The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Headquarters (screenshot via the Gates Foundation)

Seattle headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (screenshot via the Gates Foundation)

Late last week, the Financial Times published a wide-ranging interview with Bill Gates on the subject of his philanthropic work and relationship with the tech world. During the generally sensible discussion — Gates’ critique of Silicon Valley’s blinkered solutionism was particularly welcome — one of the richest men in the world also threw in a gratuitous slap in the face of museum funding.

Citing Peter Singer, ethicist of choice for under-thought yuppie sanctimony, Gates offers a seemingly reasonable but logically incomplete equivalence between donating money to a museum for a new wing and culpability for the consequences of those funds not being spent on more fundamental human needs elsewhere in the world:

Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. “The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,” he says. “Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.”

The only thing barbaric about this scenario is that a software tycoon — a man whose massive home library is staffed, I’ve been told, by a full-time librarian, who has paid $30.8 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester (the only such codex in private hands), and erected an opulent campus for his otherwise efficient charity — is suggesting that spending on cultural objects is an affront to the dispossessed. The obvious trouble with this thinking is that it gives the moral adjudicator the complete freedom to set the ethical stakes. (One might propose a different line of inquiry probing whether a truly moral Gates ought not have dedicated his life to making billions of dollars from selling business tools.)

What absolutists like Singer fail to capture with their moral-punchline hypotheticals is that human life is not something that can be optimized by an elusive utilitarian calculus. Such logic represents an escapist solutionism of its own, the kind which handily sells sensational books and editorials. It also allows Bill Gates to make moral condemnations that cleanly elide the possibility that those systems responsible for his vast wealth are the very same ones sowing the global misery that so preoccupies him today.

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

36 replies on “Donations to Museums Are Morally Reprehensible, Says Bill Gates”

    1. His foundation has given away 28 billion dollars. Yes the dissonance between money maker and money giver is there. He is at the top of this relatively new trend. The growing movement of social impact investing might bridge the gap. Let’s put progress in a context so we can appreciate it with scrutiny and improve on it.

  1. Wow. That’s quite a lot of vitriol.

    So, is it your contention that $50mm is better spent on a museum wing than on fighting malaria?

    Finding ways that Gates has frittered away money may make him a hypocrite, but it doesn’t make his argument wrong. And while Utilitarianism may have its limits, that doesn’t render all comparisons of the effects of spending money useless.

    The better way to argue the point is to think about ways that art and art appreciation may have a positive impact on the world. Those effects might include liberalization, highlighting the voice of marginalized groups, promoting tolerance and compassion, and breaking rigid mindsets. This might, in turn, lead to fewer wars, reduced persecution of minority groups, and even an increased involvement in other philanthropic endeavors. Might be a stretch, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

        1. Not bizarre at all if you remember a similarly one-dimensional post that ended with a jarring skip to “Peter Schjeldahl should be fired.”

    1. >Might be a stretch, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

      Seems implausibe to me and I think the data demonstrating art can produce social good is pretty weak.

  2. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave the Smithsonian Institution–the largest museum complex in the world–$50 million in grants to support educational programs. I can only guess that Bill Gates’ quibble is with the objective and impact–as a philanthropist, are you are trying to better the world for the people living in it or are you after a vanity project in which your name will go on the new wing?

    1. That the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does not adhere strictly to the logic of the moral calculation Bill gives to the FT does not at all change the incomplete/wrong/irresponsible nature of the comment. That’s part of my point — their actions clearly suggest a more nuanced (but still morally reprehensible, according to Gates) understanding of culture vs. medicine. (Also, those grants were for ed. programs, many of which would be meaningless without previous donors giving rise to the Smithsonian’s extensive buildings.)

      Vanity isn’t just having your name on a museum wing — or not, many of these things also happen anonymously (for better or worse, cf. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 6 Episode 2) — it can derive from using a position of philanthropic might to dictate the global discourse on philanthropy itself, which Gates very clearly does. I don’t at all disagree in theory with his hierarchy of needs, but the ideas, particularly about philanthropy and governance, promulgated by Gates under the guise of ridding the world of disease can and should be critiqued for their broader implications.

  3. If Art wasn’t important to the human condition we wouldn’t have kept it around for as long as we have. We wouldn’t have music, stories, painting, dancing etc. cultural health and the connection it provides is just as important as curing malaria. We forget that.

    1. We forget that? We spend way more on art than malaria. Imagine,every waking hour being at a high risk for getting a disease that would at best cripple you for a week, at worst kill you. That is what hundreds of millions of people face every day.

      1. Yes, you are correct but they also share their culture- they still make art; it may not be in a museum or some pretentious gallery run by a member of the Yale Art Mafia, but it is still there and still important to the people who produce and use their art.

        1. He isn’t talking about art in developing countries. He is talking about donating money to already wealthy institutions instead of donating t to solve more pressing global problems.

  4. Peter Singer is an utilitarian philosopher. Utilitarianism advocates considering the greatest good for the greatest number as a guide to correct moral behaviour. “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” However, the premisses of utilitarianism are flawed, therefore its conclusions are flawed. I’m surprised. I had thought utilitarianism had long since been discredited.

  5. I wonder what sort of blindness he’s talking about. I imagine it’s the one he cannot himself see.

    1. He is probably referring to cataracts, causing 50% of blindness in Sub Saharan Africa. It can usually be avoided with better nutrition.

  6. Gates went a little extreme with that comment but it isn’t right to discredit it all together. The term “elusive utilitarian calculus” makes the logic seem abstract, but the widespread suffering of malaria, AIDS, diarrhea and hunger are real in many countries. And they cost less to treat than building a wing to a museum. Having lived in a country with people suffering by the millions to these diseases, I can’t help but think that finding a solution that would save lives is more important than improving our already profound infrastructure for art viewing.

    1. This is a completely fair point. What’s interesting to me about Gates, as a very visible voice on social welfare policy, are the ideological views he presents alongside his philanthropy. I have no (or few) delusions about the importance of art, my only quarrel here was with Gates’ argument that he made in the interview, not his philanthropic choices.

  7. The old song and dance. I’m with Faulkner: “The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”

  8. Bill Gates is giving money hand over fist to remake this country’s educational system to rely almost solely on standardized testing as the measure of everything in education. Why? Who benefits? Private testing, technology, and data-collecting-and/or-crunching companies. He would prefer computers teach us, not humans, and he’s putting a vast portion of his financial weight behind controlling our public school system, including dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on swaying local school board elections across the country just this week. When he gives $100k to a candidate in a race where people usually spend in the 4 digits (and in a town he has nothing to do with), that’s not altruism; that’s buying an election. His philanthropic credibility is pretty low with me right now.

  9. In the context of Gates buying an art object for $30.8 million, taking a stand against museum donations seems to mean he thinks important art should only be in private collections.

  10. As I recall, this is the same Bill Gates who had to be shamed into giving any money for charitable purposes in the first place by Ted Turner — Gates was so obsessed with being on the top of the Forbes Richest list that he was notoriously stingy. So any criticism from him about who gives money where rings hollow.

  11. Wasn’t he speaking for himself? He doesn’t need a museum to see world class artwork, he buys it for himself. For the rest of us museums are the only access we will have in our lives to see these masterpieces of human achievement. They inspire us and celebrate the creativity of the human spirit. It’s hard to quantify that but I would guess that those people whose eyesight he has saved would love to visit a museum.

  12. capitalism has caused spikes in diseases like river blindness by pushing private medicine for the wealthy over public healthcare for all in many countries (including the US and most nations in the global south), and in the colonialist past in places like Central Africa by, for example, driving people away from their traditional relatively pest-free hilltop villages and down to workcamps on rivers where they were constantly exposed to nasty diseases … the obscenity here is that individuals like Gates are allowed to keep the vast sums of money that let them dictate public policy based on their own private interest … the fact that some wealthy people spend their spare cash on private museums catering to their personal tastes and some on further private distortions of global health policy makes zero difference … same bullshit, different package, same damage to the public good …

  13. Museums encompass much than just art, such as history and science, and therefore could be the perfect venue for educating future generations on the effects of malaria and other diseases in an experiential environment. Your state science center and any natural history museum would work perfectly..

  14. It is interesting the things people choose to write articles about. The argument is sound though it appears to be hypocritical in some respects. People love to point out hypocrisy in the company of good teachings…but only if it can lessen the weight of a judgmental lesson.

    Think of it as investment in humanity and consider where it will get the most return for humanity. Investing in a museum generally is more satisfying to those in middle to upper classes. And museums…c’mon now peeps…When the internet showed up museums became much less important.

    What if the money was instead of invested into infrastructure, housing for the homeless, food for the hungry, education for the less fortunate, awareness for the ignored and ignorant, and freedom for the repressed. The only problem with investments like this is you don’t have a nice plaque that shines in the eyes of your peers and incites jealousy and rivalry.

    If donations like this were the norm it would be a much different world.

    Please don’t take the time to tell me how evil Gates is in a response. I have google, I know.

    1. It is interesting the points people choose to miss.

      “And museums…c’mon now peeps…When the internet showed up museums became much less important.”

      I’m afraid this is not a self evident truth so you will need to elucidate. Why in the aftermath of Sept 11 did so many people choose to take spiritual refuge in museums instead of just search online? Why does the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine take medical residents to museums for personal reflection?

      Whether or not some shallow yuppie receives gratification for their museum donation is besides the point and a red herring argument, unless that donation in some way compromises the mission of that institution.

      Don’t worry, I won’t take the time to tell you about Gates since that would be totally unnecessary and also a point of false relevance to your “argument,” which was otherwise already addressed in the article.

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