One More Project for David Geffen: Building His Legacy – The New York Times

The entertainment mogul has given $1.2 billion to institutions around the nation, including the New York Philharmonic’s transformed Lincoln Center home.
When David Geffen finally made it to the rebuilt David Geffen Hall, he sat with Katherine G. Farley, the chair of Lincoln Center’s board. Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
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In Los Angeles, you can wander through Judy Baca murals at the cavernous Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, view “Beetlejuice” at the sphere-like David Geffen Theater at the Academy Museum, watch “The Inheritance” at the Geffen Playhouse, and follow the progress of the new David Geffen Galleries, a striking work of architecture that will span Wilshire Boulevard, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
New York now has not one but two David Geffen Halls: an academic building at Columbia Business School and the remake of the Lincoln Center home of the New York Philharmonic, which reopened this month after a $550 million renovation that he jump-started with a $100 million gift.
At 79, Geffen, the entertainment magnate, has planted himself into the pantheon of leading American philanthropists. He has handed out $1.2 billion over the past 25 years to museums, theaters, concert halls, universities and medical centers, according to the Geffen Foundation, and pledged to “give every nickel away” of a fortune estimated to be $7.7 billion. As a result, Geffen has become avidly sought by culture and education leaders looking to finance a wave of new construction that is enlivening cities as the nation emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you need a gift of this scale, there aren’t many people who are doing what David is doing, which is investing big-time in the cultural infrastructure of major cities — New York, Los Angeles,” said Michael Govan, the head of LACMA, who spent a year convincing Geffen to give $150 million toward the galleries there that will bear his name.
Geffen is hardly some modern-day version of Andrew Carnegie, who made his fortune from steel and financed one of the great waves of philanthropy in the nation’s history. He is an openly gay entertainment mogul whose life, romances, yacht, mansions, art acquisitions, business deals, celebrity adventures and political engagement with, in particular, the Clintons and Barack Obama make him as engrossing a character as anyone in Hollywood.
It’s hard to imagine, for instance, Carnegie dating Cher or Marlo Thomas when he was young, which Geffen did; comforting Yoko Ono at the hospital the night that John Lennon was assassinated, which Geffen did; watching Joni Mitchell in his apartment when she wrote “Woodstock,” which Geffen did; or managing the early careers of Janis Joplin, the Doors and Peter, Paul and Mary, which Geffen did.
His skill at spotting up-and-coming musical talent (Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Guns N’ Roses), producing hit movies (“Risky Business” and “Beetlejuice”) and backing Broadway shows (“Dreamgirls” and “Cats”), and his work building record labels and movie studios has made him one of the wealthiest people in America. He has homes in New York, Los Angeles and East Hampton for when he is not entertaining boldfaced friends (think Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey) on his yacht, the Rising Sun. He once startled a dinner of journalists in Washington by disclosing that he had not flown on a commercial airplane since the late 1970s; that night he took a private jet back to Beverly Hills.
Geffen is hardly shy about his philanthropy, as can be seen by the growing list of institutions bearing his name, including the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, which his gift made tuition-free. (“I don’t agree that the best giving is anonymous,” Geffen once told Fortune. “We should be examples to our friends and communities. I should be an example to young, gay kids.”) But he is, in his own way, low key about it — he declined an invitation to speak at the gala celebrating the opening of Geffen Hall this past week, and seemed reluctant to stand when he was acknowledged from the stage.
And he is not like other wealthy donors, who can range from hands-on to micromanaging when it comes to projects bearing their names. “They want to check the carpet designs,” said Deborah Borda, the head of the New York Philharmonic. By contrast, the gala was the first time Geffen saw the redone hall bearing his name; he never joined the hard-hat construction tours that Lincoln Center gave to dignitaries over these past two years.
“David said, ‘I want to leave this in your hands: I don’t need any input on the selection of the architect and driving the design,’” said Katherine G. Farley, the chair of the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, recounting her conversation with Geffen when she asked him for money to rebuild what was then called Avery Fisher Hall. “He kept repeating, ‘Make sure you do something great.’”
Geffen, who declined a request for an interview, looks for transformative cultural projects that are struggling for credibility and financing, according to friends and associates. His contributions cover just a portion of the total cost — $100 million toward the $550 million Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center; $150 million toward the $750 million Geffen Galleries at LACMA — and are designed to goad other donors, while establishing Geffen as the primary patron.
“He’s making big bets,” said Marie-Josée Kravis, the chairwoman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to which he donated $100 million toward a three-floor David Geffen Wing in 2016. “They’re transformative. It’s not incremental.”
His gifts are usually contingent on naming rights. Lincoln Center agreed to a $15 million payment to the Fisher family to relinquish its naming rights so the center could promise Geffen that his name would remain on the hall in perpetuity. Although some argued that the naming rights should have commanded a higher price, Farley said, “Without his gift, there is no question that would not have happened.”
By contrast, when David H. Koch, the oil-and-gas billionaire, gave $100 million in 2008 to renovate what had been called the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, it came with the provision that the theater could be renamed for a new donor after 50 years.
Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post and a longtime friend of Geffen’s, said that “the arts have basically dominated his life,” and that they are what motivated his philanthropy.
“I personally have very little patience for people who question why anybody gives — as long as they give,” she said.
Geffen has become more reclusive in recent years, first visiting the Geffen Theater at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles this month — a year after its red-carpet opening. He temporarily shut down his Instagram account at the start of the pandemic after he came under fire for posting a photo of his yacht floating in safe seclusion. “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” he wrote. “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.”
Geffen is a college dropout who grew up in Brooklyn, where he attended New Utrecht High School. After creating Asylum Records — where he signed Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan — in 1971, he sold it two years later to Warner Communications for $7 million. He founded Geffen Records in 1980; he would sell that a decade later to MCA for $550 million in stock, which increased in value significantly when Matsushita then bought MCA. He co-founded, with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks SKG in 1994, and left the company in 2008.
Geffen can be combative in his business dealings, and he lamented the “shameful” lack of support by New York donors in 2017 when Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic went back to the drawing board with plans to rebuild the hall, in part because it was growing too costly. Just after the move to rethink the New York project was announced, LACMA announced Geffen’s $150 million gift — timing that appeared to send a message, though officials said the gift had long been in the works.
Associates said that Geffen’s background in business and culture, and particularly music, drives his philanthropic choices.
“He comes from the music business,” said David Bohnett, another philanthropist based in New York and Los Angeles. “You grow up around music, you grow up around entertainment, it just seems logical that you are going to put your name on theaters and music halls and museums.”
Some say it helps explain his hands-off approach to the projects he supports. “He’s made a career out of respecting artists and understanding what artists need,” said Henry Timms, the president of Lincoln Center. “And I think that’s the same context for this — he’s not assuming he can do this job better than the architects.”
Geffen is intimately involved in deciding what projects to support. “He is a very engaged philanthropist and is involved in every funding decision made at the foundation,” said Dallas Dishman, the executive director of the Geffen Foundation, to which Geffen is the sole contributor.
As he approaches his 80th birthday, and with over $7 billion left, Geffen is contemplating his mortality and his legacy, his friends say. Yet on Wednesday night in New York, when he finally rose from his chair at the gala marking the opening of the latest building bearing his name, he seemed taken aback by the intensity of the applause. He just smiled slightly and sat down, without saying a word.
“He doesn’t reveal himself very much,” said Kravis, of the Museum of Modern Art. “He just gives. I respect his search for privacy and I’ve never pushed him on it.”


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