More Patriotic Philanthropy: A Quick Look at Rubenstein's Give to the Smithsonian

In his book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, Ralph Nader envisions a future in which a cadre of mega-affluent individuals band together to save the world. Some kickstart an alternative energy movement to clean up the environment. Others dismantle crony capitalism. And others focus their power to unionize Wal-Mart.

Scan some recent gifts by billionaire philanthropists and it may seem that Nader's utopian futuristic fiction has some semblance of truth to it. Take the recent giving of David Rubenstein (aka "The Patriot Philanthropist"). It's as if he decided to devote a significant portion of this fortune to single handedly shore up Washington, DC institutions and safeguard the most important civic artifacts.

In the last four years Rubenstein: 

  • Pledged $5.4 million for the renovation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery.
  • Cut a $7.5 million check to help restore the Washington Monument.
  • Gave the National Archives copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, along with millions of dollars to expand the gallery and visitor's center.
  • Donated $50 million to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
  • Gave $10 million to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which will be used to rebuild at least two buildings in the slave community on Mulberry Row at Monticello.

He's showing no signs of letting up. Rubenstein is donating $10 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a new museum dedicated to telling the history of black Americans. He is also loaning the museum two documents, both signed by Abraham Lincoln—copies of the 13th Amendment (which officially abolished slavery) and the Emancipation Proclamation. The museum is scheduled to open in late September on the National Mall. 

As ArtNews notes, with this donation, the Smithsonian now has $252 million of the $270 million required to continue funding construction and exhibitions, after Congress’s own designated contribution of $270 million last year. 

Rubenstein's gift also signifies the extent to which civic-minded philanthropists continue to support what are traditionally taxpayer-funded institutions. (In related news, check out the recent $250,000 gift from the Ellswoth Kelly Fund to pay for the maintenance and care of Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies' collection.)

We figure it's only fair to let Rubenstein, a member of the Smithsonian’s board of regents who has given $44.7 million to the institution over the years, have the last word. "This architecturally stunning museum occupies its rightful place of honor and prominence on the National Mall," he said. "This will be a place of learning, inspiration and healing. Designed to honor the important contributions to our country, over hundreds of years, of African Americans, it is a museum for all Americans to visit and appreciate. I am honored to be among the museum’s many supporters."