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Sunday 22 September 2019
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Commentary

Unconditional giving

Marina Salandy-Brown writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Philanthropy can be defined as a generous act or gift to promote and serve human welfare and needs. The word is known but infrequently put into action in Caribbean countries including Trinidad and Tobago, although we are a middle-income country with our full share of financially wealthy families.

We in TT are very charitable. Consider how easily people take on other people’s children, for example. Every day there are innumerable acts of kindness among our citizens but serious philanthropic giving is quite rare.

I imagine that not enough of our money is “old money.” Our wealthy, therefore, are still too unused to wealth to feel safe indulging in big acts of generosity. Instead they perform smaller acts among those known to them and give to causes of particular personal interest.

I would speculate, too, that they have little faith that their material contributions would be well or even honestly managed if given to the State.

Plus, we have the real situation where our melting pot is not quite that and various ethnic groups feel loathed to spread their generosity outside of their own groups.

This makes for lots of valuable small-scale and one-on-one charity but it leaves the nation largely bereft of the great advantages that real philanthropy can afford a people.

Take the De Menil family of Houston, infinitely richer than the average TT multimillionaire. In the belief that art is important to the human experience, in 1978 they opened their own, well-endowed unique museum to make their private art collection freely open to the public.

Set in a quiet residential area with human-scaled buildings designed by that master of modern architecture, Renzi Piano, the museum brings the world’s great modern art to the city. But it is not art for art’s sake. Visiting exhibitions are by artists whose works have big stories to tell, such as Mona Hatoum’s compelling installations and structures, currently on show.

The museum is also home to the internationally famous Rothko Chapel, opened in 1971.

Housing 14 specially commissioned large, monochrome paintings, arranged largely as triptychs, by the American-Russian artist Mark Rothko, the chapel is a “spiritually centred” interfaith space, free and open to all.

It allows for the exploration of “the relationship between the sacred and the self” and offers a programme of events that includes spiritual, musical, artistic and community, focusing on human justice and civil rights. It has hosted Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela as well as the Dalai Lama and Jimmy Carter and awarded prizes to individuals who advocate peace and are persecuted for it.

Outside its main doors stands a remarkable metal sculpture in a rectangular pool of water by Barnett Newman. Broken Obelisk is dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr, commemorating his ministry and life of service. It came to the museum when the city of Houston refused to have it outside City Hall.

Although the chapel is part of the De Menil Collection, it is an independent, tax-deductible, non-profit organisation funded through individual contributions, a series of private and public foundations and a Houston city grant. People are encouraged to help ensure the future of the Rothko Chapel by including it in their inheritance plans and by making small donations.

The De Menil Collection is only one example of how philanthropy can work as a civilising force and how art can be an agent of change. There are lessons there, starting with better teaching of art in our schools — all the arts, from literary to visual and everything in-between because they can play an important role in our society to aid understanding, contemplation and personal development. I am always reminded of the adage that art without conversation is only decoration and I wonder how much of that is passed on in the teaching of art and how many of our young people ever heard the word philanthropy.

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