Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blog Milestone plus "What's In a (Re) Name?"

The milestone:  this is my 40th blog post since I began writing them in April 2011. In review, I find I have covered a lot of topics and issues that I hope have been interesting and useful to readers in the nonprofit world . You can judge for yourself by referring to the archive section to the left of this page. Anyway, Happy 40th,  Mr.Blog!

Thinking about what subject to discuss for  #40 and searching for a title I discovered "What's In a Name"  conveniently was the title of my first post in 2011. Hard to resist that coincidence. At that time it was about branding an historic site, This time it's about an unusual transaction that has repercussions for the issue of nonprofits naming buildings, or parts thereof, for donors.

Since 1973 - over 40 years- the home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center has been known as Avery Fisher Hall, in recognition of the hi-fi pioneer Mr. Fisher's gift then of  $10 million, On November 12, The New York Times announced that Lincoln Center had reached agreement with the Fisher family that in exchange for a payment of $15 million to them (there are three children) the Center will be free to drop the Fisher name and seek another, and presumably larger, naming donor to help fund some $500 million in renovations needed for the facility. The Hall, for instance, has been plagued by acoustical problems ever since its opening in 1962.

To say this "buy back" arrangement is unusual is an understatement, apparently there being no precedent. There have been instances where names have been dropped. I reported the same in a post of  September 7,  2012 citing examples of removal of a name at a facility at American University due to the discovery of the donor's shady dealings in  the arms trade, and the change in name of the Baltimore Ravens' football stadium when the company namesake, PsiNet,  went bankrupt. Baltimoreans were reportedly not unhappy. Some could never get their mouths around the name and fell back on calling it Piss Net.

The Lincoln Center - Fisher family  deal was a private transaction and one of mutual benefit. But it openly moves the naming game into an  arena not unlike one that can be found in market trading.  I can imagine there are now nonprofits across the country with named facilities researching the terms of the original contract/arrangement with the donor. If their building is in need of refurbishment or replacement and there is a prospect for a larger naming gift, why not go back go to the donor or family and see if a deal can be struck?. Lincoln Center had to have been sure there were one or more new "namers" waiting in the wings, as the $15 million to be paid to the Fishers is to come out of the new naming proceeds.

The New York Times had a follow-up article on November 28 that discussed, for instance, the meaning of "perpetuity" in naming rights agreements. There are some donors who set a time limit -say 50  years- after which they and/or their heirs agree  the naming rights can be re-sold. Such a stipulation makes things simpler. But what of the venerable institutions with names that go back many years- like New York's Carnegie Hall (1891)? The answer there is to sub-divide. The main hall at Carnegie is named after Isaac Stern and its stage for the family of financier Ronald O. Perelman.

Then there is  the example of the New York Public Library, which in 2008 renamed its Fifth Avenue landmark building after the financier Stephen A Schwarzman in recognition of  his $100 million gift. Within the structure there were already the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room and  the Rose Main Reading Room, both designations for donations made in the 1990s.

My favorite naming, also reported in the Times, is The Jerome and Ellen Stern Restrooms at the New Museum on Contemporary Art in NYC. At the time of the gift in 2007,  Mr. Stern said  he wanted to see his name "in a place where I'm going to spend a  lot of time." 

Without question, we owe great gratitude to those whose names adorn countless cultural and academic buildings and facilities, as well as positions such as professorships and concertmasters. The attraction of naming undoubtedly spurred these gifts. The challenge before Lincoln Center now is to find a donor whose name (s) will stand the test of time and be at the same time appropriate (as  Avery Fisher's was). I don't think, as an example, Facebook Hall would cut it.

At the same time, the donor has to be resigned to the reality that patrons won't necessarily refer to the facility by its new name. In 1945 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia  re-named New York's Sixth Avenue "The Avenue of the Americas." New street signs were erected as well as large medallions in honor of each country. The signs are still there, but the medallions now lie rusted  in a warehouse in Queens. And many New Yorkers still stubbornly refer to the street as Sixth Avenue. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Comments on this post always welcome.