Dept. of Controversy: Should We Care About the Ideology of Major Arts Donors?

Every week, thousands of music lovers pass through the doors of Carnegie Hall and don't think twice about the structure's benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, or how he made his fortune (much less the steel magnate's union busting, which led to the deadly 1892 Homestead Strike.)

But if Carnegie lived today, he'd probably have some PR challenges on his hands. After all, the proliferation of technology and the heightened transparency of billionaires' incomes has created a kind of artistic purity litmus test in some quarters.

We saw a bit of this when The Broad opened recently in Los Angeles. It's the new art museum financed by Eli Broad, a billionaire viewed with suspicion by many because of his support of charter schools. Some critics who didn't like the building also don't like Broad. 

Or take critic Michael Kimmelman's beef with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's David H. Koch Plaza, when it was finished last year. Kimmelman's problems with the plaza are both aesthetic and political. To the former, he noted the plaza is a "public space equivalent of Diet Coke. Nutritional benefit for society: much less than zero." More to the point, he take umbrage with the donor, Mssr. Koch. Clearly, Kimmelman isn't a fan of Koch's politics. He isn't alone. Many New York dance fans shudder as they walk into the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Centeror even refuse to go. As one New Yorker wrote to MarketWatch:

Since Mr. David H. Koch has donated enough money to have the theater renamed for him, I’ve refused to see anything put on there. I thoroughly disagree with the Koch Brothers’ political views and resent their influence on current affairs. It angers me that an arts organization bears his name.

However, as we're noted at IP, the Koch brothers' collective philanthropic efforts also include small-town arts philanthropy, close to $400 million in medical research, and, as you'll see here, much more. David Koch also has a renegade streak, having broken with Republican orthodoxy on issues like gay marriage and criminal justice.

So does Mr. Koch pass the test? Or should the Met and Lincoln Center return his checks?

There are as many answers as there are arts enthusiasts. But the hullabaloo around Koch arts gifts does underscore a few intriguing philosophical questions. First, to what extent do arts organizations need to consider the ideology—or is the proper term "morality?"—of their would-be donors? And two, how does one draw that line of distinction?

The first question should be viewed through a pragmatic lens. While research suggests giving to arts organizations is on the upswing, many arts organizations can't afford to be picky. This challenge is particularly acute for large art museums like the Met. As we've noted elsewhere, many of these organizations are built on precarious, cash-starved funding models predicated on gaudy capital improvements. As a result, naming rights may be the best option to keep the incessant fundraising hamsterwheel running smoothly.

But there are limits, of course. The Koch brothers may be controversial, but objectively speaking, it's a stretch to call them "evil," much less "Satanic" (the hyperbolic adjective from the previously linked Wall Street Journal article). There's a subtle, yet discernable difference here that most logical people can agree upon. It's like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous 1964 description of obscenity: "You will know it when you see it."

Or to put it another way, impropriety is, to an extent, relative. For example, we assume some Koch detractors have used Apple products in the past. Yet Apple keeps $181 billion overseas, depriving the U.S. Treasury of $59 billion in taxes (think of all the plazas that could build!) A BBC investigation found the company failed to protect Chinese factory laborers who worked 18 days in a row to pump out its iPhone 6. And while Apple has stepped up its charitable giving lately, Steve Jobs was famously nonplussed by philanthropy. As of 2011, Jobs had a personal fortune of over $8 billion dollars. Yet at the time, there was no public record of him giving money to charity. David Koch's giving, meanwhile, has surpassed half a billion, including the $65 million check to cover the Met's plaza and another $100 million for Lincoln Center. 

Given the record, are Apple's products—and we're quoting Kimmelman here—"tasteless?" Should organizations refuse future Apple donations? Or turn away money from the widow of Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs? And so on.

Of course, these debates don't just play out in the arts. We've also seen them in other areas, too. IP has reported on the recent controversies about whether colleges should return gifts from Bill Cosby. Also, the Kochs generated another flap when they gave a $25 million gift to the United Negro College Fund. 

The history of philanthropy includes lots of examples of tainted titans trying to buy respectability with their giving, and you can see why institutions wouldn't want to be part of a cynical rehabilitation ploy. But it can be hard to determine the exact motives of donors in any given situation. For example, disgraced hedge funder Steve Cohen has made a flurry of big gifts since narrowly escaping federal prosecution for insider trading, including one to the Whitney. As we've pointed out, though, Cohen and his wife were active philanthropists long before he was investigated for wrongdoing. 

Organizations need to weigh the soft and hard costs of donations from controversial figures. An organization may find a donor to be aboveboard, but if their gift nonetheless causes a rebellion amongst its own board and existing donors, the costs may outweigh the benefits.

What do you think? Would your organization refuse a donation if you didn't agree with an element of the donor's politics? Why?

Related: