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Accountants for Taste

The Pew Charitable Trusts

In the fall of 2006, Philadelphia faced what looked like a cultural crisis. The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins’s dramatic 1875 painting of Philadelphia surgeon Samuel Gross operating on a man’s thigh before an audience of colleagues and students, went up for sale; local medical school Thomas Jefferson University owned the iconic canvas. And the would-be buyers, offering $68 million, were a pair of out-of-town museums that had joined forces—the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum, a shrine (then under construction) to the Walmart fortune in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Into action leapt the Pew Charitable Trusts, the $5 billion, Philadelphia-based fund that had reconstituted itself over several decades from a private family foundation into a philanthropic powerhouse. The modern Pew had long been an outsize presence in the struggling City of Brotherly Love, handing out fantastic sums of money and lobbying public officials for its pet projects. With boosterish rhetoric and arm-twisting of local patrons, Pew leveraged its influence with politicians who had the loudest voices, such as then Governor Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, who admitted that he had never seen The Gross Clinic. The Pew offensive soon succeeded, matching Alice Walton’s offer with donations from all over the city that conferred joint, local custody of the picture on the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.Philadelphians who heard the news feared that the picture—considered the greatest ever painted in the Quaker city—would leave. But the medical school feared losing a big payday. It had acquired the painting for $200, and was then in the middle of a $500 million expansion; it took no great feat of university accounting to work out that it was time to sell. Walmart heiress Alice L. Walton, Crystal Bridges’s founder and board chair, certainly had the cash. In what looked like a pro forma gesture to civic duty, Thomas Jefferson gave the city forty-five days to match her offer. Philadelphia had already suffered its share of embarrassments, beyond chronic abuses by politicians, policemen, and priests. But now a crown jewel of the city representing the triumph of medical science as a secular sacrament, which depicted the surgeon as a Moses figure, was on the verge of falling into the hands of Arkansas’s nouveaux billionaires.

And so Walmart’s advance was halted at the Liberty Bell. Or was it? In stopping the Walmart acquisition, Pew revealed a side of its high-toned operation that dismayed many in the interconnected worlds of art and philanthropy. In order to acquire The Gross Clinic, the two Philadelphia institutions that were its new custodians had to unload other works by Eakins, paintings that Philadelphians would now have little chance of seeing again. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson University, smelling even more money, was emboldened to sell a different Eakins painting to the same dreaded Walmart heirs. But Pew was Big Charity, the Walmart of its own field, not to be outdone in a battle of family fortunes. Once it identified its interests, it did not lose. Like Walmart, Pew made over the market that it conquered in its own image.

The Eakins rescue showcased Pew’s operational force in Philadelphia, its capacity for leveraging its influence in the mad scramble for scarce cultural funds. Yet the implications of its sheer weight in cultural policy don’t stop at that city’s limits. Every arts group in the country wants Pew’s money, which comes with a price. Lesser institutions are told how to use art to generate tourism and cash, to mobilize McCultural blandness to attract cultural consumers. To organizations whose missions are not favored in the commercial marketplace, Pew’s generosity looks more like indifference. Art is only as good as the traveling public’s willingness to pay for it—a functionalist standard that defers to the market as the de facto arbiter of cultural value.

As Pew put it in a set of talking points formulated to rally support for buying The Gross Clinic: “Eakins created a painting about Philadelphia, to represent to millions of visitors the ‘world-class’ excellence and modernity of his city.” The pitch sounded more like a Chamber of Commerce slogan than a charity’s mission statement; it seemed more suited to Las Vegas than to the City of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia museums retained a masterpiece. The local powerbrokers got a fetish object, and the tabloids scored a win for the Pew-led home team. Meanwhile, walk beyond Philadelphia’s new Museum Mile and you’ll find forty thousand abandoned properties, many of them row houses in a distinctive architectural vernacular—even the brick home where Rocky Balboa grew up in Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hymn to the city. At the ground level, the city’s culture, like its schools, is decomposing. The labor to address that challenge is enormous and uncertain, and likely thankless, even for an imperious charity accustomed to stroking from the media. But instead of taking on the task, Pew has seized on shiny trophies like The Gross Clinic, which is less a painting than a monument—like the Rocky Statue outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, although the Main Line Pews wouldn’t have given Sylvester Stallone the time of day.

Behind Pew’s pursuit of The Gross Clinic lay a belief in centralized, foundation-based planning that assumes culture is a commodity to be monetized, requiring farsighted investment portfolios. The lords of Pew codified this approach into a strategy of cultural manifest destiny, announced in a 1999 paper called “Optimizing America’s Cultural Policies”—later changed to “Optimizing America’s Cultural Resources” to avoid the Orwellian ring of a cultural policy in a country that never declared one. Pew decided to make grants “to build the research, data, and information base for cultural policy analysis and decision making,” as noted in a study prepared by an MIT professor working in a Pew-funded program at the University of Chicago.

The goal of “optimization,” Pew executives said, was to get as many people as possible talking about the many ways in which culture was involved in their daily lives, and to rally broad public support for cultural activities. But as the New York Times noted at the time of the project’s launch, a key aim, despite the shifting nomenclature, was to shape government policy in cultural affairs: to show “that a case for more government money for the arts can be made with data the Pew will collect.”

That ambition faltered, however, and as government at all levels has divested from arts funding, Pew has assumed a larger role in its own design. “Optimizing America’s Cultural Resources” pointed the way forward for Pew to research and fund a national cultural infrastructure for which Pew alone would be the matrix. Forget for a moment the old talk of a big arrogant charity built on an oil fortune and operated like Exxon. That’s all here, of course. But in centralizing an information matrix about the consumption habits of its client base, massaging demand in advance, and promoting a bottom-line dependency that few nonprofits can refuse, Pew looks a lot more like a marketing conglomerate.

streeter1Charity for the Pews was discreet and local whenever it went beyond the family’s strict Presbyterianism and Republican zealotry. Joseph Newton Pew Jr., a son of the founder, spent millions to block Wendell Willkie from the Republican ticket in 1940, but when it came time to release a Pennsylvania delegation pledged to its governor in order to stop Willkie from prevailing at the party’s convention, Pew’s butler wouldn’t disturb him in his bath. When Joe Jr.’s older brother, the ur-conservative J. Howard Pew, died in 1971, he left an estate valued at some $100 million to the Pew Freedom Trust, whose mandate was to make grants to causes opposing “Socialism, welfare-state-ism, Marxism, Fascism, and any other like forms of government intervention.” Just a year earlier, J. Howard had decided that Princeton University—formerly the intellectual center of fundamentalist theology—“had too many communists,” and so Pew Freedom Trust bought a Carmelite seminary outside Boston to establish the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Its theology, like the founder’s politics, veered toward the extreme right.Which is to say that it’s a long time since the days when oil first made the Pew family’s fortune. The Pews had been rich for decades before Pew philanthropies were formed in 1948. The clan first glided into long-term prosperity in the mid-nineteenth century. Joseph Newton Pew, an abstemious abolitionist Scots Presbyterian, was a farmer in western Pennsylvania, forty miles from where oil was first struck in Titusville. He went on to make a fortune selling and shipping oil and gas, and, in 1886, founded the Sun Company (later, Sun Oil, and, later still, Sunoco). Connections to Philadelphia were always part of the enterprise. After the 1901 Spindletop strike in Texas, Pew’s firm sent crude to the city to be refined. And after the patriarch died in 1912, the family made money from a Philadelphia shipyard they built during World War I. Timing worked in the Pews’ favor. Since the clan’s holdings were in land and industry in the twenties, rather than in the stock market, the Pews grew even richer during the Great Depression. They jumped on distressed properties in the United States and Europe then, and got out of their European investments before World War II.

The Sun Oil Company prospered as the culture of the automobile overtook Cold War America. Pew heirs set up seven trusts, according to Waldemar Nielsen’s The Golden Donors, which chronicles the 1948 founding and subsequent evolution of the Pew Charitable Trusts. By the early seventies, when the funds totaled more than $600 million, some in the younger generations were leaning liberal, and Pew dollars went to hospitals of all faiths as well as to Presbyterian and evangelical groups. Pew had so much money that Glenmede Trust Company, a private bank that the family had established in 1956 to run their charities and manage the family’s money, was under pressure to find new places to hand it out to.

Art is only as good as the traveling public’s willingness to pay for it—a functionalist standard that defers to the market as the de facto arbiter of cultural value.

In the eighties another generation of Pews and Sunoco executives overhauled the charities and replaced a company executive with a tall, handsome figurehead, Thomas Langfitt, a Pew adviser on health and a neurosurgeon on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. Langfitt specialized in head trauma, which he studied in the university’s lab by subjecting baboons to the crushing impact of skull injuries. Langfitt was a respected physician and researcher, but he came into the Pew family’s employ after a scandal. His Penn lab, suspected by animal rights activists of abuses, was infiltrated, and the activists released edited videos made by researchers of experiments in which baboons’ skulls were smashed. The tapes showed lab personnel laughing blithely at the carnage.

The publicity surrounding the brutal tests triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Langfitt and his team told the feds that the apes were anesthetized—a claim that the evidence flatly contradicted. At the end of the whole episode, the university reprimanded Langfitt and a colleague, and the USDA fined Penn $4,000 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. In 1987, Langfitt decamped to head the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Glenmede Trust Company.

Langfitt fired most of the Pew’s philanthropic management, enriched himself—he led his peers among foundation chiefs with a $560,000 salary—and hastened the foundation’s rapidly changing priorities. Under Langfitt’s stewardship, Pew’s portfolio of charitable awards—often given anonymously—retreated from long-standing grantees that cared for the blind and the mentally disabled and moved toward culturally secular causes that Langfitt favored, such as advanced medical training and health care reform.

streeter2Still, Langfitt’s most enduring legacy proved to be his protégée Rebecca Rimel, an emergency room nurse and one-time instructor at the University of Virginia. Rimel met Langfitt as a student of head trauma in 1979, joined Pew in 1983, and took the reins in 1994; now sixty-two, she is still Pew’s president and chief executive officer. Rimel presided over its signature 1999 initiative, “Optimizing America’s Cultural Policies,” which launched its quest to become America’s de facto arbiter of efficiency in resource allocation.By 1994, when Langfitt was pushed aside at Glenmede in favor of a seasoned money manager, Pew was a rich place, and it was getting richer. Unlike the J. Paul Getty Trust, which had set a parallel course to operate as a full-scale culture-backing powerhouse of philanthropy in the eighties, Pew didn’t wear down its endowment with costly architectural projects or erode its credibility defending its employees in lawsuits involving the purchase of looted art. And unlike older and more baldly corporate-branded funders such as the Philip Morris Companies, which courted cultural influence via lavish arts sponsorships, Pew faced no broader reckoning in the court of public opinion, which prompted Philip Morris to rebrand itself and take its arts support overseas.

Culture management is one of Pew’s many causes. The charity also funds
research in medicine, education, the environment (especially oceanography and overfishing), media (a favorite is National Public Radio, nicknamed National Pew Radio by some NPR staffers), voter participation, and lots of Philadelphia-based initiatives. But its culture management will have the largest impact, because the $5 billion charity gives away many millions annually. The sheer scale of the operation wins plenty of attention from the media, a high priority for the once-reclusive Pew—at least so long as the scribblers in question are focused on praise rather than critical scrutiny.

And there’s plenty of praise. The Pew’s national arts “optimization” initiative, the Cultural Data Project, collects information on who makes and consumes culture all over the United States. The use of the word “culture,” instead of art—together with the proto-scientific “data”—suggests a sunny populist openness to the American arts scene, while casually annexing a more extensive territory of funding activity. The stated goal is to help arts organizations operate more efficiently, and to promise a similarly optimized return on investment for groups that give money away. Part of that process involves a standardized grant application that can be sent to multiple institutions, reminiscent of the baroque set of applications and financial aid forms dispatched to college aid administrators. Pew’s claim is that it is merely providing an infrastructure for a field that lacks one:

(CDP) is a powerful, online management system designed to strengthen the arts and cultural sector. The CDP is an emerging national standard that gathers reliable, longitudinal data on arts and cultural organizations. The project enables participating arts organizations to track trends and benchmark their progress through sophisticated reporting features, empowers researchers and advocates with information to make the case for arts and culture, and equips funders with data to plan and evaluate grant-making activities more effectively.

Leave aside the uninspiring language describing a project supposedly dedicated to cultural excellence, and the mission to convene state arts organizations in what, in the name of efficiency, seems to duplicate the bureaucratic functions of the much-maligned National Endowment for the Arts. Pew proposes to manage information-gathering and grant evaluation for nonprofit groups on a state-by-state basis. Some states have already signed on, as they seek to bring recession-battered budgets under tighter control. But what do they gain, besides a softer bottom line? Will they earn good faith from Pew, which might eventually “invest,” as Pew puts it, in local programs? Arts groups and their state councils are eager to participate, and they tailor their pitches to what Pew seems to like. We always knew that there was no accounting for taste. What’s troubling is that there is simply no accountability; Pew doesn’t need to show results for a funding base or a state-financed arts public. And when it decides that this or that project doesn’t meet the optimal criteria of funding efficiency, there’s nothing to stop the charity from pulling the plug.

There’s a paradox here, rooted in a misunderstanding. The Cultural Data Project “empowers researchers and advocates with information to make the case for arts and culture.” What about the case for projects that don’t have an obvious market, or, God forbid, don’t have a flair for marketing themselves? What about arts groups and nonprofits that just need money?

streeter3All these boosterish endeavors bear eloquent testimony to Pew’s de facto mission: marketing Philadelphia while marketing itself. “If tourists come,” Rimel has told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “they will bring with them money and jobs and word of mouth, which will make more come. And they’re not only going to go down to Independence Historical Park. They’re probably going to stay over, if we’re successful, and they may then decide to visit the Art Museum—and oh, by the way, they may decide to get a musical performance while they’re here.”Pew’s quantitative metrics come from the box office: access, measurable impact, and volume of consumer interest that an arts initiative can generate. Eager to show broad support for an already broadly defined notion of culture, the foundation typically bankrolls projects that drive popular taste further down-market. Pew’s favored exercises in market populism, hatched to please politicians and duly optimized publics, end up, in practical terms, flattering tourists and local heritage rackets. There’s a regional center celebrating the steelmaking culture of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio; there’s the restoration of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall (and Pew’s building of a $20 million visitors’ center); there’s a mural-painting project in Philadelphia that foregrounds the work of graffiti artist Stephen Powers, who once used the walls of his neighborhood there as an illegal canvas. And there’s support (declared every half-hour) for arts programming on National Public Radio, which is bound to produce admiring dispatches on these undertakings, or others just like it, at some future airdate.

The implications for potential grantees are chilling. “Arts organizations are going to have to thrive and survive on their merits,” Rimel said to the Inquirer in 1996. “They cannot depend on support from the corporate community or in some cases foundations or individuals. Those that are passing the market test are those who are going to be standing tall.” The manifesto reminds you of the rich man who tells a poor man begging on the street to show more initiative.

Rimel’s nineties-era cheerleading for a market makeover of Philadelphia’s heritage hasn’t borne much material fruit; the city now receives a declining chunk of Pew’s largesse. But the Rimelian conception of culture as a revenue-transfer agent is now omnipresent. Witness, for example, the recent testimony of Governor Ed Rendell, who’s nothing if not a politician with his ear to the ground. Of the new $150 million building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Barnes Foundation, another pet project of Pew’s, he told the Inquirer this spring that “every high-end couple in the United States that’s interested in art and culture is going to have to visit, and spend three days and two nights in Philadelphia.” From beneficence to box office.

The Pew Charitable Trusts have strayed into some unwelcome controversy—but most of it has been confined to outbursts from little-to-lose bloggers, one of whom asked, “Who died and made Rebecca Rimel Pope?” Online critics on the right chiefly deplore what they see as Pew’s eco-liberal agenda, with Rimel as its commissar.

And there have been academics who’ve observed the evolving philanthropic behemoth with alarm. Marie Malaro, a lawyer and an expert on nonprofit governance, wrote in 2006 that “Rimel wants to make Philadelphia a Mecca for museum-goers and has already given examples of how she expects to accomplish this goal. In these examples trust assets are used to interfere in the management of other nonprofit organizations in order to divert their assets to her Mecca goal. Certainly this type of activity does not further the diversity benefit expected of the nonprofit sector. ’Tis a wise saying that goes as follows: ‘Our third sector is not working if there are no nonprofits one does not like.’ This saying reminds us that one of the reasons we have a nonprofit sector is to give a voice to things that may not be popular at the moment. Thus, steps taken to silence or alter the mission of a legitimate nonprofit undermine one of the very reasons our society supports a nonprofit sector.”

But what stands out in Pew’s ever-rising profile is the absence of scrutiny, an entitlement for an organization that now runs more than half its operations out of the former home of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a Washington, D.C., building that Pew acquired in 2009 for $155 million. For a charity with its sights on trophies and symbols, the building’s association with Washington/Wall Street is a camera-ready outpost for its blend of extreme wealth, philanthropy, and vanity sponsorship—and its lack of accountability. Just as the SEC has yet to bring a successful full prosecution out of the 2008 market debacle, so is Pew banking on deflecting any relevant constituencies who might be moved to question its own market-making power in the ruined bastions of the culture wars.