Not So Sweet Charity: David Patrick Columbia on Money, Power and Ambiguous Philanthropic Motives

David Patrick Columbia, the author of the Web site New York Social Diary, was sitting where he often sits, at the front table at Swifty’s on the Upper East Side. He was talking about what makes the arts possible, the web of money, power and ambiguous motives that has for a long time successfully convinced the very rich that it’s their duty to donate large sums to support paintings on walls and people dancing and singing onstage.

“I mean, look at Mrs. Astor at the Met and Mr. Kahn at the Met,” the 69-year-old said, speaking of two of the Metropolitan Opera’s great Gilded Age patrons. “Two different people in terms of their interest in being there and what it meant to them. His was actually more sincere because his was actually, shall we say, visceral, and hers was more social, though his was probably social, too. But he was actually affected by the art in such a way that he got off on it, while she got off on being there and being the queen. Both of those elements made the opera last.”


It’s not just opera–Mr. Columbia said that motives are similarly mixed at the ballet and museums–but, in the end, the whys of giving don’t much matter. As Mr. Columbia said: “You have people who acquire money and then acquire the accoutrements of money, which is the interest in culture, or apparent interest in culture. I don’t know how sincere it is, and that’s O.K. From my point of view, if someone gives money to support the opera, I don’t give a shit if they’re not really interested. If they just want to sit with Mrs. Whomever, that’s O.K. with me. You know, Mr. Frick and his museum, it was good for the artists, even if there was something else in it for him.”

But now, when even the rich find themselves prioritizing their spending, their motives may become a lot more important. Someone who is giving out of passion for the art form–Sybil Harrington, the Metropolitan Opera’s major patron of the ’80s and ’90s, comes to mind–may prove hardier than someone who’s in it for other reasons.

More than genuine passion, perhaps those other reasons–self-creation and image management among them–are the truly compelling ones. A recent email, criticizing the superficiality of his society coverage, made Mr. Columbia think of David Koch, the richest man in New York and one of the city’s most prominent philanthropists: His $100 million gift to New York City Opera and New York City Ballet led to their theater taking his name.

“This is New York,” Mr. Columbia wrote on his site, a place where “Society” and its cultural institutions are hardly irrelevant. They provide a playing field for moneyed people to achieve power.

“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.”

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.

“That’s not superficial,” Mr. Columbia said. “That’s what society really is, at the end of the day. The stuff you see, the Mrs. Astor stuff, is very froufrou, but the subtext to that is not froufrou at all.”

From Mr. Columbia’s perspective, the motives of the next generation of arts donors are uncertain; they might be passionate givers, or they might be consumed by position and power. One thing is clear: These young people won’t necessarily come from the same old families. Those traditions are fading.

“Now what they look for on the boards isn’t their own children to follow suit,” Mr. Columbia said, “but just someone who will. And also who has wmoney. ‘Cause that’s it.”

High birth, in other words, doesn’t mean as much as it once did. Speaking about a young patron whose family has long been associated with the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Columbia said, “He will not be on the board unless he has a lot of money to bring to it. He just won’t be.”

That leaves a vacuum that can be filled by people whose money may be newer–arts institutions are making a point of cultivating a much more diverse group of donors–and who, with few connections to generations of New York society, are doing it with their own reasons and to their own ends. For better or worse, though, these people make the show go on.

“David Koch has given a lot of money to a lot of cultural activities,” Mr. Columbia said, “and it pays a lot of people, it keeps those dancers on the stage, it keeps the curtain going up. And you can’t say he doesn’t mean it. It doesn’t fucking matter if he means it, because the dancers need to dance! That’s all it is. That’s what goes on.”

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