Bard College, Frank Gehry, money and power

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jan 29 18:00:37 MST 2003

After a long absence following a devastating fire, The Baffler 
( is publishing once again. This magazine can be 
described among other things as analyst/critic of a growing tendency in 
corporate America to co-opt the avant-garde and the counter-culture. While 
there are abundant images that come to mind to illustrate this tendency, 
the Gap Ads of the 1980s featuring the homosexual, drug addict and beat 
novelist William S. Burroughs should suffice.

The first post-fire issue of The Baffler has an article on Frank Gehry that 
prompts me to say a few words about Bard College, where the architect's 
latest project is under construction. ( I would 
not dream of making esthetic judgments, other than to say that it looks 
like a gingerbread house designed by somebody on an acid trip. I am far 
more interested in expanding on some of the concerns raised in the Baffler 
article that have as much to do with power and money as they do with art.

Before getting into these questions, it would be useful to say a word or 
two about Bard College's president Leon Botstein, who has run the place for 
27 years now. In many ways, it really has become Botstein College while 
retaining the old name. It is difficult to think of any other educational 
institution that has been so radically recast in the image of its CEO. For 
that matter, it is hard to name more than a couple of college presidents 
who have staked out such a high profile image as Botstein. Except for the 
braying reactionary John Silber at Boston University and the more 
circumspect but equally reactionary ex-World Bank boss Larry Summers at 
Harvard, one would be hard pressed to name any other college president so 
much in the public eye.

At first blush, Botstein's style and politics differs from theirs. He is 
the slick, postmodernist liberal who would never be found guilty of 
bullying an underling in the manner of Larry Summers calling rap singing 
professor Cornel West on the carpet. Then again, perhaps not everything is 
so placid on the Botstein estate. As reported in the October 10, 1997 
Chronicle of Higher Education, "his actions have earned him a reputation 
here as authoritarian." Professor of Physics Peter D. Skiff is quoted as 
saying, "He does not fathom alternatives to his way of thinking."

Botstein comes across as a Renaissance Man. When he is not dictating to 
underlings like Skiff, he is out conducting symphony orchestras (albeit 
mediocrely) or writing think pieces on a variety of topics in the mass 
media. Lexis-Nexis revealed 24 articles, including one promoting the values 
of self-reliance and risk-taking in the July 5, 1982 US News and World Report.

With such a premium placed on risk-taking, it should not come as a big 
surprise that Botstein was able to line up financiers George Soros and Leon 
Levy as major donors. In a January 27, 1996 NY Times article, Botstein 
fawned over the deep-pocketed nabobs: "These are people who made their 
money by doing something new, not something old. They haven't clipped 

I imagine that everybody is familiar with the kind of new things that 
George Soros did in the 1990s, especially in Southeast Asia. It was widely 
reported that currency speculation carried out under the auspices of his 
Hedge Fund caused the Thai economy to crash. This led subsequently to 
financial failure throughout the region. A column in Bangkok's "Thai Ray" 
commented at the time: "In this new era, there is no need to use troops, 
warships, bombs, or weapons to occupy any country. Just send out one broker 
and the target will be totally destroyed. In a war of the present era, 
people are killed by poverty."

Botstein would seem to share Soros's missionary complex vis-à-vis the 
former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. With money siphoned from developing 
economies like Thailand's, Soros has been able to foot the bill for Bard 
College's colonizing effort in St. Petersburg, namely Smolny College, which 
sits next door to the organizing center of the October 1917 
revolution--thus bringing the counter-revolution full cycle. Claude 
Allegre, the former French education minister, expressed misgivings about 
efforts such as Smolny College: ''That our students go and study in the 
United States and Britain is entirely desirable, but that the Americans 
install their universities throughout the world, all on the same model and 
with the same courses, is a catastrophe." Well, what can one say--that's 
just the voice of Old Europe once again. For the New Europe of Donald 
Rumsfeld, handouts from people like George Soros are eagerly accepted, 
especially since college professors in the liberated Russia republic 
average about $65 per month.

Until today, I had little idea of how Leon Levy put together his fortune. A 
few hours on the Internet revealed that he is what is known as a leveraged 
buyout artist. His Odyssey Partners put together deal after deal in the 
1980s that left a string of bankrupt companies in its trail--with all the 
human suffering that entails. When the Levy family launched the Levy 
Institute at an old mansion called Blithewood, a trade union official 
representing workers, who had been in a running battle with the management 
of a restaurant owned by the family over, wrote the executive director 
raising some concerns, among which is the following:

"As you may be aware, Odyssey Partners is also a named defendant in 
shareholder litigation that arose in the aftermath of the infamous 
accounting scandal at apparel-maker Leslie Fay. In the early 1980s, Leslie 
Fay underwent two management-led leveraged buyouts. The second LBO, in 
1984, involved Odyssey Partners, Merrill Lynch, and Goldome Savings Bank. 
In June of 1991, the company underwent its third initial public offering, 
raising $40.6 million after expenses, all of which went to Odyssey Partners 
and/or to Steven M. Friedman, a former Odyssey general partner. In 1993, 
Leslie Fay's accountants discovered accounting 'discrepancies' and 
contended in a subsequent lawsuit that Leslie Fay's senior management 
conspired to conceal the true financial health of the company prior to and 
during the three public offerings. Odyssey Partners is a defendant in this 
lawsuit. Last year, Leslie Fay endured a 40 day strike over its proposal to 
close most of its domestic manufacturing operations (and to eliminate 1200 
jobs), despite wage and benefit concessions workers had made to help return 
the company to profitability. Leslie Fay is now a sad shadow of its former 
self. Sales and profits are down sharply, and, according to Women's Wear 
Daily, the company 'now sits on the edge of oblivion.'"


Despite their rather aggressive moneymaking appetites, both Soros and Levy 
now position themselves as friends of the left. Given the state of the 
world, one suspects that they are simply using a hedging strategy to 
protect their long-term interests. If at some point down the road the 
long-suffering masses decide to rid themselves of their oppressors, Soros 
and Levy might plead that they were with the revolution all along.

Soros writes books and articles lamenting globalization, while his Open 
Society foundation lavishes money on various grass-roots organizations 
fighting for social change, especially on the Internet. For example, got a $78,660 grant--and so on.

Meanwhile, the Levy Institute at Bard constantly issues press releases and 
other material calling attention to irrational capitalist behavior. Old 
Leon Levy himself occasionally writes something for the New York Review of 
Books with Jeff Madrick, an Institute fellow with impeccable liberal 
credentials--including the October 8, 1998 "Wall Street Blues". But to 
really show their "street cred", the Levy boys went out and hired 
themselves a bona fide Marxist, namely Anwar Shaikh of the New School. As a 
research fellow at the Levy Institute, Shaikh wrote hard-hitting 
indictments of the capitalist system while the Levy brothers were out 
stripping assets in the same manner as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone's "Wall 
Street" in order to pay for his stipend. We need a latter-day Bertolt 
Brecht to do justice to this sort of thing.

Turning now to the Baffler article ("Build It and They Will Pay" by Andrew 
Friedman), one understands completely why somebody like Leon Levy would 
write a blank check for something like the Gehry performing arts center. In 
2001, when the Board of Trustees lavished $120 million on Leon Botstein, 
$50 million came from Leon Levy. From that gift, $100 million was put into 
the general endowment, while the remaining $20 million was set aside to 
endow capital projects like the college's new performing arts center. For 
Botstein's purposes, this would be money well spent since Gehry's name has 
instant cachet, like a Rolex watch or a Prada handbag.

Although Friedman's article focuses on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, 
Spain, the observations seem relevant to any Gehry project. He writes:

"No sooner was the thing built, however, than the Basques started to learn 
what Gehry's vision was costing them. In his book Chronicle of a Seduction: 
The Guggenheim Bilbao, Joseba Zulaika dissects the deal under which the 
museum was built. It's a story of uneven power relations, mortgaged urban 
futures, and fiscal chicanery, most of which cannot be told by official 
sources because their agreement contains a clause forbidding public 
disclosure. But it seems that after a year of secret negotiations, the 
Guggenheim stuck the city--which lost 40,000 jobs with the demise of its 
largest steel plant, and which still struggles with 25 percent 
unemployment--with a stiff bill. By 2000, Zulaika writes, the Basques were 
in for $250 million--that's $700 for each Bilbao resident. On top of that, 
the local government is committed to a perpetual public subsidy of $7 to 
$14 million a year."

My own prediction is that the Gehry building at Bard will involve the same 
kind of waste, but as long as Leon Levy is sitting on such a huge fortune 
then the sky is the limit. This kind of overweening ambition seems oddly 
out of place both for the Guggenheim and for Bard. It is rather 1990s, so 
to speak. In fact, this kind of excess has begun to backfire on Thomas 
Krens, who is to the Guggenheim as Botstein is to Bard. Deep in debt, Krens 
resolved to solve things in the manner that anybody from the high-flying 
90s would--he fired 80 employees, a fifth of his staff.

There is another similarity between Krens and Botstein: both are 
empire-builders. While Krens had ambitious plans to create many Guggenheims 
around the world, Botstein spawns seedling institutions like Smolny College 
and the Bard Decorative Arts Museum run by Mrs. Soros. What better 
architectural design to express this overarching ambition than Gehry's 
plastic, computer-generated postmodernist works, whose innovations, 
according to Friedman, "are better thought of as extensions of the logic of 
capitalism into the deregulated plastic economy of the Nineties."

Hence it was no surprise that Enron, that symbol of the roaring 1990s, 
would tout Gehry's work highly. As ex-CEO Jeffrey Skilling wrote for the 
catalog that accompanied an Enron-funded Gehry retrospective:

"Enron shares Mr. Gehry's ongoing search for the moment of truth, the 
moment when the functional approach to a problem becomes infused with the 
artistry that produces a truly innovative solution. This is the search 
Enron embarks on every day by questioning the conventional to change 
business paradigms and create new markets that will shape the New Economy. 
It is the shared sense of challenge that we admire most in Frank Gehry."

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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