“Your Name Here”—Selling Off Our Civic Pride in the New Gilded Age

theater-22-300x205LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racially charge comments have been headline news of late, stirring debate ranging from what actually constitutes racism to privacy issues. However, in the midst of these center stage topics, a conversation on the nature of philanthropy emerged. A May 3rd LA Times piece delved into Sterling’s Charitable Foundation. This topic hit the news as nonprofits returned his donations to distance themselves from his controversial comments. With this, a long-standing pattern emerged—organizations turned off by what they considered Sterling’s relentless self-promotion. The LA Times quotes Charity Navigator, Ken Berger, as saying, “He is somewhat unique in how much he’s bragging about his philanthropy. He’s shouting from the rooftops, ‘look how generous I am!’”

So, what does this have to do with a peacebuilding agenda? It brings to mind an artist who made a very astute comment regarding the bicycle-share program in NYC, which is billed as Citi Bike. He stated that by naming the program after Citi Bank, the public was denied the experience of community ownership. Rather than a program sponsored by the people and something that demonstrates a pride in which they could share, it became just another corporate business venture.

This point resonates with me every time I visit our local parks and museums. Nonprofits that seek funds have become ever more effective at selling naming rights. Take a walk through the New York Botanical Gardens and you will be hard pressed to find a tree, flower or even compost heap that doesn’t boast a sign celebrating the name of the donor to whom the public is beholden. Walk the halls of the Museum of Natural History and each diorama’s sponsor shares equal billing with the exhibit description.

On one hand, one could argue that such donations allow a community to enjoy arts and culture that may otherwise be out of reach. On the other hand, there is an insidious counterintuitive agenda at play. Community institutions are meant to, well, build a sense of community among its citizens. These institutions are most successful when they bind us together with pride, as in “look at what we have accomplished together.” It is the sense of community ownership that strengthens a collective group. However, walking through gardens or museums today, one is more likely to have class disparity brought to mind. Rather than the pride of ownership, one is constantly reminded by ubiquitous plaques that gratitude is owed to someone presumably wealthier. So, as New Yorkers stand in front of fountains at their Lincoln Center, they gaze upon their debt to David H. Koch whose name is boldly etched on what was formerly The New York State Theatre.

This is not to say that there is not a place for name recognition. Naming a theatre after an artistic giant like Stephen Sondheim honors a native son and we share in a pride for one of our own. Likewise, we relish our captains of industry creating complexes that define our cities, whether Rockefeller Center or Trump Plaza. Yet, when it comes to what we consider our public institutions, we long to share a common bond. We need to feel this is “our” City.

Given the prevalence of naming rights, it hardly seems like news that Donald Sterling boasts about his philanthropy. Yet, in the midst of walking through the aforementioned New York Museum of Natural History, one plaque did deserve recognition. It communicated a sense of community pride from one of our own. It could have been me, or you, or a collective of those of us that love our city. It simply said, “Anonymous.”


By William Repicci

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