A colossal gift from a fabulously rich patron of the arts has the museum world buzzing. But hold the hosannahs. The rich aren’t saving our culture.
Thomas Campbell didn’t have a good week last week. He had a great week.
Campbell directs the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Last week he announced “something museum directors only dream about”: the donation to the Met of a collection of paintings, drawings, and sculpture worth over $1 billion.
The donor: cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder. His gift: 33 pieces by Pablo Picasso and dozens of other landmark works from Picasso’s fellow artists, activists all in the “cubist” movement that ushered in the modern era of abstract art.
Forbes estimates Lauder’s overall net worth at well north of $8 billion. Chunks of this fortune have been going to the art world for some time now. In 2008 alone, Lauder gave $131 million to the Whitney Museum.
Philanthropy this bold simply thrills apologists for inequality. Immense concentrations of private wealth, these cheerleaders for grand fortune love to claim, bring culture to our civilization.
Only the truly wealthy, the argument goes, have the time and resources to cultivate a real appreciation for the finer things in life.
“The rich make life more interesting,” as the prominent business editor William Davis gushed in the early 1980s. “Walk around any museum and look at the treasures they have left us, and ask yourself what there would be to see if Communism had arrived four centuries earlier.”
Editorial writers at the New York Post echoed those sentiments last week in a tribute to Lauder’s latest king-sized gift to the art world. Let’s hope this gift, their editorial opined, helps change the way our society “thinks about billionaires.”
“Being rich doesn’t make you evil,” the Post editorial continued. “And the accumulation of wealth can enrich others — in countless ways.”
Let the Lauder gift especially be a lesson, the editorial huffed, to those who may still want to subject the rich to “millionaire taxes” meant to “share the wealth.”
In reality, of course, we’ve seen precious little “sharing the wealth” over recent decades. Billionaires like Leonard Lauder have watched the tax rates on their incomes plummet. And the resulting squeeze on the public purse has had a substantial — and troubling — artistic impact, especially in America’s schools.
In New York City, as one local arts group relates, budget cuts have painted a “grim picture for arts education.” Kids in New York live “surrounded by a priceless array of arts and cultural institutions.” Yet they’re growing up “culturally isolated.” Nearly a quarter of New York’s schools have no certified arts instructor in them.
New York hardly stand alone. In Los Angeles, one arts activist noted last fall, 53 percent of elementary-age kids are getting no exposure to arts instruction. In Detroit, 60 percent of schools “lack art education as part of the curriculum.”
Nationwide, the same pattern. The U.S. Department of Education reported last spring that 4 million elementary school students are going without visual arts instruction. Adds Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators: “We haven’t hit bottom yet.”
The “top” for arts education came back in America’s share-the-wealth golden age in the mid 20th century, the years when America’s wealthiest faced federal income tax rates as high as 91 percent, over double the top current rate.
In 1960, lawmakers in Albany okayed the creation of the New York State Council on the Arts. Four years later, Congress established the National Endowment of the Arts. The federal government became, for the first time ever, a major player in arts funding. In community after community, federal dollars began leveraging a vital partnership of nonprofits and public agencies. The arts flourished.
We can’t, of course, totally blame the demise of this golden age on shrinking billionaire top-bracket tax rates. Other factors have been at play, most particularly the rising pressure on school systems to narrow the curriculum to subjects that lend themselves to endless rounds of standardized testing.
But who’s bankrolling this intensely market-driven approach to education that has no patience for “frills” like art? America’s billionaires, through the vast network of think tanks and foundations they’ve so lavishly underwritten.
So let’s keep in mind what really happens — to the arts — when we let wealth concentrate. Museums get paintings from the awesomely affluent. These affluent get plaques in the museums testifying to their generosity — and lucrative deductions on their tax returns for the art they donate.
And the rest of us? We pay our $25 admission fee to enter museums like New York’s Met and watch art education fade away from our schools.
Labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, writes widely about inequality. His latest book, “The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970,” has just been published.