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December 2, 2007
'The Graffiti of the Philanthropic Class' (updated twice)
That's what the New York Times, via an article today by theater critic Charles Isherwood, calls the various plaques and signs honoring philanthropists' donations to cultural venues, schools, hospitals, charities, libraries, parks, museums, etc.
With his personal interest focused on performing arts, Isherwood concentrates primarily on the "naming" of theatrical venues; but the implications of his lede line: "WHATEVER happened to Anonymous?" include the many other instances in which benefactors are identified by name.
One can only wonder if the Times's resentment of the practice might stem in some small part from the curious absence of the name Sulzberger on any local buildings or public facilities. Certainly, there are no hospital wings, university labs, concert halls, or charitable organizations widely known for affiliation with the Sulzbergers -- even in the weekly Sunday Styles pages of the family's own newspaper, a reader would be hard pressed to see any photo of Pinch or père among the attendees at charity balls, galas, and fundraisers. Which makes it unlikley that he and his family are anonymous donors.
Indeed, as far as a quick mental review by this lifelong New Yorker extends, there is no recollection of any public involvement of the Sulzbergers -- certainly one of the city's premier business dynasties -- in any philanthropic endeavors save one. That's the Times's annual "Neediest Cases" drive, in which readers are asked to donate money for which the Times later takes credit by turning the funds over to various organized charities.
In a city where names from Andrew Carnegie to more recent philanthropists like Weill, Rose, Paley, Tisch, and many others are firmly attached to the walls and canopies of so many public structures, would it be so terrible if the Times's Isherwood stopped whining so loudly about the recognition given to public-spirited citizens and spent his energy entreating his boss to become one of them?
Update: Reader Conrad Newburgh notes:
Au contraire Mr. Weltz. My daughter attended Barnard College and one of the residence halls was named Sulzberger hall. I would guess one of the female Sulzbergers attended Barnard and they gave them a nice endowment. One ironic note. When I asked my daughter if she knew who the Sulzbergers were she admitted that she did not and was surprised to find out that the family owned the NY Times. She gets all her news online and has rarely purchased a paper in her life.
Greg Richards adds:
If Isherwood is arguing in favor of taste and balance – “nothing to extreme” as the ancient Greeks put it – well, then…it is hard to say he doesn’t have a point, or at least a potential point.
However, if, as seems to be the case, he is saying that the desire of benefactors to see their names prominently displayed is a measure of their philistinism, then I have to disagree. We all have our preferences. I am not even a particular fan of professional sports, yet I find myself offended by the naming of stadiums after corporations. What are the limits of branding in the public sphere? Presumably this is Isherwood’s question. And I don’t know the answer.
But I will say this. Over the last year, I have been – am currently – dealing with the onset of the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis. As it turns out, I have a particularly intense form of it. I have been treated at New York Presbyterian Hospital / Weill Cornell Medical Center for it, first in the Emergency Room, then in intensive care, and since by a team of doctors. So I have been spending a lot of time at the massive, several square block installation that is New York Presbyterian on the East Side of Manhattan.
And what do I find? Benefactors everywhere. I ran into CV Starr, who is, I believe, Hank Greenberg’s predecessor at AIG, in the 70th Street lobby (not the main lobby). The place where I go to get plasmapheresis, which cleans the blood of contaminants it cannot get rid of by itself, used to be a lying-in hospital. If you walk slowly through the ancient lobby, which pre-dates World War II, there is a modestly illuminated sign memorializing Laura Spellman Rockefeller. The Rockefellers were there ahead of me, but they are not complaining when I am lying in their beds. Presumably, Sandy Weill gave a truly heroic sum to get his name put in front of Cornell on the Weill Cornell medical school. I am treated for the diabetes which has come from the medications for the myasthenia gravis by the clinic at Weill Cornell – and am very well and carefully cared for by the doctors being trained there.
So, if I have to come down on one side of this debate, my response to the benefactors is “thank you. You were there before I needed you and I wouldn’t be here if not for you.”
There are two words that we view now with considerable skepticism – ambition and glory. But they were admired traits by the ancient Greeks. For without ambition, how does a man, or woman, attain the scope for their talents which they deserve? And without glory, how are those talents recognized? Yes both can be abused. But, as Churchill once said, “of course I am an egotist. Where do you get if you aren’t?”
Benefactors only gain glory if their donations contribute to the commonweal. It was Pericles who, in his Funeral Oration, said that it was the glory of Athens that would be the monument for the death of her sons.
As someone who arrived at the Emergency Room of New York Hospital with the Grim Reaper at his elbow, I am grateful that CV Starr, Laura Spellman Rockefeller, Sandy Weill and the others whose names are on the New York Presbyterian Hospital complex were there ahead of me to make him back off.
Writer Dick Weltz responds:
Indeed, a few years after it was constructed and in use, Barnard did name a residential hall "Sulzberger Hall." However, as reported by the Times itself at the time:
It may be noted that the gift was from her four children, not including incumbent Pinch; and, presumably, their collective donation did not nearly cover the actual construction cost of the ultra modern facility.
As far as I am able to determine, most or all of the Times's other philanthropic activities are conducted through The New York Times Company Foundation, presumably using shareholder money (plus some employee contributions, which it matches), and consists of a range of relatively modest grants and scholarships to a variety of local groups and individuals.
In the shadow of major New York philanthropists: Weill's Hospital Center, The Tisch Hospital at NYU, The Rose Family's out-of pocket gifts to sponsor the new Planetarium and various new venues at Lincoln Center (a few gifts that just come to mind offhand), it still seems to me that, unless there is serious anonymous giving that's been well hidden, Sulzberger is not a name closely associated with hometown philanthropy.