Belle of the Ball: Shades of "Old World" Philanthropy In This Estate's Arts Give

The morgan library

The morgan library

The recent headline in the New York Times arts section read like something out of a Henry James or F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: "Estate of Amber Lightfoot Walker Gifts $15.5 Million to Support Literature."

Your mind may conjure up images of gala balls, bankers in tuxes, and smoke-filled parlors. And as it turns out, the gift's backstory doesn't stray too far from the script. Ms. Lightfoot Walker, was a socialite with a passion for the arts. An Australian immigrant who married Angus Lightfoot Walker, a longtime chairman of the executive committee of the City Investing Company of New York, she had an $18 million fortune when she died at 95 in 2014. The recipients of the estate's gift include esteemed cultural institutions like the Lincoln Center Theater and the Morgan Library & Museum.

Now it may sound a bit strange, but you won't find as many arts-loving cosmopolitan "socialites" here on IP as you'd initially expect.

David Geffen gave $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art, and he's been to a cocktail party or two in his day, but his story is more out of the Horace Greeley "Go West, young man" mold. Alice Walton may be "America's Most Important Arts Philanthropist," yet her giving, based on retail wealth and heartland-focused, wouldn't be described as urbane in the Gilded Age sense. To that end, Walton's big project, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, opened in 2011. It's a far different—and younger—beast than, say, the evergreen Lincoln Center, which opened in the late 1950s.

In short, most of the big arts gifts we come across lately are "new world" in nature. A gift from a socialite's estate, generally speaking, is more "old world." And in an era where the nouveau rich are everywhere, such donations are comparatively less common than they once were. 

So let's take a closer look at the recipients of the Walker give.

First off, Lincoln Center Theater received $5 million to establish the Christopher Lightfoot Walker Literary Fund, which will be used to support the Directors Lab, the Playwrights Program, a dramaturge and “The Lincoln Center Review." (In a related analysis, check out our take on the Lincoln Center's recent naming rights imbroglio here.)

The Morgan Library & Museum, meanwhile, received $2 million to endow in perpetuity its “Treasures From the Vault” exhibition, which has held a Gutenberg Bible and manuscripts from Bach and Isaac Newton.

The 92nd Street Y received $7 million, which will go to its reading series and literature project for students, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters received $1.5 million for a biannual award, worth $100,000, to be given to American writers. Each prize will carry the name of Ms. Walker’s son, Christopher Lightfoot Walker.