Wednesday, March 11, 2009

End arts philanthropy?

Peter Singer, apparently, is trying to goad us into doing the right thing and to personally contribute to ending world poverty, according to a review of his new book "Acting Now to End World Poverty" in the New York Times. I agree. We could all do more to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Personally, even in these economic times, my family gives as much money as it can to different philanthropies and we are no Gates Foundation.

But, like the reviewer, Dwight Garner, I have to take issue with Singer for the following quoted statement in the Times:

“Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious,” he declares. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought a painting by Duccio in 2004 for more than $45 million, an amount, Mr. Singer says, that would pay for cataract operations on 900,000 blind or near-blind people in the developing world.

He continues: “If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child?”

I think Singer creates false choices pitting a child or poverty on the one hand against the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other. If you take Singer's argument to the extreme, why even have cultural institutions at all? They just waste money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

But, I think, places like the Metropolitan Museum expose people, of varying economic means in a city like New York (where I live) to all the different cultures of the world, asking viewers to respect humanity's similarities and differences. What would be the point of living in a world where you could restore vision but the cultural history of our achievements was gone?

Yes, we may be living through a global recession, but there is still room for philanthropy in the arts, in medicine, for the homeless, for the hungry and for the needy. Yes, the $45 million Duccio is a large amount of money, but Singer would probably like to stop supporting the arts completely. Imagine what the world would be like if all the philanthropists, whose name line the walls of the first floor of the Metropolitan and the different gallery spaces, didn't give their money to the Metropolitan or other cultural institutions?

I surely would not want to live in a world without the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  1. Since this was written, the Met announced it was laying off 75 people. These are tough times, but the institution promises that the changes will not affect the public.

  2. A very very wise man once said... the poor will always be among us. So why do we continue to try to breathe under water.

    Another wise person said...Give a man a fish he eats for a day ... "teach" him how to fish and he eats for a life. So yeah $45M could help 900,000 blind people or it could contribute the life of the 5,000,000 people that visited the Museum this year and the 50,000,000 over the next 10 years. To contribute to 55 million blind people the way Singer proposed would cost SOMEONE (not Mr. Singer though) $2,750,000,000 nearly 3 "B"-Billion dollars. -- The MET invested well.

    Also one other issue I have with Mr. Singer thinking. Obviously he is a progressive idealist who thinks he knows how to spend other peoples money better than they do. And in that arrogance he whats to take the resources allotted for Art -- for VISUAL Art... and spend it on BLIND people. Don't get me wrong here... it breaks my heart ... especially the blind children - Damn it is a shame.

    Let's say they are healed... then what? And if there were no Fine Art to visually and intellectually enjoy-- I think they would then prefer to be blind. Unless they want to see Mr. Singer's face all day ... If that's the case --Blind me! Please.