The Art of the Steal and lessons in philanthropy

I watched The Art of the Steal, a documentary about the Barnes Foundation, possibly the greatest private collection of modern art in the world, last night. It was my fourth time watching it and each time I see it, with a different set of friends, I am reminded of a few lessons in philanthropy. But the central tension seems to be  the public vs. private nature of philanthropy’s impact. While the key tension in The Art of Steal is about the execution of Dr. Barnes’ will – that comprised art work worth over $25-$60 billion, and how the city of Philadelphia, with others managed to ‘steal’ it to put it up in a ‘public’ space where everyone could enjoy it, the question of who does art belong to, what is the nature of philanthropy and who is to benefit from it, comes to the fore. The public nature of philanthropy is evident in this strange and perhaps, sad story. In Julian Bond’s words, this is “the scandal in the art world, of the twentieth century.”art-of-the-steal_970x390

While most scholars and practitioners agree that philanthropy, by its being ‘public’ in orientation – in impacting issues in the public domain – can be problematic. Peter Frumkin, Professor of Nonprofit management at University of Pennsylvania argues that this is precisely why it can be effective. “Indeed, one of the central claims of this book is that the special interaction of private values and public interests in philanthropy is what gives giving its distinctive identity and the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the public sphere,” he says in his book Strategic Giving. Earlier on in the book, Frumkin outlines four positions that philanthropy can take vis-à-vis the government:

  1. Supplementary role – Where if there is overlapping work between the government and private sector, this model would suggest adding funds where the government is falling short
  2. Complementary model – This model envisages division of labor between the parties – government and private sector.
  3. Adversarial model – One in which the private donor/foundation actively takes a position in contrast to that of the government. Think of George Soros in former Soviet Union countries. This position put them in a lot of trouble and effectively got kicked out of Russia, recently.
  4. Autonomous position – Thus taking a position where giving is shielded from government initiatives.

While The Art of Steal does bring up the issues of private wishes of an individual, one question that kept going in my mind was: But isn’t Art supposed to be enjoyed by all and even if it exists in the possession of an individual or an educational institution, should it not be widely available? The counter to that would be that the execution of his will, which stipulated that his art work not be sold, auctioned, rented or otherwise moved, in any way. This may seem a tall order, especially if there are no heirs to this vast wealth and all the trustees of the board can be manipulated or art-twisted. The integrity of one man’s ideas can only last till he is alive or perhaps if he/she has a strong heir who will execute them, after one dies. In the absence of this, there will be manipulation by people, whose interests matter more than the will itself.

photo credit : en.wikipedia.org
photo credit : en.wikipedia.org

This brings us back to the central debates about the private intent of Dr. Barnes, who wished to present his art to the ‘common man’ and not the elite of Philadelphia, versus the contrary claim made by the city of Philadelphia, that argued that since the Art was meant for public consumption and it wasn’t sufficiently being cared for, the city had to step in to take possession of the entire art collection. While the film is definitely made from the perspective of Dr.Barnes and his will, the larger question of the nature of philanthropy and its intended purpose remains (in my understanding) in the grey zone. While the actions of all the officials shown – including those of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Mayor of Philadelphia and others seem manipulative, they seem to be genuinely doing what they think is best for the art world. The only problem is that all of this goes against the will of the individual, who owned it. Given how key the notion of private property is to Americans, this is the sin that they commit – trespassing on another man’s will and taking the high moral ground. In this, they also violate the principle of donor intent.

Travelers’ tips from Ibn Battuta – A fourteenth century itinerant traveler

If someone has traveled over 70,000 miles in the 14th century, by land and sea; one can safely assume that this person knows a thing or two about travel and life, in general. Added to this, if one happens to be a religious scholar, who has access to Sultans and Princes around the world, then this person’s stories are definitely worth your attention, even if they are (partly) made up. Dr. Paul Cobb, Professor of Islamic History at University of Pennsylvania shared these insights in a thoughtful and humorous public talk at the Upenn Museum on Dec 4, about Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Moroccan traveler.

Photo courtesy  : rolfgross.dreamhosters.com
Photo courtesy : rolfgross.dreamhosters.com

Ibn Battuta2    Dr. Cobb pointed out that while we take our travels with great seriousness, including making sure that we have our passports, visas and other travel documents in order, Ibn Battuta did not have to deal with these annoyances. Given that borders were porous and the Ottoman and Mughal empires, who were his hosts, ruled much of the civilized world then; he certainly didn’t need a passport. But there were far greater threats in his way – thunderstorms, pirates, disease, scorching heat of the sun and petty thieves. Dr. Cobb narrated a story that seems fascinating, intriguing and full of adventures and the “400 pages that Ibn Battuta devotes to India are just under 40% of the entire book,” he pointed out. The Travels of Ibn Battuta is a classic in travel writing and has survived centuries, partly because of the credibility of the scholar and also renewed interest in his work, after the French colonization of Algiers.

 

Beginnings of an adventure

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century scholar of Islam and originally from Tangiers in Morocco. His travels began at an early age- 22 years according to his own book and continued for 30 years. “He did not mean it to be a treacherously long journey and he admits that the motivation for his journey was the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina that every believing Muslim is supposed to fulfil.” Dr. Cobb pointed out that on route to the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta had a dream – of flying on a bird that took him to the Holy cities and then dropped him off in the Far East. His host, a religious scholar interpreted the dream meaning that he would travel to the Far East and that many adventures ahead of him. After the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta went to Iraq and Persia (modern day Iran) before taking the long land-route to Constantinople, with the intention of reaching India, which was ruled by Mughals.

In Egypt, he met several Sufis or mystics and one of them predicted that he would travel the world and meet other Sufis in India and other parts of the world. “I was amazed at his prediction, and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named and conveyed his greeting to them.” [Gibb, p. 24].

“One is not sure why he took the longer land route to India, when one considers that this was a time of bandits, pirates and no Air travel. Travel was long, hard, treacherous and life-threatening.” Dr. Cobb pointed out. He stopped by Konya in Turkey and then proceeded to Egypt and finally India, where he lived for 12 years, in Delhi, serving as a Qadi, or jurist. The fact that he was a learned man gave him access, prestige and gifts from patrons; who considered it an honor to support someone like him.

 

 

Islamic empire and networks of learning

The fact that Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire together owned much of the civilized world in Asia, Middle East and parts of Europe made Ibn Battuta’s travels much easier. His religious learning in Islam was a huge asset and he made a living as a judge, wherever he went. This was further augmented by the gifts he received on way from noble men and kings. Due to his stature as a scholar, people showed him respect and deferred to him, offering him gifts, hospitality and company.

As scholars have pointed out, travel and learning instilled a cosmopolitan ethic in the Islamic civilization and this was exemplified in the example of Ibn Battuta. The Sufi orders, networks of other Ulema and Mosques and Madrassas spread around the world gave him access to people, hospitality, wealth and patronage – all ingredients necessary for a successful journey. The networks of learning were strong in those days, and one’s learning guaranteed sustenance, if not great worldly success.

 

Travel Tips from Ibn Battuta’s life

On a lighter note, Dr. Cobb presented five travel tips, based on Ibn Battuta’s life and adventures. Abbreviated for greater impact, he described five habits of mind and heart that helped Ibn Battuta along the way:

  1. Keep an open mind – Though he was not very open minded in the traditional sense, having become the exemplar of what a ‘proper’ Muslim man should be, however Ibn Battura’s example should serve to remind us that one should keep an open mind, when confronted with ideas, customs and notions that we may not agree with; pointed out Dr. Cobb
  2. Go to School – The fact that Ibn Battuta was a religious scholar made his entire journey possible should not be discounted. His learning provided him with prestige, means of livelihood, and networks of other scholars and also the appreciation of what the world is about. Without this knowledge, one can safely assume that there would be no Ibn Battuta
  3. Bring snacks – Bring gifts and other articles that may be appreciated. Never a bad idea.
  4. Plan on changing your plans – Always have a plan B. Given how many times Ibn Battuta had to change his travel plans, due to bad weather, ill-health or other factors, it is advisable to be ready to change one’s plans, at short notice, if need be.
  5. Make friends – Though Ibn Battuta did not make mention of too many friends in his travelogue, he does point to a few significant ones, including scholars, fellow travelers and members of his entourage, which grew in size as his reputation grew, over a period of time. This is also a key lesson that one can glean from his life and travels.

 

For more, here is a UC Berkeley project on Ibn Battuta’s travels: http://ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu/1mahgrib.html