Is Philanthropy As We Know It Going Out of Style?

As a new generation comes into their inheritances—or self-made fortunes—and supplants increasingly outmoded ideas about the function of society's superrich, what awaits institutions who have tied their financial well-being to conspicuous patronage?

The Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco. Credit: Drew Altizer

Philanthropy has long played a defining role in shaping how the public perceives the distribution and purpose of enormous wealth. The notion of the ultra-wealthy compensating for their advantages by funding everything from museums to charitable foundations is being questioned—and supplanted—by the beliefs of a rising generation who have earned (or will inherit) massive fortunes.

A growing sentiment among certain high-net-worth individuals in Silicon Valley is a resentment of being perceived by the art world as little more than the sum of their assets. The status quo of champagne-soaked galas to fête the generosity of those who lend their collections to an exhibition—or whose donations fund institutional operations and renovations—doesn’t sit well with this crowd. “The art world sees us as a bunch of bank accounts,” lamented Ethan Beard, a founder in the Web3 space and a former Facebook and Google employee, who jumped at the chance to donate his time and mentorship to San Francisco’s new Institute of Contemporary Art.

“A lot of what we build is code, so we’re not building objects or trying to amass things. We just have a different view of status symbols,” he told the Wall Street Journal, which reported on the new path charted by the ICA San Francisco, which opened in late September. Its director, Alison Gass, opened the Bay Area’s newest contemporary art institution with just $1 million in seed funding and another $4 million from a board that includes prominent tech names like Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and Slack co-founder Cal Henderson.

For its opening festivities, the museum opted out of hosting a black-tie gala for its board and major donors, instead offering a more pared-back sneak peek at its opening exhibition by Jeffery Gibson with bites from a taco bar and souvenir pictures from a photo booth. By and large, the donors funding the institution’s curatorial positions have broken with the tradition of having their names attached to those roles. “The idea that another individual’s position needs to be saddled to my name smacked of colonialism,” said one donor, the venture capitalist and art collector David Hornik. “It made me feel terrible.”

Just Stop Oil protesters, who threw soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s famous 1888 work “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London on Friday. Image courtesy Just Stop Oil

The tech crowd isn’t alone in evolving big money’s role in the art world. Heirs to the Getty and Rockefeller oil fortunes have funded climate activism around the world. In 2019, Aileen Getty helped found the Climate Emergency Fund, and had given $1 million to the organization as of August. Rockefeller heirs Rebecca Rockefeller Lambert and Peter Gill Case, meanwhile, have pledged $30 million to the Equation Campaign, an organization that funds campaigns against fossil fuel projects and helps protect climate activists’ rights to free speech and protest. The Climate Emergency Fund and its $1 million award to Just Stop Oil has recently come under heavy scrutiny for the latter group’s vandalizing of museums and fine art in the name of drawing attention to their cause.

Then there are those who believe that their fortunes, and the power they confer, simply shouldn’t exist. “There’s no need for another foundation,” Marlene Engelhorn recently told the New York Times. “What’s really needed is structural change.” Engelhorn, who is 30 years old, inherited $30 million thanks to the $11 billion dollar sale of her family business, the German medical equipment company Boehringer Mannheim. While members of her family have pledged large sums towards STEM, archaeology centers, and in the case of one cousin, $140 million to classical music, Engelhorn would prefer for wealth taxes to make fortunes like hers impossible to attain.

Engelhorn is part of a growing movement advocating for higher taxes, not tax-exempt endowments or philanthropic pursuits, to offset the advantages of the ultra-rich. In the United States, Abigail Disney is the most prominent face of the movement as a member of the Patriotic Millionaires, a group seeking revisions to America’s tax system that would make the wealthy pay more in income taxes. “I’ve given away much more than fifty percent of my net worth, and I don’t intend to stop,” she told The New Yorker. “And, frankly, if you’re a billionaire and only want to give away half of your fortune, something is wrong with you.”

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