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

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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?