Your Name Here: The Competition for Naming Rights to America's Biggest Cultural Institutions

Photo illustration by Jordan Bonney. Photos: Getty Images (2)

Eager to please new donors, museums, orchestra halls, and libraries are engaged in a race to sell off the naming rights to every building, hall, and foyer.

For cultural institutions, the sale of naming rights has lately reached new levels of absurdity. The signal moment came last fall, when the heirs of Avery Fisher— whose name graces the New York Philharmonic’s main hall—reportedly pocketed a $15 million buyout from Lincoln Center to take the family name off the building.

The reasoning was simple: Fisher’s original $10 million gift from the 1970s having been spent, the performing-arts complex could raise a much larger sum with a new name. A few months later, the entertainment billionaire David Geffen swooped in with a pledge of $100 million, stamping his own name on the building in perpetuity. That’s the same amount that David H. Koch paid to christen Lincoln Center’s ballet venue and Stephen A. Schwarzman forked over to rename the New York Public Library’s Fifth Avenue flagship.

Buildings have à la carte menus, according to Buff Kavelman, a New York–based consultant and philanthropic adviser who is among the growing industry of professionals weighing in on such matters. Lobbies, for instance, might be $1 to $5 million in a smaller market or $20 million in a cultural capital. (“And you don’t want to say ‘lobby,’” adds another consultant who didn’t want to be named. “It’s a ‘Grand Foyer.’”) Directorships and curator endowments are also pricey. And nothing is off-limits: At the New Museum in New York, you can use the Jerome L. and Ellen Stern Restrooms.

Michael Shapiro, the outgoing director—make that the outgoing Nancy and Holcombe T. Green Junior Director—of the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, concedes that the concept of naming has been “extended” because of “necessity and opportunity.” The era of massive museum expansions has created both need for donations and more things to name.

It makes some observers nostalgic for the old days: New York’s Museum of Modern Art could have been the Rockefeller Museum. Those who lead newer institutions are thankful for small blessings. About the High family, Shapiro notes, “I’m just grateful they had such a wonderful name.” The Low Museum wouldn’t have had quite the same ring.