Monday, August 01, 2005

Give or take

Philanthropists often want to be seen as almost superhuman heroes of the arts, sciences and education. Recent times have not been very kind to them, at least as patrons of the arts. First, there was the curious and messy Herbert Axelrod affair, with his instrument collection sold ‘far below market value’ to the New Jersey Symphony. Then a long time opera benefactor Alberto Vilar couldn’t fulfill his pledges and ended up defrauding an investment client, to keep up his own image. A tragic third episode occurred last week when Arthur Zankel, of the Carnegie Hall fame, committed suicide.

What would drive a philanthropist to do such things? With all that excess wealth one would think these people have everything money can buy. Well, as I have noted before, happiness is not for sale. In Axelrod’s case, there was greed behind it all: by ‘helping’ an arts organization he ended helping himself financially much more. Thus he became a common crook, a criminal that escaped the country and was caught by Interpol. Vilar was probably more of a genuine patron, but couldn’t face the fact that his diminished wealth wasn’t enough to enable him to keep his promises and therefore he was stuck in a potentially humiliating situation. In his case, turning to crime made matters only worse.

Of the three, my heart goes out only to Mr. Zankel, who by all accounts was as decent a person as a financier can be, but who suffered from severe depression. Any of us, who has known a victim of this illness, is well aware of how devastating it can be. Sometimes depression can be treated, at least to a degree, but not always. May this man’s soul rest in peace.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more donors remained anonymous? There is a lot of joy in giving, without one’s name being broadcast to the public. Must we be so vain that we cannot feel happy about sharing our wealth and good luck without seeing our names in print, whether in a program or on a wall of a building? After all, we are supposed to be giving, sharing and helping, not buying advertisement space for our inflated egos.