The media mogul David Geffen, one of the cultural world’s leading philanthropists, attacked wealthy New Yorkers on Wednesday for what he called a “shameful” record of failing to donate to the city’s concert halls and allowing these institutions to downsize their ambitions.
Mr. Geffen, in a telephone interview, was searing and candid about Lincoln Center’s announcement on Tuesday that it was scaling back a $500 million renovation of the New York Philharmonic’s home, David Geffen Hall, a project to which he had donated $100 million. Mr. Geffen spoke out on the same day that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art said he was donating $150 million — a dollar amount and a bit of timing that only highlighted the cultural rivalry between New York and Los Angeles for money and prestige.
“That a city that has as many wealthy individuals who’ve made a fortune in New York — that they couldn’t show up and support the most important cultural institution in New York, I think is too bad and shameful,” Mr. Geffen said. “New York deserves to have the best concert hall for the Philharmonic. New York should have the best of everything.
“I had hoped the money I gave them would inspire more giving,” he added. “Without great support, the opera in New York, the Philharmonic in New York — these kinds of institutions will greatly suffer.”
Debora L. Spar, the new president of Lincoln Center, said in response to Mr. Geffen’s comments that New York is “an incredibly philanthropic city.”Continue reading the main story
Mr. Geffen’s remarks gave public voice to a raft of private concerns shared by many patrons and supporters about the financial health and artistic future of Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic — as well as the cultural ambitions of New York City. The demise of a more ambitious Geffen Hall renovation comes on the heels of two other scuttled projects: Barry Diller’s $250 million performing arts center in the Hudson and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s $600 million modern and contemporary wing.
Other projects have gotten boosts from billionaires of late, namely the Shed on Manhattan’s Far West Side, which received $75 million from former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, and the Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center, which received $75 million from Ronald O. Perelman. The money is out there, arts experts say, particularly in light of a currently strong economy.
“While there may be a project or two that want for money,“ said Jimmy Van Bramer, majority leader of the City Council and chairman of its Cultural Affairs Committee, “I don’t think that is an indictment overall of cultural giving in New York.”
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, fund-raising for the arts has long been a struggle. Though there are ample people of means in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, philanthropy tends to be focused on health, the environment and technological innovation. Mr. Geffen’s $150 million donation to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, therefore, is a major coup and likely to be a source of envy for New York cultural institutions (though Mr. Geffen last year gave $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art for its expansion).
The new president of the Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, knows the philanthropy scene in both cities: she previously ran the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “It’s a growing culture of philanthropy in Los Angeles, and it’s really beautiful to see how it’s developing,’’ she said. “But I still find New York City to be the most generous city in the world, and New Yorkers to be the most generous people — look at the institutions that they support.”
Katherine G. Farley, the chairwoman of Lincoln Center who secured Mr. Geffen’s donation in the first place, said on Wednesday that she still believes that “his gift will inspire giving.”
She also said that, contrary to Mr. Geffen’s comments, the decision to scale back Geffen Hall did not have mainly to do with fund-raising, but more with coming up with a workable design. The Philharmonic was also concerned that the renovation would leave the orchestra homeless for three to four years.
“The change in direction on the project was not a failure of financial support for the project,” Ms. Farley said. “We decided to take a new direction.”
Ms. Spar, when asked whether Mr. Geffen’s gift had been properly leveraged, said that it had inspired giving for the hall renovation — an additional $200 million so far — and would lead to more.
“David’s gift was mammoth, and massive, and generated a huge amount of excitement,” she said. “There was a full intention of going out and raising the rest of the money as part of a public campaign, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate to go out publicly until we had an agreed-upon design.”
“I have absolutely no doubt that we will raise the rest of the money,” she said.
Some New York donors have been critical of Lincoln Center — and, by extension, Mr. Geffen — over its decision to put his name on the Philharmonic’s home in exchange for $100 million, given that his gift represented only one-fifth of the project’s projected cost. To this, Mr. Geffen said on Wednesday: “You hear that about every contribution anyone’s ever made ever.”
“How much did they give?” he added. “It’s easy to be a complainer.”
The Philharmonic board has long struggled with raising money for its renovation, deciding nearly 20 years ago not to be part of Lincoln Center’s $1.2 billion redevelopment.
Reynold Levy, the former longtime president of Lincoln Center, wrote in his 2015 book — “They Told Me Not to Take that Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center” — that “the prospect of a major capital campaign gave many trustees at the Philharmonic the shivers,” questioning “why the nation’s oldest orchestra, located in what is by far its largest and wealthiest city, does not perform much better in raising funds.”
Indeed, according to one person with knowledge of the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose confidential talks, the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center had clashed all summer over whether to proceed with the project. Lincoln Center, the parent organization which was to raise 60 percent of the funds, wanted to move forward, but the Philharmonic — namely Ms. Borda — ultimately prevailed.
Ms. Borda said that the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center “did this in partnership.”
Michael M. Kaiser, a former president of the Kennedy Center who is now chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, said it will now be challenging for Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic to attract big contributions for the more modest renovation of Geffen Hall.
“How do you do something that meets their needs and excites a donor base?” he said. “Anything they do now will feel less exciting. It’s still going to be big and it’s still going to be expensive.”
The chairman of the Philharmonic’s board, Oscar S. Schafer — who gave the orchestra a $25 million gift in 2015 for the renovation project, its endowment campaign and its free parks concerts — said that the main fund-raising push to the other board members had yet to begin.
“I think it was frankly too early to have really gone to them,” Mr. Schafer said, explaining that the plan had been to wait until there were designs to show. “They had to have something to see before they would really commit.”
Mr. Schafer said that in his view the project was undermined mainly by its escalating costs, which were “appreciably more than $500 million or $600 million.” (One former Lincoln Center executive put the price tag at closer to $800 million; Ms. Spar said there were still options in the range of $500 million.) Mr. Schafer said that while designs for the gut renovation “looked great,” scrapping those plans “was the right thing at the right time.”
The violinist Itzhak Perlman, a Philharmonic trustee, said he agreed. “Three to four years, the orchestra’s not going to have a home?” he said. “What does that do to the morale?”Continue reading the main story