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Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
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Last week, with collectors swarming Miami Beach in profligate display, the Miami Art Museum announced that it would rename itself the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County. Pérez, it was explained, is a local real estate developer who is donating $15 million to the expanding museum’s $200 capital campaign, on top of $5 million he already gave.

One MAM trustee, Mary Frank, was so outraged by the renaming that she quit the board (as did three other trustees, at last report). As she complained in an open letter to the Miami Herald, local taxpayers are contributing $100 million. Obviously, that sum outstrips the Pérez donation, but he is also giving the museum part of his collection of Latin American art. Reports didn’t say which part. It’s anyone’s guess how masterful it is, but the whole collection is said to be worth another $15 million. That’s still not enough to buy the place.

Museums are collectors too, and they like to choose the art best suited to their programs. Forced to swallow a single person’s taste as well as his name, just for taking his money, they risk compromising the integrity of the collection and the identity of the institution. That’s one argument, anyway.

Still, when public institutions privilege single patrons, it can definitely rub others the wrong way. Yet Pérez is hardly the first rich man to exercise his inner Donald Trump.

After a $100 million donation in 2008, the main branch of the New York Public Library, a landmark owned by the City of New York, became the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building. To be fair, the idea was the library’s, not Schwartzman’s, but the conservative-leaning (if not conservative-spending) hedge-fund billionaire didn’t insist on a discreet plaque in the lobby, either. His name is set in stone on either side of the Fifth Avenue entrance, on an engraved plaque inside the door, and in case you miss any of those, it’s also on the torcheres at the 42nd Street entrance. After dark, each is lit up by its own spotlight.

That is only one of the more egregious examples of the institutional name game, which is becoming a real blight. To show its gratitude for the $100 million that came from another hedge-fund billionaire, David Koch, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center -- at this writing it is still Lincoln Center -- renamed itself the David H. Koch Theater. It is just across the plaza from Avery Fisher Hall, formerly Philharmonic Hall.

This isn’t just philanthropy. It’s a branding tactic. Does the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra not play in Verizon Hall? Does the Roundabout Theater Company not perform in the American Airlines Theater? It gets confusing.

The art world is hardly immune to this disease. Its institutions regularly take the names of big donors. The expanded Museum of Modern Art building is now named for David and Peggy Rockefeller, but MoMA is not a public institution and it is still called the Museum of Modern Art, even if the galleries inside it are named for people who didn’t donate the art that is hanging in them. Ditto the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum of Contemporary Art shows, but does not own, some of its patrons’ art collection.

Buildings aren’t the only cultural turf a one-percenter can buy. Titles are also for sale. Adam Weinberg is the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Garry Garrels functions as the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. And Lisa Phillips is the New Museum’s Toby Devan Lewis Director.

I don’t mean to fault the generosity of any of these donors. Their interests in art, education, medicine and other worthy causes presumably stem from a genuine philanthropic impulse. Their gifts keep institutions afloat, and may well inspire other citizens to put a similar stake in our cultural heritage. In the end, trading names to keep money flowing into museums seems a small, if grating, price to pay.

Far more troubling is the issue at the core of a front-page story in the New York Times on Nov. 26, 2011, that examined the finances of Ronald S. Lauder, who has been collecting art since his teens. He established the Neue Galerie with some of it, has been a trustee at the Met, and at one point also chaired the MoMA board.

What was disturbing is that the story’s reporter, David Kocieniewski, characterized Lauder’s philanthropic activities as a mere tax dodge that takes unfair, if legal, advantage of a loophole allowing collectors to deduct the full market value of an artwork donated to a public collection. The implication, in this time of the Occupy movement, was that the loophole should be eliminated along with other tax shelters that deprive the collective economy of income.

But that would be stupid. It didn’t work when the Reagan administration limited tax advantages for private giving to the arts. That was in 1986, when the market for art was at a peak, and it won’t work now. Back then, gifts of both art and money to museums slowed, and their collections stopped growing. After a few years of drought, and a lot of protest, the benefit to donors was restored.

The Times “expose” was the latest in a series exploring inequitable tax breaks for the rich. Kocieniewski previously targeted the corporate welfare enjoyed by video game makers and General Electric. But the Lauder article was different. Whatever else he does to hold onto his money, he has genuine art cred. Why shouldn’t he take the deduction, when the benefit extends so obviously to the public? (Kocieniewki neglected to note that Lauder did not name the Neue Galerie after himself.)

The real inequity of the tax code is that artists who continually donate work to benefit institutions they want to support can claim no deduction at all. A few weeks ago, Yvonne Rainer accused Marina Abramovic of exploiting younger performance artists at a benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, for which they were badly paid. But the person that MoCA exploited most was Abramovic, on whose name and reputation it traded to raise money at the event, and who was paid nothing.

The Whitney Museum, at least, is named after its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, but it’s building a large, new, Renzo Piano-designed branch downtown, in the West Side meatpacking district, right now. Chances are it won’t be dedicated to Ron Lauder’s brother, Leonard Lauder, the trustee who favors the museum’s brutalist headquarters on Madison Avenue. Who will take the blame for the new building? Google? Mickey Mouse?

Let’s hope the Whitney gets to keep its name, and that businessmen aristocrats don’t get so cozy that New York will be marketed to future tourists as the Big Bloomberg.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.