The Nature of Giving in Our Nation’s Capital

by Melda Gurakar ’17

As part of the Mapping the History of Cultural Philanthropy Internship, my fellow interns and I have been tasked with examining various D.C. cultural institutions and exploring the historical landscape of philanthropy in the D.C. area. Through this project, we will probe questions such as what motivated cultural benefactors to donate during the 20th century and what motivated them to give in such a manner. Ultimately, we hope to shed light on the question of whether such cultural philanthropy is a compelling method of giving back today.


The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

We’ve come across two recurring themes in our research so far. The first is the idea of a national gallery. In case studies of the various cultural institutions in D.C., we’ve noted many philanthropists desired to turn their institutions into a “National Gallery.” Philanthropists often collected in hopes that their gallery would ultimately become the national gallery. We’ve debated and questioned why such a desire might have existed, and are puzzled as to whether this is a trend specific to philanthropists in DC or to philanthropists more broadly.

Furthermore, we’ve discussed what the role of a National Gallery should be. Would it be responsible for showcasing only the finest art, with the goal of educating the masses, or would it need to include all variations of a nation’s art regardless of quality?

The National Gallery that exists today was gifted to the people of the United States on behalf of Andrew Mellon in 1941. According to its mission statement, the National Gallery of Art was established “to serve the United States of America in a national role by preserving, collecting, exhibiting, and fostering the understanding of works of art at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.” Thus, Mellon believed his national gallery ought to showcase the best and finest art possible.

I have found particularly interesting the idea of what defines philanthropy. We’ve learned that philanthropy is distinct from other forms of giving back. As author Stanley Katz notes, “Philanthropy sought to go to the root causes of these fundamental problems of society in order to enable us to completely eliminate these problems.” By searching for and addressing the underlying problems, the philanthropist is more thoroughly able to bring change to a topic. A philanthropist is therefore an investor in an issue rather than simply an almsgiver.

I’ve found this distinction between philanthropy and charity to be very productive. It has led me to believe that philanthropic giving, might have certain strengths over charitable giving. I understand philanthropy to be a more deliberate and thoughtful means of reconstructing the world, and charity in comparison responds to crises more on the defense. Having learned this distinction, I think it is important that philanthropy and charity both play roles in society; the farsighted nature of philanthropy must be complemented by the quick response capabilities of charity. The cultural institutions that we’ve studied, such as the National Gallery, fall under the category of philanthropy. They are able to feed the public’s need for understanding the aesthetically beautiful, aiding society to mature and grow.

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