I can only assume that for reasons of her own, billionaire Republican donor and Donald Trump ally Rebekah Mercer loves the American Museum of Natural History. Perhaps it’s the dinosaur halls, possibly the Rose Center for Earth and Space. She clearly puts her money where her interest lies — as a generous donor to, and trustee of, the museum.
For those who have not heard, Mercer is reported also to be a climate change denier, or at the least a benefactor of groups that question climate science. For this reason, scientists and curators at the museum last week went on record demanding that she resign or be ousted from its board. Denizens of the anti-Trump resistance are echoing and amplifying the call.
Let me count the ways this is wrong. I see this squabble from several perspectives: as a longtime executive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; as one who now has the honor of serving as city Controller Scott Stringer’s designee on the Met board; as a lifelong progressive who cut his professional teeth as a press secretary to the late Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, and, for the record, as someone who is so concerned that waters are rising because climate change is real that my wife and I plan to swap an apartment on the 14th floor for a new one on the 25th.
Based on all this experience — and in some ways in spite of it — it seems a terrible idea to purge Mercer over her conservative philanthropy and political activity.
Just take a look at how the Met has handled — and still embraces — ideological diversity on its board and among its benefactors. One of its most notable early chairmen was J. Pierpont Morgan, who contemporaries like reformer Upton Sinclair placed in the category of robber baron.
Morgan was so powerful he could practically commence or arrest nationwide booms and busts with the arch of an eyebrow. Yet he blessed the Metropolitan with astounding generosity that exponentially grew the collections in many curatorial areas. No one ever turned away his transformational gifts, nor should they have.
The first board chairman under whom I worked was Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the liberal publisher who printed the Pentagon Papers in The New York Times in defiance of the Nixon administration. Sulzberger later endowed the Met’s arms and armor collection, and not a Republican on the board proposed that his gift be rejected because he had offended President Richard Nixon.
The Met is not alone in this regard. Andrew Carnegie, whose name is now synonymous with great music, gave New York City the peerless concert hall that now bears his name, and endowed great library systems as well, among his other philanthropic gestures.
“The man who dies rich,” he famously proclaimed, “dies disgraced.” Not everyone agreed, suggesting he devote some of his largess to his own underpaid labor force. Carnegie insensitively sniffed that if he increased their salaries, they’d likely waste the extra money on food and liquor.
Yet not a concert hall, library or college ever regarded his beneficence as dirty money. Nor John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s gift of the Met Cloisters, nor Henry Clay Frick’s legacy of art that still resides in his one-time mansion. Nor, I hope, do those far to the right of George Soros plan to reject his philanthropic gestures to come.
No Met trustee I have ever known insisted on imposing his or her political views on their exhibition schedule or collecting program, or suggested that future hires hew to their agenda.
Should Mercer try to meddle, the museum can react accordingly. But nobody accuses her of that.
At the Met, ardent (if wistful) Hillary Clinton admirers like me share the board table with impassioned Republicans. All of them devote their attention to the art, the building and the well-being of the staff.
It is worth noting that just a few years ago, when the Met’s outdoor fountains rusted into obsolescence and the surrounding plaza began to erode, the trustee who stepped up to fund new fountains, paving stones, facade lighting and plantings — giving $65 million — was David Koch.
Not only did trustees of all political stripes express their gratitude, but at the ribbon-cutting, which I helped stage, joining to express gratitude were Stringer and Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney — all progressive Democrats who have little sympathy for Koch’s politics.
A museum is meant to do precisely the opposite of what an effort to oust Mercer would accomplish: support shared aspirations in an era of ever-increasing polarization; to engage the broadest community of New Yorkers and give them access to knowledge, inspiration and illumination.
That requires public and private generosity, and a tolerance and gratitude for everyone that offers it — not litmus tests.
Holzer is the Jonathan F. Fanton director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.