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Protesters throw pill bottles in famous museum
01:31 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Alexandra Peers has written extensively on the intersection of culture and money, principally for The Wall Street Journal but also New York magazine and VanityFair.com. Twitter, Clubhouse: @loislaneny. Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Climb the imposing stone staircase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall and look to the left. Carved into the wall is the name of donor Claus von Bulow, who was convicted in 1982 of the murder of his wife (a conviction that was later reversed).

This cringe-worthy example of wealth’s tight ties to the art world is timely. Protesters are increasingly demanding – successfully – that US cultural institutions and universities spurn the gifts and remove the names from spaces or buildings of donors deemed complicit in global crises such as the opioid epidemic (tied to the pharmaceutical dynasty the Sackler family), or due to financial ties to criminals (sex offender Jeffrey Epstein).

Alexandra Peers

For the cultural industry, the era of so-called willful blindness is over. New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book “Empire of Pain,” and an HBO Max docuseries “The Crime of the Century” premiering this month, argue compellingly that the Sackler family fortune – which funded dozens of family-branded museum wings, education centers and schools – was built through the aggressive over-promotion of Oxycontin and concealment of its often-deadly consequences. (HBO Max and CNN share a parent company.)

As for the case of Epstein, in March, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art Leon Black stepped aside, saying he would not stand for re-election. Black also stepped down as CEO of Apollo Global Management after the revelation he had paid the convicted pedophile $158 million. It was reportedly for tax services. Black will remain as the firm’s chairman and Apollo said it found no evidence of wrongdoing in Black’s past relationship with Epstein.

Meanwhile, several institutions have said they will no longer accept Sackler funds or have removed the Sackler name, as in the case of Tufts University’s medical school.

Whether cash-strapped arts and academic organizations can afford, in the post-Covid environment, to turn away deep pockets is a case-by-case fraught ethical decision. But one step must be taken immediately: Cultural institutions must take “naming rights” off the table. No more billionaire branding chiseled on the wall.

Activists hold a banner reading "Take down the Sackler name" in front of the Pyramid of the Louvre on July 1, 2019. Shortly thereafter, the Louvre removed the name of the Sackler family from its walls, becoming the first major museum to remove its association with the Sackler family.

Yes, it seems a ridiculous, un-doable idea. But there are alternatives to naming everything in sight for big donors. And those options are, in these times, increasingly inevitable if institutions want to survive.

The granting of naming rights, or so-called “donor recognition” has become commonplace, even absurd, in the past two decades. Perhaps the most egregious example is Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, re-christened in 2015 as David Geffen Hall after his $100 million gift. The Fisher heirs were paid $15 million to relinquish naming rights that had been granted “in perpetuity.” Their original donation, in 1973, was $10 million. And, sorry, Mr. Geffen, but everybody still calls it Avery Fisher Hall.

How did we get here? Late in the last century, as art and antique prices skyrocketed and collecting institutions were shut out of the market, a frantic search for new revenues began. But philanthropists are famously reluctant to give money just for ho-hum operating expenses. And they do like gratitude (or even obsequiousness). So began the great museum-expansion boom of the last two decades. It opened the door for competing cultural institutions to play one-upmanship in the edifice-complex game.

Donors could now sponsor, and name, everything, even elevators and bathrooms. And did. Cultural institutions started aping academic models (where named professorships and chairs have long been commonplace) by naming directorships after specific donors. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s head, Adam Weinberg, for instance, is the “Alice Brown Pratt Director,” just as Neal Benezra is the “Helen and Charles Schwab Director” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While such concessions are normally offered by the institution, not sought by the donor, they are almost comical. It’s as if prominent scholars at the top of their field should have to don names like a logo hat.

Naming is the symptom, not the disease. The reliance on a relatively tiny group of big donors – the Sacklers had financed dozens of cultural institutions and university projects – is the problem. Even if it will mean scaling back operations, acquisitions, performances (and it will), access to the US cultural and academic fabrics can’t be vulnerable to the financial health, ethical compass and behavioral whims of a handful of players.

Replacing funds can’t take place overnight but there are moves, small and large, cultural institutions can take immediately. They can work in concert with industry associations, with competitors and municipal agencies. In the current climate, institutions need to ally with others like them who share donors, both in their own towns and their own fields, and jointly agree to shut down the awarding of any new naming rights until an industry-wide response can be established. Initially, feature donor names visibly, but temporarily, for specific performances or exhibitions.

Move toward rewarding individual donors more like corporate sponsors. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, for example, offers sponsors benefits ranging from the mundane-for-millionaires – complimentary parking – to the tempting use of Barnes images on invitations and publications. In the past, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has offered participants in its corporate “Client Entertaining” package, museum facilities to host events, 200 guest passes, and something called “concierge services.” The drawback of such benefits, unlike the very popular naming rights, is that they are generally taxable.

There’s ramping up smaller-scale giving, too. Donors, for example, can add a name plaque to a seat in the orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera for $15,000 apiece. But no more ridiculous renaming of buildings that have already become iconic, please.

Most important of all, institutions must develop criteria by which to accept or spurn funds, or to keep or remove names. What will happen if the donor is indicted? Convicted? Were the questionable monies raised near the time of the donation? Is the donor still alive? Was due diligence done? How embarrassing will a reveal be? Is the institution serving to endorse, or even whitewash, donor activity? Is scandal “worth” it?

For nine months, in 2002-2003, visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts could tour the Taubman Wing while its namesake billionaire mall developer, A. Alfred Taubman, was in federal prison for price-fixing. The museum stayed loyal and, despite pressure, did not remove the name. His estate later sold much of his on-loan art right off the walls of the museum.

Going forward, for more permanent and lucrative solutions, we’ll have to figure out national priorities.

There’s overhauling the existing cultural funders: In 2020, the National Endowment for the Arts donated $111.3 million in more than 1,400 new awards to organizations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and each of the five US territories. European museums enjoy government funding, but it is highly unlikely that model with be adopted here anytime soon. In the past, some cities have experimented successfully with cultural or university coalitions rotating major funding annually, so that each may present a major project or performance, but that requires unusual cooperation not standard in those worlds.

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    This problem of a system that routinely rewards donors with fame and institutional inclusion is that the scrutiny on the 1%, and resulting discovery of bad actors, is only going to get worse. In an age of Internet access to historical and global information, and easy outrage, there will be so many protesters and signs and chanting outside museums and libraries and opera houses that they’ll have to build a wall. And it better not have a name on it.

    Remember that Claus von Bulow sighting on the marble wall of donors at the Met? When he was tried again after his convictions were reversed, he was acquitted of the crime. If the Met had removed his name from the wall, would it have had to carve it back on?