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Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?


The official announcement that Casa Daros, the cultural institution of the Daros Latin America Collection, is closing in Rio de Janeiro as of December 2015 came as a big surprise to Latin American cultural circles. The ambitious project insofar as it concerned exhibitions only lasted two years. The argument invoked in a press conference is a lack of financial means to keep the project running. After an investment of sixteen million reais in 2006 (roughly $8 million USD) to buy the building, and then sixty-seven million reais (roughly $21.5 million USD) to restore it, one would presume that somebody would have run through the budget for sustaining such an ambitious project. The loss for Latin American culture is grave, because Casa Daros promised to be a continental cultural center that would transcend Latin America’s nationalist fragmentation and become an international reference point. There are many reasons why I’m sorry about the disappearance of Casa Daros, but here I’m interested in understanding its loss as a cultural symptom and how this symptom connects with general issues concerning the fickleness of philanthropic institutions. The more modest plan now is to circulate and lend works from its 1200-piece collection to other venues. The Daros Collection stands out among its peers because it assembled whole bodies of work by artists, rather than single representative examples.

Patronage systems have always brought the promotion of cultural activities at least partially into the hands of private initiative. In theory this split helps balance the influence of official government policies with a broader range of interests in culture. The role of government in cultural matters in capitalist countries, however, has been steadily declining, and philanthropic and nonprofit organizations have been progressively taking over public duties. The reliance on philanthropy in the US, for example, has been so long-standing and extreme that the absence of government is rarely questioned unless some fraudulent activity by private institutions becomes known to the public. The US is one of the few countries where culture is not dignified with its own ministry, and where it’s taken for granted that the private sector should assume the responsibility. The rewards are straightforward. Private donors get an organization or a building named after them long before their death. Corporations use cultural largesse for public relations and advertising. Governments, in turn, help them with tax exemptions (a benefit, it should be noted, that Daros waived in Brazil, as do other organizations on occasion) and, in exchange, save on operating costs and the stresses of controversial decisions. In principle this would appear to be a perfect and impeccable deal that benefits everybody, including the collective culture it promises to serve.

Though often confused, there is a difference between altruism and philanthropy. Altruism is totally ego-distant and only focused on charitable effect. Meanwhile, philanthropy—although it may have an altruistic component—tends to include other agendas. Philanthropy may be a tool for indemnification or restitution of ill-acquired wealth, a way to correct inequality in income distribution, a correction of government ineptness, a help in community building, or a combination thereof. But it is often part of larger political agendas, sometimes directed by government policies, but at other times designed to change those policies.More often then not, philanthropic projects bear and promote the names of their funders. Daros is an arbitrary name and an exception to this, and many nonprofit organizations pursuing altruistic goals have the good taste to remain depersonalized. It is customary, though, for private patrons to have their names prominently displayed, whether in hospital elevators, on benches, or as the title of whole building wings, museums, or other prominent cultural sites. At the Lincoln Center in New York, the original Philharmonic Hall was rechristened “Avery Fisher Hall” in 1973 thanks to a $10.5 million donation from Mr. Fisher. But in 2015, the name was changed to “David Geffen Hall” after Mr. Geffen donated $100 million (of which $15 million went to the Fishers to buy out their naming rights). The other $85 million is exempted from taxes; thus, something close to $30 million will not be used to fund government services. Since much US government money is spent on weaponry and other war expenses, this sounds okay. But in other countries, it wouldn’t be okay. The land on which Lincoln Center stands is owned by New York City, but the whole musical enterprise—which was started by John D. Rockefeller—is private. Same-day standing-room tickets for the Metropolitan Opera cost around $25, which may not cover production expenses, but it does not provide a public service to those who can’t afford it, either. Meanwhile, in the same compound, the New York State Theater, built by the state of New York and owned by New York City, became the David H. Koch Theater in 2008 and will remain so until 2058. Koch paid $100 million dollars for this. The Koch family also has the right of first refusal for any later attempt to rename the building. This overview is from the macro view of money.

From the micro view: when it comes to artists who receive a fellowship because they are recognized for their achievements and merits—in other words, for their contribution to public culture—the tax exemption in the US is granted to the giver, not the receiver. The receiver’s money (unless dedicated to tuition at an accredited institution) is taxable income. When a museum acquires an artwork with the help of a patron, there’s usually a 20 percent discount on the sale price. This means that the philanthropic act is not only exercised by the donor, but also by the seller; the artist and the gallery each donate ten percent of the sale amount. The donor gains social prestige and a mention in the signage when the work is exhibited, as recognition for his or her generosity. The artist hopefully gains visibility and, possibly, a bump in his or her market price. The artist’s part in the philanthropy is not tax deductible. When nonprofit institutions invite artists to speak, they usually only offer a “symbolic amount” as an honorarium. “Symbolic” is a euphemism for “we know you are worth much more, but we cannot afford to pay that.” The difference between the amount the artist is worth and the amount that he or she is actually paid is the philanthropy exercised by the artist, which is not tax deductible either. When calculating preparation and travel time, what remains of the honorarium after taxes is close to minimum wage. Fortunately for culture and education, as artists we feel like missionaries and don’t mind helping and supporting struggling nonprofit organizations. Harvard and MoMA come to mind as recent examples.

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