Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ruth Lilly, 1915-2009

The new year is here, and with it the news that one of the more unusual supporters of the arts has died. Very rarely does the gift of money -- and large sums of it -- rate the phrase "most notably" followed by the adjective "quixotically" in a New York Times obituary. Yet Ruth Lilly, who made a gift of stock valued at $100 million to Poetry magazine in 2002, set new standards in philanthropic giving that must give Ted Turner pause.

The small world of poetry magazines was set on its ear, and the result was a continuing, epic display of epithets, consternation, and backbiting reminiscent of a nineteenth-century novel. By recent accounts, the battle continues. "By coincidence on Thursday, the day after Ms. Lilly died," the Times reports, the Chicago Tribune reported on an "angry split" within the Foundation about its current director, John Barr -- a dispute that has landed in the office of the Illinois attorney general.

Ruth Lilly endowed the magazine which had sent her a writer's lifetime of encouraging rejection letters -- a twist worthy of Dickens, if not a joust at windmills by Don Quixote himself. It softens the story just a bit to know that even in this age of corporate facelessness, one can still imagine Ruth Lilly, with the eternal hope of poets everywhere, putting her latest work into crisp, white number 10 envelopes, affixing the proper postage, and writing the address of Poetry magazine on the front.

May all of us have that kind of continued optimism in the new year. Here's an excerpt of Ruth Lilly's obituary from the December 31 New York Times, written by Bruce Weber.

Ruth Lilly, the reclusive philanthropist who, as the last surviving great-grandchild of the pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, gave away an estimated $800 million, most notably — and perhaps quixotically — in a nine-figure gift to Poetry magazine, died Wednesday in Indianapolis. She was 94.

... Ms. Lilly was a major donor in the fields of education, medicine and the arts, mostly focused in Indianapolis and around Indiana. But in 2002, her generosity became much more widely known when she pledged a gift, largely in stock, to Poetry, a monthly magazine with a staff of four, a circulation of 12,000 or so and an annual budget of less than $700,000. The gift was estimated, at the time, at $100 million. (Its current value may be twice that.)

An aspiring poet for much of her life whose work had been declined for publication by the magazine, Ms. Lilly was reportedly moved by the encouraging rejection letters she had received and pleased by the way her previous donations had been handled; during the 1980s, she had endowed two fellowships for young poets and a poetry prize.

In the small but contentious world of poetry and poets, the gift was both praised as an unprecedented boon for a marginalized art form and scorned as ill advised: How could the magazine and its nonprofit publisher, the Modern Poetry Association — it was soon renamed the Poetry Foundation — be prepared for such a monumental change in its fortunes? How could it be trusted to use the money wisely, both for itself and for poets and poetry? If furthering the art form was the aim, why not spread the money around to other publications and organizations?

“The gift is the essence of bad philanthropy — an overblown act of generosity that undermines its own possible efficacy,” the editor and poet Meghan O’Rourke wrote in the online magazine Slate.

The criticism continued after the foundation hired a new president, John Barr, a poet who was also a Wall Street banker, in 2004. In a speech at the University of Chicago shortly thereafter, he incurred the wrath of many poets who work at universities when he declared that American poetry was too much in the thrall of academic poets.

Mr. Barr remains at the helm today, and though the foundation now provides poets with more than $3 million in prizes and reading fees, friction remains over how the foundation is spending its money over all. By coincidence on Thursday, the day after Ms. Lilly died, The Chicago Tribune published an article about an angry split among the foundation’s trustees over Mr. Barr’s stewardship, a dispute that is being addressed by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which oversees nonprofit organizations in the state.

Ruth Lilly was born in Indianapolis on Aug. 2, 1915; her father was Josiah K. Lilly Jr., whose grandfather Eli Lilly founded the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Company in the city in 1876.

1 comment:

Sue said...

Well, what an interesting woman. Good for her for spending her money the way she wanted, and shame on them for bickering over it! Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it. And Happy New Year to you, my friend.