Two years ago, billionaire David Geffen donated $100 million for renovations and naming rights to David Geffen Hall. Wealthy due to his success as a music promoter and executive, Mr. Geffen is well-known today for his philanthropy. For example, UCLA’s School of Medicine was renamed in his honor following a $200 million donation in 2001.
I’m not opposed to these donations, in and of themselves. After all, Mr. Geffen can do whatever he wants with his money, and David Geffen Hall is an integral piece of America’s musical legacy.
I do, however, have concerns with the growing reliance on Gospel of Wealth-esque funding throughout the nation. This strategy increases our dependence on philanthropy from the rich, effectively reducing the role of democratic decision-making in our society. This is best seen in Mr. Geffen’s frustration at the slow pace of progress on David Geffen Hall renovations.
Mr. Geffen says it is “shameful” that we do not have a better concert hall, and while entitled to his opinion, our nation needs some resources directed by its voters. By insinuating that other wealthy New Yorkers, as well as the city itself, need to do more to support the arts, Mr. Geffen has used his well-intentioned giving to exert more sway in government spending.
Our original states were called commonwealths because they had common wealth, to be allocated by the people who were allowed to vote at the time and carried out through their elected representatives.
Most voters think that clean drinking water in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, or Flint, Michigan is important, but few would find it practical to leave the financial and medical response to such disasters up to billionaire philanthropists, if any were even so inclined to take up the responsibility. It is easy for wealthy people like David Geffen to half-fund renovation projects, but it is another thing entirely to argue for funding on the basis of necessity. It’s been clear for years now that the philosophy of art philanthropy is changing, “making way for donors striving to solve real-world problems” like procuring clean water for American citizens.
As we strive to move further away from a plutocracy, it’s important to recognize that even well-meaning, frequent donors should still have only as much political power as the poorest among us. Despite what this presidential administration might believe, the needs and rights of all citizens are equally important, and the principle of one person, one vote is as American as the Philharmonic Hall.
We do need concert halls, but we also need the sewage treatment plants that keep our environment clean, and the parkways that allowed real estate developers like Fred Trump to make money in the far corners of Brooklyn and Queens. We need a lot of things that the philanthropists don’t really care about, and that is why we need elected officials who represent everyone making decisions, not just billionaires.