Anonymous philanthropy is over: 6 public treasures billionaires just needed their names on

Charitable donations have less to do with philanthropy than with purchasing immortality

Published July 7, 2016 8:59AM (EDT)

David Koch                                  (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
David Koch (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


There was a time when public buildings and institutions were named after people who had actually accomplished something notable. Think Albert Einstein, Louis Armstrong or Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, it seems notable accomplishments are not necessary. Just dollars, millions and millions of them. All it takes, apparently, is cash to get a building renamed for you. As William Drennan, a Southern Illinois University law professor recently told the Financial Times, the change really came in the mid-1990s. “Before then, the wealthy were content to make their big donations to be on the board of directors,” he said. “Now, the wealthy donor wants everyone in the community to know they're generous and powerful."

No longer content just to control the lion’s share of the wealth in the world, the .01 percent now seems intent on making sure we remember them long after they no longer matter. Charitable donations have less to do with philanthropy than with purchasing immortality. Gaze across the architectural landscape and you will see public buildings being renamed for rich people in return for a tiny fraction of their fortunes.

Right-wing conservatives, cheerleaders for the new Gilded Age, are the biggest advocates of this method of raising needed money. In their eyes, the more private money involved, the better, even if it means selling off the names of public parks, hospitals and airports. And by cutting taxes to the bone, they have ensured that federal, state and local governments are forced to do just that. Even in liberal bastions like San Francisco, tax breaks to tech companies have cut into revenues so deeply that the local government has gone hat in hand to billionaires with offers of renaming buildings in return for money.

As a society, we have become used to faceless corporations buying naming rights for large stadiums and arenas. Citi Field in New York, Petco Park in San Diego and Minute Maid Park in Houston, to name just a few. Perhaps one day we can expect to see the McDonald’s Golden Arches Bridge or the eBay Bridge crossing San Francisco Bay. For the corporations, it’s a branding exercise. The same can be said for the billionaires. For a measly few million, pocket change for these unfathomably wealthy people, they are buying a reputation that appears to be one of philanthropy, but seems more akin to narcissism and the thirst for recognition.

Here are six public-minded buildings and institutions that have succumbed to billionaires' naming demands.

1. New York Public Library

New Name: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library

The Blackstone Group, a multinational private equity firm based in New York, is the fifth largest company of its kind in the world, with assets of almost $350 billion. Its CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, is worth $10 billion. In 2008, Schwarzman decided to donate $100 million toward a $1 billion renovation of the venerable New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In return for his donation — a tenth of the total cost of the renovation — the library agreed to rename the building after him. According to Schwarzman, the library told him, “We’d like you to be the lead gift and give us $100 million and we’d like to rename the main branch after you.” He said, “That sounds pretty good.” He could have said no, but hey, immortality. In 2011, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library was unveiled. Schwarzman didn’t even attend the ribbon cutting. (Maybe he was still upset about having to pay taxes on his billions. In 2010, speaking to board members of a non-profit organization, he complained that the Obama tax increase was, “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”)

2. New York State Theater at Lincoln Center

New Name: David H. Koch Theater

David Koch, besides being in the oil and gas business with his brother Charles and manipulating the political landscape in his libertarian vision, is a ballet fan who happens to be worth more than $44 billion. In 2008, he donated $100 million to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center toward that building’s modernization. (That would be about one-fifth of 1 percent of his wealth today, but he was only worth about $17 billion back then, so it was a whole half of one percent at the time.) “They seem to like me there, and I like them, so I think we’ve got a deal,” he told The New York Times. In return for his largesse, the theater was renamed the David H. Koch Theater. Koch has claimed that fellow billionaire Stephen Schwarzman inspired him to make his donation. “I admire people like that immensely, who have great wealth but are generous in terms of supporting worthy causes.” Magnanimously, Koch has said the building could be renamed yet again after 50 years, as long as the theater asks his family first, which would have first dibs on matching a future donation and keeping their name on the building.

3. Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center

New Name: David Geffen Hall

I guess $100 million is the magic number in New York to get your name carved into the granite of beloved cultural institutions. That was the figure David Geffen promised to the classical music venue Avery Fisher Hall that convinced Lincoln Center to change its name to David Geffen Hall. Geffen, the business and entertainment magnate who is worth $7 billion, got his start on the road to wealth in the rock ‘n' roll business, but told The New York Times, “I love classical music. I like Mozart a whole lot.” Avery Fisher Hall was originally named for another rich guy who made his name in electronics, and his family wasn’t happy when the name change was proposed. After threatening to sue, an out-of-court settlement check for $15 million made them less unhappy. Geffen made his gift contingent upon the building remaining Geffen Hall in perpetuity. But his $100 million gift was relative peanuts compared to the cash he gave the UCLA School of Medicine in 2002 — in return for $200 million, med students now attend the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

4. San Francisco General Hospital

New Name: Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is worth roughly $35 billion, which makes him only the 16th richest person in the entire world, so a $75 million gift to San Francisco General Hospital probably won’t make much of a difference in his lifestyle. In return for his donation, less than a tenth of the total cost of the renovation (which is mostly paid for by San Francisco taxpayers through a bond sale), patients will now walk into the Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla, has been a doctor at the hospital, so it’s nice to keep it in the family.

5. New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering

New Name: NYU Tandon School of Engineering

New York University is one of the richest educational institutions in America, with real estate holdings worth hundreds of millions of dollars and an endowment of over $3.5 billion. That didn’t stop it from accepting a gift of $100 million (there’s that number again) in 2015 from Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon, who made their considerable money in hedge funds. In return, the school will now be called the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Not everyone is happy with the change — like the students, for instance, who gathered 1,300 names on a petition protesting the name change. John Sexton, then the school president, was unimpressed and the name change remained. While the school declined to acknowledge whether the gift was contingent on the name change, Sexton did say at the time that it would be “the last name change” for the school.

6. Miami Art Museum

New Name: Jorge M. Perez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County

Jorge Perez, net worth $3.4 billion, made his money in real estate. In 2005, Time Magazine called him the Donald Trump of the Tropics. (We are guessing that might have been a compliment at the time.) In 2011, Perez pledged $20 million plus another $15 million worth of art in his private collection toward the new home of the Miami Art Museum. In return, the museum was renamed the Jorge M. Perez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County. This did not sit well with at least four of the board members, who resigned in protest over the renaming. “Name a plaza or a wing of the building,” Rubén A. Rodríguez, one of the trustees, told The New York Times, “but not the institution.” Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, found the renaming highly unusual. “No one has ever seen this happen at a museum that aspires to be a major metropolitan museum,” he said. Perez left no doubt that the renaming was his condition for the donation, and that the new name would need to be permanent. “I want to have a legacy other than my family and my buildings that I’m very proud of.” Miami has other renamed billionaire buildings, including the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, the Frost Museum of Art at Florida International University and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Quid pro quo

Sometimes the quid pro quo for a charitable donation becomes glaringly transparent, as was the case with Wall Street billionaire Sandy Weill’s $20 million offer to Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York in 2015. In return for the money, Weill asked that the small, cash-strapped college be renamed Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College, after his wife. A judge put a halt to the renaming, ruling that the college’s founder had stipulated the college name be set in stone, in perpetuity. After the ruling, the oh-so-philanthropic Weill withdrew the offer. A Weill spokesperson told The New York Times, “It was a naming gift, so without the court allowing us to go forward there was no money. That was the deal, right from the beginning.” Mark Schneider, a lawyer representing alumni who were opposed to the name change, remarked, “I think it’s unfortunate that the Weills are not going to give the money. If they really wanted to give a gift to the school, it shouldn’t be contingent on something as self-glorifying as naming the school after Mrs. Weill. They could have named something else.”

Others who want to participate in the name-change game can look to charitable organizations like the Urban Ministries of Durham and its Names for Change campaign. This North Carolina organization, which serves the homeless, accepts small donations from individuals, who in turn get to rename things like pencils and refrigerators and get to design a customized poster with the renamed item (like the Stephanie Witchger Light Bulb of Inspiration, the Michael Taeckens Oven of Deliciousness or the Alice Gilmer Fruit Cocktail of Artistic Colors). So far they have raised almost $80,000 to fight homelessness.

By Larry Schwartz

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