I was fascinated to read a 4 page spread in Hello! about Ariana Rockefeller, the well-known philanthropist and heiress of the immensely rich Rockefeller family.  It took a while for the garage to balance my new tyres and I’d finished the Daily Mail provided in the reception area.  In the profile she told the reporter how important a work ethic was to her, something which she’d learned from her family, and how much time she spent dealing with her philanthropic organisations.  When in New York, she lives not in her own house or apartment, but in a huge suite at the Mark Hotel - “the most boldly lavish hotel in New York City”.   She is quoted as saying: “They make my favourite cocktail as soon as I walk into the bar. They save my favourite table in the restaurant for me. They do everything for me. You can’t put a price on that.”  The $57,000 a night apparently charged for the penthouse suite by the Mark may be a clue as to how the system functions.  Poor little rich girl; nice to be cosseted for love, not money.

The Rockefellers' wealth came from oil and started to be amassed in the 19th century.  Their company Standard Oil became a byword for monopolistic practices, effectively preventing others from competing with it.  The Supreme Court ultimately ordered its break-up, holding that it was bad for the people of the United States.  The founder, John D Rockefeller, had retired in 1897 and but retained his shareholdings and, ironically, became the richest man in the world in 1911 following the court’s decision.  There was a break-up bonus.  The family is mainly now known for its philanthropy, but also for being as ‘rich as Rockefeller’, a more modern substitute for Croesus. 

There are any number of institutes, foundations, museums, theatres and opera houses which bear the family’s name because of their donations over the last century or so.  We were always rather dismissive of the reliance of the arts in the USA on private funding.  It all seemed a bit tacky.  Since the financial crash, however, our arts here in the UK have had to rely increasingly on private philanthropy from a variety of donors rather than taxpayer funding.  At the same time, however, questions have been asked about the provenance of the money offered as a means to achieve temporal glory.  The Rockefeller’s money came from extreme monopolistic practices designed to ensure that the family profited at the cost of the spirit of free enterprise which was supposed to be the foundation of the American dream.  Is it not the case that the origins of the money are based on the sort of grasping immorality which would be condemned at any phase in our world’s history?

But we can look at a more up to date example -  the Sacklers and Oxycontin.  The Sackler family has been known in the philanthropic world since they started to make serious money from their drug company, Purdue Pharma.  Unfortunately, it seems that their star drug, a slow release form of Oxycodone, an opioid prescribed widely in North America for pain relief is highly addictive.  It is said to be more addictive than Heroin, but the regulatory authorities say that it was marketed aggressively with no warnings to that effect and they are being sued by individuals and even by the  State of Oklahoma.  It started to become very popular in the late 1990’s and the Sacklers’ fortune took off in a big way. 

They have followed in the footsteps of the Rockefellers in setting up a philanthropic foundation which has made major gifts to Universities, museums, theatres etc., all bearing their name as a mark of the good they had done.  No more.  We now find that all the main trusts which have benefited from their largesse are turning down further gifts.  The way has been led by the National Portrait Gallery whose ethics committee delayed its approval to a £1,000,000 donation after demonstrations organised by a photographer, Nan Goldin, outside Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim and the threat that she would withdraw a planned exhibition at the NPG.  Who knew that such organisations even had ethics committees? In response the Sackler Foundation has confirmed that it is suspending all giving.

The connection between art and dodgy money is though hardly a recent phenomenon. Throughout the centuries, or even millennia, art has been fuelled by the rich and powerful.  Whether rich people wanting art by the best artists so that they could display their status in the world, or indeed the Church taking a similar line, but apparently to display the glory of (their) god. The best architects have been used for similar purposes, with Monarchs promoting the construction of imposing edifices in order to display their power, not only to their long-suffering subjects, but also as a warning to visiting foreigners not to mess with them.

These days, architects design ever higher and more costly skyscrapers with a view to letting magnificent office suites to prestigious companies and selling luxurious apartments with magnificent views to the über-rich - regardless of their moral status. And of course, no-one objects when works of art are sold, sometimes by museums, at stratospheric prices, to oligarchs whose money is of very dubious origin.  No, the problem seems to arise, at the moment at least, mainly in connection with the source of gifts to those organisations whose object is to promote art or education or other charitable aims.  Dubious money cannot be used for such purposes – unlike in times gone by.

But what about the question of the moral rectitude of the artists themselves?  They are after all a very mixed bunch, from paedophiles to thieves to fascists to murderers. Pretty much every crime known to man has been committed by one or other of the great artists. It’s true that Michael Jackson’s estate is finding it more difficult these days to get in the royalties from his back-catalogue, but when do we stop listening to Benjamin Britten because of his serial ‘infatuations’ with adolescent boys, or Wagner whose rantings were so appreciated by Hitler or stop looking at paintings by Caravaggio who murdered his love rival?  The usual response is that great artists are rarely good people.  The art, once produced, stands on its own.  But surely the same thing could be said about the artistry involved in making money and the money itself once made?  I do not think that we can logically justify the distinction. 

Obviously money which can be shown to have been obtained by criminality cannot be accepted, which is essentially what is alleged in the case of the Sacklers.  But we don’t ask about taxpayers’ morality before taking their money.  So why do we impose higher standards when applying what is in fact an informal taxation system on the super-rich by way of philanthropic donations, a process based on the caressing of their egos - even if the rest of us roll our eyes at their posturing?  If we persist in demanding higher standards from those funding the arts than from the artists; if we demand the highest ethics from donors before we will take their money to relieve the poor of the world and those made homeless by natural disasters and war, then who will actually suffer?  It won’t be the plutocrats of this world.

Paul Buckingham

March 2019


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