In Philanthropy, Why Naming Rights are the Name of the Game

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

namesake buildings

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art said it will name its newly remodeled plaza and fountains for David H. Koch, the billionaire conservative activist who gave $65 million towards the renovation. Koch has his name on a few prominent buildings around town, including the former New York State Theater at Lincoln Center and the American Museum of Natural History's dinosaur wing.

Koch presents one of the most visible examples of naming rights, a trend that some say is a necessary part of philanthropy. Yet others argue that giving should be a selfless, anonymous act. In this podcast, we consider what's driving the trend and what it signifies.

"With the fall-off in giving from the government, corporations and foundations, the private sector is even more essential than it was in the past," said Robin Pogrebin, a culture reporter at the New York Times. "In the past there was perhaps a nobility in giving anonymously. But now if donors are interested in seeing their names on things then organizations do need to make the tradeoffs involved in making that available to them."

Naming rights for major buildings generally go for about $100 million in New York, as seen in recent gifts by Stephen Schwarzman (to the New York Public Library), Koch (to the New York State Theater), Henry Kravis and Ronald Perelman (both to the Columbia University Business School). Smaller gifts may fund a hallway, a lobby or even a toilet.

Joan Desens is the director of institutional advancement at the Glimmerglass Festival, a summer opera festival in Cooperstown, NY. She says that patrons were once reluctant to have their name associated with a gift, but society has become more open. "People are very blatant with Facebook exposure," she said. "We’re all out there. So I think that people are more comfortable with having their name out there. It’s increasingly becoming an attraction."

Patricia Illingworth, an editor of Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy, believes that naming rights are a mixed blessing from an ethical standpoint. To some degree, "the arts seem to be a place where people from all walks of life and all social classes can gather together in solidarity," she noted. "So if billionaires are branding institutions and organizations with their names," that can alienate some people.

Nevertheless, Illingworth believes that named buildings can serve as an example and encourage increased giving from others.

Does an arts institution risk alienating patrons by associating with a major donor who holds a controversial personal agenda? "The point is, [patrons] are going to walk in anyway," said Pogrebin. "They may object but it’s not going to keep them away. Time passes and people get used to things."

A more complex picture emerges if a donor feels at liberty to dictate programming. According to a recent New Yorker piece, a documentary film was halted because of pressure applied on PBS from David H. Koch. Opinions differ as to whether this occurs within performing arts organizations.

"We like to think that the democratic process is what determines the social agenda," said Illingworth. "And yet when philanthropists start acting like governments, in a sense they can determine the social agenda. Naming rights can exacerbate that." 

But according to Pogrebin, "there is a pretty bright line when it comes to cultural organizations and artistic interference. That's the real cardinal sin. A donor cannot meddle in artistic choices and once you go down that road it's a slippery slope."

Weigh in: How do you feel about naming rights in the arts?

Hosted by:

Naomi Lewin


Brian Wise


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Comments [10]

Jason from Indianapolis

While I enjoy the Conducting Business podcast very much, but this episode is a prime example of the whining liberal elitist slant that permeates any discussion of the arts. David Koch funded something, but because he is a conservative (he's actually a libertarian), he is, therefore, evil and we must not like having his name on something.

Get over yourselves and be grateful that the arts still exist in this Obamaconomy.

Jun. 11 2013 03:55 PM

Having spent a good deal of time in that house and on that stage, it will always be the State Theater to me. While I must applaud his support of the arts, I doubt Mr. Koch would ever understand such a sentiment.

Jun. 11 2013 10:09 AM
NYer from NYC

Some gifts are purchases, as in the DavidKoch case. It bought positive public opinion.

Jun. 10 2013 03:59 PM
June Severino Feldman from New York City

The tragedy of the renamed NY State Theater is that is a thumb in the eye and a stake to the heart of the artists who perform at that very theater - many of whom are either young, homosexual, progressive, struggling or all of the above. The Koch brothers target their substantial resources to support causes aimed at marginalizing this population along with many of us who patronize their performances. The fact that Lincoln Center (or the NYS Theater Board) allowed this "naming opportunity" to take place amounts to nothing more than a beard for the Kochs and is an insult to all of us. I have been appalled since the first day I realized this had taken place.

Jun. 10 2013 03:57 PM
Kathy of Aragon from Castile

It's a sad business to have to go to a theater named after a corporation. For one thing, the names are invariably hideous, with the same aural quality and appeal of new drug names -- say "Xleptx," for rheumatism, "Jailcot" for xenophobia..., etc. Yet nothing comes close to the hardboiled egomaniacal arrogance of renamed New York State Theater.

So what if the Green Room's renovated? So what?

Jun. 10 2013 12:18 PM
Dave from Long Island

I don't see the big deal. We all want to be remembered as good people who contributed what they could to fine causes. I think if someone is donating $65 million to the Met, he deserves to be remembered for that.

Jun. 10 2013 11:59 AM
Nancyjean from Yonkers,ny

Personally,I find it annoying and confusing. Why does Shea stadium turn into Citifield? Why does it have to be the Nikon theater at jones beach? Tommy hilfiger at jones beach? Aren't these multimillion dollar corporations getting enough advertising already? Why do established institutions and locations change their name? Babies hospital becomes Morgan Stanley children's hospital? It does seem to cheapen the charitable gift so-called. NYU Tisch hospital now Langone... Too many examples, why do we change the name to reflect the biggest purse?

Jun. 10 2013 11:53 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

"Opinions differ"

This is the now common phrase used by the gutless journalism of today. It equates (and trivializes) truth and reality with the most bogus lies and fabrications regarding anything and everything including fundamentals that affect the lives of millions and billions of people.

The old phrase "Money talks. BS walks." should be replaced by "Money talks. Truth walks."

Jun. 09 2013 09:26 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

"One cannot put a plaque on a professor"

Maybe "one" can.

Billionaire's role in hiring decisions at Florida State University raises questions -

Jun. 08 2013 11:11 PM
David from Flushing

Institutions have only so many places that can be named after donors. Unless there is an expiration date for the naming, it seems the galleries at the Met Museum will be used up in a few years. Some museums have dealt with this by allowing donors to "endow" works of art and having plaques mounted to indicate this. I imagine a Rembrandt might go for more than some lesser artist.

Universities and museums can find themselves with awkward usages when it comes to names--the so and so professor/curator of the so and so department of the so and so campus of X university. One cannot put a plaque on a professor, so they need to be introduced in this manner.

Jun. 07 2013 06:02 PM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

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