De-Kochifying the Dance

The three buildings arrayed around the central fountain at New York’s Lincoln Center are, north to south, Avery Fisher Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the David H. Koch Theater. Avery Fisher was a radio and sound reproduction technologist who amassed a fortune from his hi-fi ventures in the mid-20th century, and donated a vast sum of money to the New York Philharmonic, which today performs in his eponymous auditorium. The Metropolitan Opera is the Metropolitan Opera. And David Koch is the same David Koch who is financing the destruction of the United States as we know it.

Owned by the City of New York, the Koch Theater is home to the New York City Ballet; it hosts visiting dance companies as well. It was known as the New York State Theater—its construction was funded by the state’s government—from its opening in 1964 until 2008, when David Koch made a ten-year, $100 million pledge to fund the theater’s renovation and its operating and maintenance expenses.

The question before the house is whether a decade-long grant of $10 million a year is worth the city of New York giving cultural legitimacy to the largest funder of the Tea Party’s effort to derail American democracy. As the New York Times reported on Sunday, the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce spent more than $200 million last year on groups organized to defund Obamacare—the very groups that have called for and backed the House Republicans’ shutting down the government until their demand is met. David Koch is the funder of the defunders, of the organizations that have taken the government hostage until the majority assents to the de facto repeal of a legitimate and constitutional law.

That’s what differentiates David Koch from all the other right-wing and otherwise questionable gazillionaires after whom cultural institutions are named. To be sure, Leland Stanford may have headed a railroad that purchased the California State Legislature before he endowed a world-class university; Henry Clay Frick may have had his goons mow down striking steelworkers before he turned his mansion into a museum—the tribe of miscreant millionaires turned cultural benefactors is large and consistently being replenished, if only because miscreant millionaires feel the need to purchase respectability.  But to persist in granting such respectability to the nation’s largest funder of the ongoing assault on majority-rule democracy is something else again. Koch is perfectly free to build his own theater with his own money should he wish, much as Stanford funded a private university and Frick his own art collection. But the city of New York should no more honor Koch in 2013 than it should have honored Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun in 1863. Taking his name off the theater will surely make him demand his money back, so the city should arrange some mode of repayment. There might even be some Wall Street figures, as appalled at the prospect of a federal default as Koch is eager to promote it, who’d be willing to make up the gap the theater’s funding.

Until that deal is worked out, it would be nice if the dance companies performing therein made clear at the start or the end of their ballets that their appearance there in no way signaled an endorsement of the Tea Party’s leading backer.  David Koch is bankrolling the closest thing to a civil war that America has seen in a very long time, and artists, audiences and the city of New York should not hesitate to make clear they’re unhappy about consorting, however involuntarily, with the enemy.  

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