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On Anonymous Donors

March 17, 2009

In Charlie Varon's new play, Rabbi Sam, a progressive rabbi sparks controversy among his congregants when he declares that an anonymous donor is giving the synagogue $2 million to pay for a congregational trip to Jerusalem and $18 dollar annual memberships for new families interested in joining the synagogue. The donor, according to the rabbi, insists on maintaining anonymity. Some congregants respect this and are simply excited about the prospect of seeing the numbers of the congregation swell and getting a free trip to the Promised Land. Others, however, are very skeptical. Rumors fly around Jewish homes in the small town of Semanitas, California where the synagogue is based. Is the new rabbi for real or is he a charlatan? And what kind of "sugar daddy" doesn't want recognition for such generosity? The fights over the secret donation almost cost Sam his job.

The squabble over donorship in Varon's play feeds into a broader discussion that I've been having with myself and a few others over the past few days on the theme of anonymous donorship to the arts. It's very common for large donors to have their names prominently on display within an arts organization -- not just in the pages of a theatre program, but in gold leaf on the walls of a new museum. Some, especially corporate donors, have their names announced at the beginning of a performance.

I read with great interest Andy Horwitz's essay in Culturebot entitled "Culture, Corporations, Politics and the Interconnectedness of all Things", which offers a rather cynical take on the impetus behind large donations.:
I was having a chat with a Republican acquaintance of mine the other day who said, "Well, if Obama taxes the rich and eliminates all these tax deductions for charitable giving, there won't be any arts!" Setting aside the argument over whether art requires subsidy to exist at all, I asked her, "So if the wealthy didn't get tax breaks they wouldn't give to charity?" This was after a cordial but impassioned exchange over the state of popular culture, the failures of the education system, the decline of civility and other social ills which this person lamented yet felt no compulsion to solve.

And isn't that the heart of the problem? That the societal values promulgated by passionate Bush-style free-marketers are such that the more fortunate would stop giving if they didn't get tax breaks? For all the talk of values, morals and "culture wars" there has been a fundamental breakdown of the idea of the civil society. Surely this rapacious "me-first"-ism is a product not only of 30 years of rampant, unsupervised free-market philosophy but of the institutions that educate the leaders of corporate America. Maybe it is time for a change?
This kind of mentality does make the idea of anonymous donor particularly open to skepticism. But if tax breaks really are the main reason for donating to the arts as a private individual or corporation, then maybe anonymity makes sense. Why would you want people to know about your ulterior motives as a donor? Might make more sense to keep stum about who you are and go about saving yourself those all-important dollars at tax-time by quietly putting your money behind the arts. Perhaps that's what Rabbi Sam is up to himself...

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