A story yesterday in the New York Times about Miami Art Museum board members resigning over a decision to rename the museum for a man who is giving it $35 million reminded me of an article I wrote in the Times' first issue dedicated to philanthropy in 1998. (The 14th annual issue on philanthropy came out today; the historic gift of $1.2 billion given Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is highlighted.)
In the 1990s, when the Arkansas Arts Center was raising money to build the new entrance and galleries, an out-of-state prospect promised to give $1 million if the Arts Center would rename itself for the donor. That irritated the late financier Jack Stephens, he told the Times, so he gave the Arts Center $5 million — no strings attached. He thought the Arts Center should be named for its home, not a donor who wanted to see his or her name on a building.
At least one writer has complimented Alice Walton for leaving her name off her museum, which gives it a little breathing room for the people who patronize it to take ownership, but the Walton name appears on many other institutions the family has endowed.
The new Miami Art Museum, under construction, will be known as the Jorge M. Perez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County. The board members who've quit and others in the community are particularly peeved that a donor could "buy" a museum that is being built on public land and largely financed by taxpayers.
What would happen today if someone came to the Arkansas Arts Center, which is operating on a shoestring so tight it can't afford curators, with a gift of $35 million? That board probably would take the money and give it any name the donor wished.