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Cultivating the Wealthy as Arts Patrons

by Jerome Weeks 16 Sep 2010 9:38 AM

A rich arts patron may be playing some larger game with his or her donations — gaining social clout or softening their other, raw-power political objectives — but they also can actually be won over the arts they witness. Not, as one social observer says, a bad thing.


David Patrick Columbia, author of the website, New York Social Diary, speaks to the New York Observer about what makes his subjects dump gazillions on the arts. Think about, oh, famous North Texas philanthropists who’ve given money to the AT&T Performing Arts Center when you’re reading this passage about David Koch. He’s the billionaire who’s donated a fortune to  the New York City Opera and the New York City Ballet — and who is one of the biggest donors to the Tea Party, to tax relief for the wealthy and to conservative-libertarian groups opposing environmentalism, health-care reform and just about anything else advocated by President Obama:

“I wrote about how I knew him and what he’s done with his life, the evolution of his life since I’ve known him,” Mr. Columbia said over lunch, “and I’ve known him about 20 years now. He’s basically set up this public image that we call his life over that period of time. And now I can see that he’s done it somewhat deliberately and carefully with the intention—I could guess his overall intention is, like with a lot of people, political. Because he’s gained political power. By his cultural interests, he softens the edge of that objective. It doesn’t look so venal, greedy and ambitious. It looks communal and cultural, and therefore legitimate.”

As recent profiles made clear, Mr. Koch has indeed used his cultural philanthropy to “soften the edge” of his less publicized political activities. It is a reminder that there are multiple dramas playing out in these institutions, not all of them onstage. Opera may not be the compulsory activity it was for the city’s upper classes in the days of Edith Wharton, but it remains an arena where more complex battles are fought. Every major gift and every person recruited to join a board (and every person rejected: Mr. Columbia spoke of the financier Saul Steinberg, blacklisted from the Metropolitan Museum’s board, largely because he was Jewish) means something: an attempt to befriend or outman someone, a move in a larger game.

“What happens in all the philanthropies,” Mr. Columbia said, “is that people get involved through different channels—being recruited, wanting to know somebody—and lots of times they do become converted. They realize how important it is. They go to the performance, they see how people are responding, they see how great this is, they see how much better off the world is to have this. They start taking on more noble ideas of what they’re doing, which makes them feel better about themselves. Not a bad thing.”

Oh, and there is something of a local connection:

That Mr. Koch’s gift was to City Ballet and City Opera, and not to the Met, was a statement. A huge gift to the Met would have offended other people, including, perhaps, the Basses, who give heavily to the Met and are active in the Republican political circles Mr. Koch seems destined to dominate.