Patricia Illingworth, an editor of Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy, believes that naming rights are a mixed blessing from an ethical standpoint. To some degree, “the arts seem to be a place where people from all walks of life and all social classes can gather together in solidarity,” she noted. “So if billionaires are branding institutions and organizations with their names,” that can alienate some people.
Nevertheless, Illingworth believes that named buildings can serve as an example and encourage increased giving from others.
Does an arts institution risk alienating patrons by associating with a major donor who holds a controversial personal agenda? “The point is, [patrons] are going to walk in anyway,” said Pogrebin. “They may object but it’s not going to keep them away. Time passes and people get used to things.”
A more complex picture emerges if a donor feels at liberty to dictate programming. According to a recentNew Yorker piece, a documentary film was halted because of pressure applied on PBS from David H. Koch. Opinions differ as to whether this occurs within performing arts organizations.
“We like to think that the democratic process is what determines the social agenda,” said Illingworth. “And yet when philanthropists start acting like governments, in a sense they can determine the social agenda. Naming rights can exacerbate that.”