New York’s Koch-Fueled Binge: Saltz and Davidson on Distasteful Donations

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: David Koch attends the 2011 New York City Opera Spring Gala at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center on April 21, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Marc Stamas/Getty Images)
Photo: Marc Stamas/2011 Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced plans to renovate its double-fountain Fifth Avenue plaza with $60 million of David H. Koch’s money. Koch, a libertarian Tea Party backer, and sworn enemy of many progressive causes, takes political positions anathema to many who benefit from his largesse. The latest donation prompted art critic Jerry Saltz and architecture critic Justin Davidson to discuss whether arts institutions should take any and all donations, however distasteful they might find the donor. 

Jerry Saltz: When I hear that a cultural location is going to be renamed after a billionaire, I want to take the safety off my revolver—except I’ve never touched a revolver*. I know I don’t like calling Shea Stadium Citi Field, and all during Super Bowl week, I hated reading the words “Lucas Oil Stadium,” or whatever it was, but those are gigantic arenas for commercial use. This is a museum. They ought to call it “The Gods of Art Live Here,” or “Velazquez Plaza.”

Justin Davidson: Well, so far, the Met is saying the plaza won’t be named after him. He does have his name on what used to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, though. I don’t have a problem with the Met taking Koch’s money for a project that benefits the city, but I can see the broader moral quandary.

J.S.: Which is what, in your view?

J.D.: There are two issues. One is the question of where the money comes from. When the tobacco company Philip Morris was pumping money into the arts, some people felt it was just trying to whitewash its carcinogenic reputation. The other issue is excessive reliance on very large donations from a few ultra-rich people. Do you think that has a corrupting effect?

J.S.: Look, I don’t mind the trade of money-for-glory in principle. I’d still rather have our system of private donations than have the federal government run culture. We’d have Hide/Seek censorship issues every day. We’d only be allowed to look at the happy shiny white people in the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, or non-nudes, or Norman Rockwell.

J.D.: At least government support tends to come through. Remember Alberto Vilar, the exuberantly generous arts lover and philanthropist whose gains were not only ill-gotten but, it turned out, not gotten at all? He went to jail for fraud, leaving enormous pledges all over the world unfulfilled. The Metropolitan Opera even had to scrape his name off the Alberto Vilar Grand Tier.

J.S.: So what are you saying—that arts institutions should turn down huge donations because they might regret it later?

J.D.: No, no. It would be nice if the Met could prosper on $5 donations from around the globe, or if all its major donors made their fortunes building housing for earthquake victims in Haiti. But that’s not how the world works. Andrew Carnegie was no angel, but I’m glad to have Carnegie Hall.

Besides, Koch’s donation history has been as idiosyncratic as his beliefs: the ACLU, hospitals, the Museum of Natural History, Cold Spring Harbor. I can’t think of a reason that a cultural institution should turn down money that a cancer center would accept, and I can’t think of a good reason for a cancer center to reject a donation unless it’s a) from a criminal or b) the donor’s actions and beliefs are so patently appalling that they truly taint his money. Otherwise, virtually every donation becomes guilty by association. Are we going to start rejecting money from bankers now that they’re not in good odor? From Bill Gates because of Microsoft’s business practices? From Google millionaires because their company acquiesced in censorship, and therefore repression in China? Or should Planned Parenthood turn down grants from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, now that its leadership has made its right wing, anti-abortion agenda clear? The cost of moral purity is too high, and pursuing it quickly becomes absurd.

J.S.: So what do you make of the plan that Koch is paying for? I got the heebie-jeebies when I read that they’re planning to trim the trees like they do in the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris, which looks like a French poodle to me.

J.D.: I haven’t seen the plans in detail, but I’m glad the Met is taking care of the public sphere. That plaza could be far, far better than it is. 

J.S.: I read that they want to make it “more efficient,” “pleasing,” and “friendly.” Those words give me the shivers, and are other terms for generic, corporate, and dead—plans that look nice on paper and please the neighbors but make space feel anonymous and canned like a mall.

J.D.: Not a fan, then?

J.S.: Well, the grand schemes of architects scare me.

J.D.: Would you prefer that people other than architects make those grand plans, or that public institutions grow haphazardly? I know you’re not a big fan of the Roche/Dinkeloo master plan for the Met’s interior expansion, but that’s what made the renovation of the American Wing, the Greek and Roman galleries, and the Islamic galleries possible. And what is the Met but a monumental grand architectural statement on a heebie-jeebie-inducing scale?

J.S.: That plan from the 1970s also gave us the old André Meyer galleries, which had to be torn down and rebuilt they were so ugly. And we still have the even uglier space-wasting Lehman Wing. Should I win the lottery, I will personally fund the razing of this atrocious octagon and fund the rebuilding of something with a rectilinear footprint and no atrium.

J.D.: So, the Jerry Saltz Wing at the Met?

J.S.: I tell you what—if Mr. Koch agrees not to have his name on the outside part of the Met, he can put his name on my building.

*As commenter fredtitle noted, revolvers don’t have safeties.

Saltz and Davidson on New York’s Koch-Fueled Binge