Need cash? Sell salad dressing
August 30, 2006
Well, the uproar over renaming Paepcke Auditorium seems to have died – along with the proposal for the new name.The original idea, of course, was that a wealthy local couple would get to put their glorious names on the auditorium, in exchange for forking over a few million bucks to renovate the building.Howls of outrage were heard throughout the town and, after trying every which way to defuse the situation, the Aspen Institute called the deal off. The money will go to some other Institute projects, where naming rights are apparently up for grabs.Now, I don’t want to run this particular incident into the ground, but I do need to point out that the would-be donors have missed a golden opportunity to show that they really do have some class (instead of just having a lot of money). They could have said their only concern was the betterment of the Institute (and mankind, of course) and that they would still gladly give their money to renovate Paepcke Auditorium. They could have added that they didn’t need anything named after them, but that a simple plaque noting their gift would have been nice.Then, of course, they could have issued a commemorative china plate, decorated with images of themselves – dressed in togas and laurel wreaths – with their names and the inscription, “Benefactors of All Mankind.” (That’s the business they’re in, after all – issuing cheap commemorative plates. Not beneficence toward mankind.)Anyway, this little brouhaha does serve as a reminder of an embarrassing fact: So much of the best of Aspen is deeply beholden to … well, to the worst of Aspen.Aspen’s glorious nonprofit organizations depend on charity to make ends meet. Art, music, philosophy, great literature … the life of the mind. That stuff doesn’t pay the bills.(Paul Newman sells salad dressing and has given $200 million to charity. The Aspen Institute peddles great ideas … and has its hand out for donations.)As a result, Aspen’s nonprofits have to depend on the goodwill, the guilty consciences and the raging egos of the rich and super-rich.I don’t mean to take anything away from those nonprofits. As I said, they are some of what’s best about Aspen.And I don’t mean to imply that everyone who gives a donation is looking to boost his ego or wash away his sins.But it is curious how often I read national news about some really scurvy, sleazy dealings – and then see the names of the culprits honored as sponsors of Aspen’s high-culture events.There is, it seems, quite a bit of jockeying for local status based on nonprofit board membership. The Music Festival board is the top rung of the local ladder. From there, prestige declines as you move on down the pecking order. And every once in a while, wealthy newcomers discover that all the good boards are filled, so they pick some lucky poverty-stricken nonprofit to be their vehicle to positions of local prominence.And, as a side benefit, those wealthy benefactors gain some admirable defenders. No matter how black their sins – from political dirty tricks to outright corporate corruption to selling tacky junk on the Internet – if these people are criticized, they are immediately and loudly defended. They are defended by other members of the Billionaires Club, of course. And they are defended by the truly upstanding, public-spirited people whose nonprofit they have supported.To the super-rich, a few hundred thousand or even a few million is not a whole lot of money. (One local broker was just quoted as saying that when some of these people buy a $15 million house, “It’s a little like you or me buying a sweater.”)But to the nonprofit looking to rent some folding chairs for its seminar – or renovate an aging auditorium – that cash is a gift from heaven.There’s nothing new here. Some of the world’s worst monarchs were patrons to some of the world’s greatest artists. Great religious paintings were created during the Spanish Inquisition, under the patronage of the church.The best so often rely on the worst.Here as everywhere. Same as it ever was.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.