25 March, 2014

Tonight I am going to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company. A friend who goes to most of their programs each season couldn’t use her ticket and offered it to me. I’m looking forward to it on many levels… I love dance, they’re an amazing company, and it’s an exciting program. But there’s one reason I am not looking forward to going. I detest that to see the Paul Taylor Comany I have to do so in a Lincoln Center venue now named the David H. Koch Theatre.I detest that I will have to see the name “The David H. Koch Theatre” on the ticket and on the building and in the Playbill. I detest that I will have to listen to the pre-show announcement that welcomes me to “The David H. Koch Theatre” – though I have been heartened the couple of times I’ve been in the theatre since its name change to hear people actually “boo” the announcement.

Attending events in what was formerly the NY State Theatre has, since the renaming, presented me with a crisis of conscience. In most cases I have chosen not to go. For as frightening as I find the Koch brothers’ ongoing attempt to reshape the country in their own ultra-right wing image by using their billions of dollars to fund the Tea Party and other extremist causes and candidates, I find David Koch using his money to make the Koch name a ubiquitous and “benign”fixture in the New York City arts world even more insidious.

Certain friends roll their eyes when I bring this up. “At least he’s using some of his money for good… to support the arts,” they say. But is he? Call me cynical, but I find it hard to believe that either of the Koch brothers does anything without an ulterior motive. And is there a more imaginative way to subtly counter the negative press the “right-wing extremist Koch brothers” regularly receive than by connecting the Koch name to major arts organizations like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art? At the Met, signs all over currently announce that the makeover of the piazza and fountains in front of the museum is being paid for by, and will now be named, the David H. Koch Plaza. And, to paraphrase the Kander and Ebb song, if they can soften the Koch name in New York (the supposed hub of liberalism), then they can do it anywhere.

And, again call me cynical but, I don’t think the money is given only to make New Yorkers more comfortable with the name… to say, “maybe they’re not such bad guys.” When someone writes the kind of checks David Koch is writing, they tend to get to influence programming. This influence can be direct as in, “I’d love you to do a production of ___.” Or it can be the subtler, “You’re really thinking of doing that?” And of course it can always have the threat of money withheld, “Do you really want to present a theatrical piece or exhibit that offends me?”

This sort of muscle-flexing is reportedly what led to several projects not happening when David H. Koch was a Trustee at both WNET and WGBH. And when, despite his attempts to stop it, PBS aired the documentary, Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, which focused on him and the other uber rich residents of 741 Park Avenue, David H. Koch took his money and left the boards of PBS.

But there’s an even more malignant way programming can get compromised when arts organizations take major money from donors with major agendas… the practice of self-censorship. When everyone in the organization (without a word being spoken) is aware of who is giving the money and what their political and/or social beliefs are, people tend to choose not to even suggest a project they think the donor might find offensive. It’s a variation on the self-censoring school textbook publishers began in the 1980s when, so as not to offend the purchasers for the state of Texas (the largest or second largest single purchasers of school textbooks in the country), publishers chose, without being directly asked, to remove from the textbooks they were creating “controversial ” topics such as women’s rights, and evolution and even the Great Depression (because it showed America in a “bad light”).

Are the heads of Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art really so naive as to think David H. Koch is not going to one day ask for something other than his name on the building in return for all the money he is giving them? It may not be right away. The better strategy would be to wait until the organizations have grown dependent on his money, when their ability to say “no” has become much more limited. It reminds me of a theatre that produced a play of mine and that regularly received huge amounts of money from a philanthropist/writer. When, after years of giving, he demanded that the theatre produce his play, the artistic director was appalled. I remember saying to him, “Did you not see this coming?”

Yes, the arts are always looking for money. And yes, that means on a certain level it’s about being a whore. But good whores, good call girls or call boys, know how to size up a potential trick… and to pass if they determine there’s a good bet he may wind up hurting them. If the major NYC arts organizations are going to be whores, at least they should start practicing safe sex.

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