one cool guy, but hell, no Carnegie as a genius of philanthropy. Jobs could have jump-started the entire U.S. economy with his $8 billion holdings. But as far as we know, he left no large lavish gifts in the public square for us all to open and share freely.


Commentary: Wal-Mart heiress's museum a moral blight

Jeffrey Goldberg, Bloomberg News, 12/12/11

The brand-new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the small northwest Arkansas city of Bentonville is the creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of the late Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world. Alice Walton, worth about $21 billion, has achieved her dream of building a top-tier museum that unabashedly celebrates American art in the American heartland. Crystal Bridges, in many ways, is an aesthetic success. It's also a moral tragedy. The museum is a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else. Many of the paintings hang in eloquent rebuke to the values of the company that has made the Waltons so very wealthy. Asher B. Durand's "Kindred Spirits" celebrates an American landscape that has been systematically disfigured by thousands of hangar-sized warehouses bearing the Wal-Mart name. Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter" is a "transcendent symbol" of the "capabilities, strength and determination" of American women. [But] Wal-Mart's female employees are paid less on average than their male counterparts, and are less likely to be promoted to management. And Jacob Lawrence's "Ambulance Call," serves as an obvious reminder of Wal-Mart's unwillingness to provide basic health-care coverage to so many of its workers. I'm not begrudging Alice Walton her inherited wealth. What I am begrudging are her priorities. Walton has the influence to help Wal-Mart workers, especially women, earn more money and gain access to affordable health care.  But her response so far to the needs of the people whose sweat pays for her paintings is a simple one: Let them eat art.


Renaming of Miami art museum for wealthy patron sparks criticism

Daniel Chang, Miami Herald, 12/6/11

The deal to rename the Miami Art Museum for Jorge M. Perez, the South Florida real estate developer who pledged $35 million in cash and art, came down to one thing: It was the best offer on the table. And that, say those who advise the wealthy on their giving, is how it should be. Yet the announcement of Perez's gift and the museum's name-change, delivered at the height of South Florida's cultural apex -- Art Basel Miami Beach -- was greeted with criticism from many in the arts community, including prominent collectors and members of the museum's board of trustees, three of whom resigned in protest over the decision. "This is not a personal thing against Mr. Perez,'' art collector Rosa de la Cruz said. "This is when a community puts up the money, you don't change the name. If they want to change the name of the museum, there should be a referendum.'' So why did no one raise similar objections when Miami philanthropists Adrienne Arsht, and Patricia and Phillip Frost announced naming gifts to two local cultural institutions that received more public dollars than the art museum? Part of the answer is timing, said Melissa Berman of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. "The Occupy [Wall Street] movement really is part of the spotlight that's on situations like this,'' she said. "The sense that the vast majority of Americans are being left behind ... So it makes them much more critical of the actions that smack sort of elitism and special opportunity.'' Perez, who had been serving on the museum's fundraising committee, said if he was going to ask others to give to the museum, then he would lead by example. After taking substantial losses during the real estate crash, Perez said he almost couldn't make the gift..."You have to remember that I've lost two-thirds of my wealth in the recession,'' he said. Given the difficulty of his decision, Perez was taken aback when some museum board members resigned in protest. The board approved the name change by a 46 to 4 vote, with one abstention. Javier Souto, a Miami-Dade commissioner, said he has no problem with MAM's name change. "It's part of the game,'' he said, noting that the community will be recognized in the museum's official name, the Jorge M. Perez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County. "I don't see any big problem with that, really, honestly. I know some people are bothered by that, but donations are donations.''

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