LOS ANGELES — In a high-profile auction conducted this past weekend, troubled media outleteer The Tribune Co. sold itself to Chicago turnaround artist Sam Zell in a highly leveraged deal worth around $8.2 billion.
In accepting Zell’s offer, Tribune frustrated the very public ambition of Los Angeles moguls Ron Burkle and Eli Broad to claim the chain for themselves. It was always clear that their real target was their hometown paper, the terminally self-serious L.A. Times. And they’re not the only billionaire Angelinos with their eyes on this particular prize: Hollywood maven David Geffen submitted a $2 billion, all-cash offer for the Times alone in December.
All three magnates made it clear that unlike Zell, they were interested not in profit, but rather in philanthropy, treating the Times as a public trust to be run for the benefit of the community. On the one hand, these claims are somewhat suspect coming from famously vindictive captains of industry with extensive local interests and close connections to national political figures. On the other hand, they’re not entirely coming from left field. The past two decades have witnessed an increasingly prominent role for cultural philanthropy in Los Angeles, with private fortunes underwriting a host of high-culture outlets, frequently coated in shells of name-brand architecture, like the Disney Concert Hall, the Hammer Museum, and major expansions by the Museum of Contemporary Art, the L.A. County Museum of Art, and the Getty Center.
The three aforementioned billionaires are key members of this movement, opening their checkbooks and contact lists in support of many projects. Geffen shows particular promise as a potential agent of the overdue philanthropic emergence of Hollywood, with regards to which conventional wisdom holds that celebrities consider L.A. too small for their attentions, while moguls never developed the old-school sense of noblesse oblige. (One can only assume that he developed a sense of tradition in the course of his decades-long struggle, conducted in the face of multinational takeovers, rising agencies and management firms, and the hedge fund invasion, to maintain the celebrated Hollywood custom of rule by complete a-holes.)
Has any American city ever seen such a burst of philanthropically supported culture? Yes, actually. That city would be Pittsburgh. Much like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh was a boom town where men like Andrew Carnegie and William Mellon quickly amassed huge fortunes only to dedicate huge chunks of it to the arts and “social uplift”. Pittsburgh philanthropy gave the city several world-class museums and performance spaces, and gave the world, among other things, a famed network of free libraries and, incidentally, AFF itself, generously supported by charitable groups from that area.
So, what next? Los Angeles seems pretty good on museums for now, and the city is already world headquarters of all forms of art developed since sheet music. With New York rents putting the squeeze on artists, it’s making a serious bid for some of the older titles as well. I guess we can check art off the list. What’s on offer in the way of social uplift, making the city a richer, better place? The public schools could sure use some help, but Steve Barr’s Green Dot initiative already covers that beat, with backing from funders like Broad.
Oh, I’ve got an idea. You want to really do the city some good? How about you give us a subway?
We’d really appreciate it. Traffic’s bad enough as it is, and as the city finally reaches its limits of outward expansion and starts to rebuild upwards, it’s only going to get worse. And plus the shared experience might help build some of that “civic identity” we keep hearing about. At the least it’d be an improvement on the current bus-heavy system, which contents itself with facilitating cultural exchanges between the poor and the crazy.
But more than mere pragmatism, there’s pride at stake. Pittsburghers’ cultural philanthropy wasn’t just a matter of giving themselves something to do on a Friday night, but reflected a desire to shed their arriviste image by emulating the capital of the cultured world, Vienna. The center of cultural gravity has shifted since then, and LA’s famed inferiority complex largely comes from the steady stream of migrants from the East Coast who promptly notice with horror that LA is not, in fact, Newer York. Those who stay — perhaps best depicted by Tony Roberts’ television producer in Annie Hall — learn to embrace the city on its own terms, but the transients and the bicostalites’ whining wears one down, and wouldn’t it be nice to deprive them of their favorite topic of complaint? Ron, Eli, Dave? Whadda ya say?
Kane Macaniff is a writer living in Los Angeles, California.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire