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Billionaire bucks for the arts

The arts are expensive, and as has often been pointed out, the price of a ticket doesn’t come near paying the cost.

Paintings by artist Euka Holmes line the wall of a gallery that was previously an exterior fire escape at the newly refurbished Huntington Theatre.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Sometimes I miss the robber barons — or at least, the robber barons of old, the OGs of the Gilded Age: Carnegie, Frick, Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, et al. Whatever their crimes, didn’t they wash away their sins endowing universities, hospitals, and museums? As Nicholas Lemann pointed out in The New Yorker, philanthropy “success stories” include “the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ initial funding of the Green Revolution” and “the Carnegie Corporation’s role in establishing the public-broadcasting system.”

Of course, philanthropy can backfire, as Lemann also points out, with the name of the opioid-peddling Sacklers being removed from museums. Or the galling generosity of the anti-environmentalist right-wing Koch brothers (the late David H. Koch’s name now adorns the home of New York City Ballet in Lincoln Center as well as the plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)


But David Koch (steward of the family fortune with his brother Charles) was a kind of throwback to the bad old days of robber baron philanthropy. At least when it comes to the arts.

I was reminded of this when Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, were at Harvard a couple of months ago to launch a new institute for the study of artificial intelligence. The institute had been established with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s donation of $500 million to their alma mater.

I wondered whether Zuckerberg and Chan had ever donated to the arts or were aware of Harvard’s construction of a new “arts campus” in Allston that will include a relocated American Repertory Theater. From a perusal of the tech-centered Chan Zuckerberg Initiative site, it appears not.

The Zuckerberg Chan donation recalled Bill Gates’s comment years ago questioning the efficacy of building a new wing for a museum when there is so much suffering in the world. Not that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation doesn’t do a lot of important work. But for Gates, it appears that arts vs. global health is a zero sum game. New museum, or eliminating polio?


When a climate activist glues his head to a Vermeer, it seems there are people who would agree.

But isn’t it also true that Gates, net worth $113 billion as of this writing, could have, say, written a check for the $1.9 million deficit reported in 2019 by the Metropolitan Opera (the largest performing arts organization in the world) without breaking a sweat, and still have plenty leftover for the $2 billion the Gates foundation has committed to the global COVID-19 response?

Local arts leaders are perhaps more sanguine about billionaire bucks for the arts.

“Just the fact that somebody has a lot of money doesn’t mean that they owe it to you,” said Michael Maso, who has led The Huntington Theatre Company’s administrative team for 40 years, “Or, as an old boss of mine said maybe almost 50 years ago, ‘The Ford Foundation is not your mother.’ "

“Not every foundation cares about everything,” Maso said. “You build relationships with people who share your values and care about what you do.”

Maso points to the Barr Foundation — a major donor not only to the Huntington, but also to the A.R.T., ArtsEmerson, the Celebrity Series of Boston, Global Arts Live, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, MASS MoCA, and other institutions in the Commonwealth — as an example of a private foundation that made the arts a priority.


Jim Canales, president of Barr, is familiar with hearing the Gates question: Why invest in the arts with so many other pressing needs?

“I think it’s a very easy answer,” said Canales, “which is that the arts are a part of what it is to have a thriving society. And especially given what we’re dealing with right now, coming out of a pandemic, all of the issues around racial reckoning that we have been grappling with as a society, all of the issues around the state of democracy. To make sense of that, to understand it, to engage in it, to build community around those issues — the arts can play such a vital role to do all that.”

Barr, says Canales, projects about $30 million in arts-related grants in 2022, more than 20 percent of its grant-making budget.

But Barr is the exception, especially in Greater Boston, where individual donors rather than foundations or corporations have carried most of the load in a sector that is woefully underfunded by government.

The arts are expensive, and as has often been pointed out, the price of a ticket doesn’t come near paying the cost. Gary Dunning, president and executive director of the Celebrity Series, said, “The difference in the arts between 2 points on the side of deficit and 2 points on the side of surplus is not 4 points — it’s a lifetime and another universe away. And unfortunately, we’ve all been living for the most part on that, just trying to scrabble through to get by.”


He adds, “In the scheme of things, the wealth that is out there could have a huge impact on the arts without a heavy lift.”

Jon Garelick, a retired Globe Opinion staff member, is a freelance writer. He can be reached at garelickjon@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.