Big Philanthropy: Whom does it serve? #7BillionBloombergs

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Imani Brown

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Sep 29, 2012, 5:55:41 PM9/29/12
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Occupy Museums Presents:

Big Philanthropy: Whom does it serve?

Discussion #2 of Occupy Your BFF: 7 Billion Bloombergs

Friday, October 5th, 6:30-9:00pm

Momenta Art, 56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, NY



As we stand in the face of an escalating coup of the public sector by private interests, Occupy Museums asks the following questions of New York City’s art workers:

When does private philanthropy serve the public good and at what point does it undermine the public sector? 

Is it ethical for cultural institutions to accept philanthropy when it abets the PR campaigns of corporations or individuals who have done harm to the communities served by those institutions? 

Is art being used by the city’s elite to distract from their unethical practices? 

Does acceptance of funding equate complicity with or even support of those practices? 

Does private funding ultimately destabilize the sustainability of the receiving institution or individual? 

Is private philanthropy inherently corrupt and cynical?


Occupy Museums raises these questions within the walls of Momenta Art, an institution that receives funding from the Bloomberg Family Foundation (BFF). From this position, we interrogate our complicity with the powers that be and invite others to do the same.

Michael Bloomberg is a figure whose hands are firmly on the levers of both public and private funding. The richest person in the city is also in charge of a three term political dynasty; with personal friends installed as major decision makers, his level of influence is historic. With major funding across the board given through BFF, as well as popular mayoral support of bike lanes and city greenery, many see this influence as benign. Yet dig a little and realize that Bloomberg is not a friend of the 99% and those of us struggling to cope with rising costs in the city. As New York City’s Mayor, he has cut homeless programs in half, diminished funding for education and recently slashed funding for the arts. As philanthropist Bloomberg drains our city of tax revenue by funneling $2.7 billion in contributions to his foundation through offshore tax shelters. BFF’s funds are distributed by power brokers within his close circle, not democratically. Bloomberg is greasing the wheels for the complete private takeover of the public sector, which is part of a quiet corporate revolution: a grab-it-all moment for the 1%.

But BFF is not the only funding organization that operates in this manner. The current structure is the result of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which requires nonprofits to function using corporate structures, resulting in a top down organization in which CEOs and board members make most of the of the decisions. At the same time, the (usually) wealthy (mostly) white folks holding these positions rarely represent the communities their foundations support. Meanwhile the smaller organizations that apply for funding are pitted against each other for diminishing amounts of money even while being forced to expand to remain eligible. All this occurs so that the wealthy can funnel money into organizations that agree with their personal belief systems rather than pay their fair share of taxes.  We need a democratically-governed public support structure.  What can we do to get it back in a form that works here and now?
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