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On Philanthropy and Paternalism

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I’m immersed in writing TrendsWatch 2015 for the rest of the month, which leaves limited bandwidth for blogging. For the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing brief thoughts, the kind of “here’s a 15 minute essay on why I think this story is interesting” I usually post in Monday Musings.

Today’s quickie was inspired by this article in the New York Times:
Which shares the news that billionaire Barry Diller has announced his plans to provide $130M to turn an abandoned pier into an off-shore park in New York City. The city, state and Hudson River Park Trust are being asked to kick in another $39.5M towards the costs.
All good, yes? Who wouldn’t like the prospect of a “futuristic park built atop an undulating platform 186 feet off the Hudson River shoreline with a series of wooded nooks and three performance venues, including an amphitheater?”
Well, I don’t know because (and this is the point) they didn’t ask. Diller commissioned the design without public input, and the Park Trust allegedly hide the nature of the project when changing the legislation governing the part to pave the way for the project.

 Artist’s rendering of the park, as presented in the
NYT article. Pier55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio 
Not to bash the Dillard’s intent, or his generosity. He has also promised to run the park and pay its operating expenses for 20 years.
So what’s my problem? Three things:
  1.  If you want to give people a gift that you expect them to use, you ought to ask them what they want. Contrast Dillard’s process, for example, with the extensive input (gathered through over 160 community meetings) used to shape the much more modest 11th Street Bridge Project in DC, which likewise will create a park out of an abandoned river structure. Not that there isn’t room for vision and leadership, but so often visions get built, and then sit empty while the founder wonders why nobody comes.
  2. 20 years of operating support sounds great, but after twenty years the city (or the Trust, or whoever) has to pick up the costs. What are the chances that the Dillard family foundation, relying as it can on its endowment, will have established a sustainable, self-sufficient business model by then? And to that point;
  3. How will this park and its performance venues affect the overall cultural economy of the community? The article notes two other projects in the works (Culture Shed at Hudson Yards and the Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center site) that may compete for the same audience. Set in Stone, the 2012 report from the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, has documented the overbuilding of culture in the US between 1994 and 2008. Is it doing us any favor to build a cultural infrastructure too big for the cultural carrying capacity of the Chelsea Pier area?

So yes, philanthropic impulses are great. And sometimes (as with Andrew Carnegie’s libraries) they can be of long-term benefit to the nation. But as we enter a New Gilded Era, when the pendulum swings from grassroots cultural project funded by local populations and local government back to culture as envisioned by the economic elite, we’d better tally the costs we have to bear in the long term. Gifts don’t always give you what you need, and they aren’t always free.
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