In Relative Perpetuity

by John Delach

Avery Robert Fisher (1906-1994), grew up an aficionado of classical music. He went on to experiment with audio designs and acoustics with the goal of developing a radio receiver capable of creating sound the equivalent to the experience of listening to a live orchestra. He developed high fidelity just before World War II when paired with newly invented FM radio, fulfilled his goal. His Fisher Radio Company became a leader in developing quality sound receivers culminating with the remarkable 22-tube stereophonic TA600 radio introduced in 1959, a radio of such quality that it retailed for $350 (equal to $2,800 today.) Mr. Fisher sold his company to Emerson Electric in 1969 for $31 million.


Mr. Fisher is best remembered for his philanthropy.  He donated $10.5 million to the New York Philharmonic in 1973 and in return the trustees agreed to name their new quarters at Lincoln Center, Avery Fisher Hall, in perpetuity or so it seemed.


By 2014, $10.5 million dollars wasn’t what it used to be in the last 40 years while technology has raised people’s expectations to experience performances that a 1973 facility cannot possibly produce. And so the current trustees determined that Avery Fisher Hall needs a $500 million restoration.


The trustees at Lincoln Center recently reached agreement with the Fisher family to pay his descendants $15 million together “with other inducements in hopes of luring a much larger donor willing to subsidize…” this project.


So much for perpetuity!


Curiously, shortly following this press release, the American Museum of Natural History announced their plans to build: “A $325 million, six-story addition designed to foster the institution’s expanding role as a center for scientific research and education.”


The addition will be called, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. Robin Pogrebin reported in The New York Times: “Mr. Gilder has been involved in every major initiative of the museum’s during the last 20 years…His gift will put his total contributions to the museum at more than $125 million during that period, making him the single largest donor in the institution’s history.”


Richard Gilder, Jr. (born May 31, 1932) is another New York philanthropist, well-respected for his contributions to his alma matter, Yale, the Central Park Conservancy,  other institutions and, of course the Museum of Natural History. His success in life came as the founder and lead partner of Gilder, Gagnon, Howe & Co, a firm specializing in trading stocks and short selling.


In recognition of his generosity, the museum had already named its Richard Gilder Graduate School after him. This school has bestowed a Ph.D. in comparative biology, something rare for a museum.


Good luck Mister Gilder in your effort to be known in perpetuity. Most Americans would never think about this fate. We’re born, live and die. With luck our families and friends remember us for a time. This is good.


Famous and infamous make it into history but relatively unknown people who, through a flaw in our capitalist system, acquire considerably more wealth than they are entitled to, feel a driving need to achieve immortality by buying their way into it as they contemplate their own end.


Once we called them robber barons. The Rockefellers, Mellons, Harrimans and Vanderbilts of years gone by who flooded charities with money. So too do the current super rich; the Kochs, Tishes, Langones, Buffets and Gates who give back so much because they own so much. Their names may remain for eons, more or less.


But the shelf-life for Mr. Gilder’s perpetuity is limited. I hope he negotiated an acceptable time frame that his name will stand in place at the museum and its grad school or that the museum will have to payoff his descendants when it is removed.


Sam Roberts who wrote the piece about Avery Fisher’s demise noted that not that long ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art proposed to name their Roman Sculpture Court in perpetuity after Leon Levy, a collector and philanthropist. Leon’s wife, Shelby White, had the wherewithal to ask, “How long is perpetuity?”


The Met’s director replied, “For you, 50 years.”


Ms White was not pleased as their daughter was in her 20s at the time so she insisted that this director extend his definition of perpetuity to 75 years.


The director agreed and the deal was done. Leon got 75 years of immortality and the Met got $20 million.


“New York is the fastest track in the world”

John Lindsay