The recent opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art spurs some thoughts about a pervasive practice involving philanthropy and the arts, and how (thankfully) there can still be an exception to the rule.
Created with a $800-million-dollar donation spearheaded by Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, Crystal Bridges is situated in a lovely locale surrounded by streams and woods in Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s unique not only in that its unassuming location belies the magnitude and scope of its collection, but the fact that its name is refreshingly devoid of its benefactor, in contrast to the long history of the rich bequeathing millions in exchange for immortality. (Among the more notable: the Whitney, Guggenheim, and Morgan museums in New York City, the Gardner in Boston, the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C.– and the list goes on.)
In Miami, a controversy has erupted about the renaming of the Miami Art Museum (slated to open in 2013) after prominent real-estate developer Jorge M. Perez, who has made a $35 million pledge to the institution, including $15 million in artwork. The truth is much of Miami’s arts persona has become a story of sold-to-the-highest-bidder musical chairs; its first performing arts center, the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2006, is now, just a scant few years later, called the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, thanks to a $30 million gift by a former business executive turned arts philanthropist. Likewise, the half-a-century-old Miami Science Museum will be retitled the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science when its new building debuts in 2014, following a $30-million-plus investment (oops, endowment) by a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and his wife.
Further up the east coast, I was especially appalled when the venerable New York State Theater at Lincoln Center was renamed the David H. Koch Theater (after the oil heir and New York’s second richest man), in 2008. What’s next? The Donald J. Trump Metropolitan Opera House?
In many ways, it all highlights the serious deficiencies in funding for the arts that these quid pro quos can take place at the expense of a community’s cultural identity and continuity. The financial contributions by these well-heeled donors are both vital and necessary, but they shouldn’t have to come at such a shortsighted and self-serving price.
So, for now, back to Arkansas, and a brief break from Wal-Mart bashing: hats off to Alice and the Walton clan for classily bypassing the ego-driven name recognition, and bringing a world-class museum to small-town America. (And in another nice touch, visitors don’t have to pay for admission.)