Some time ago, while visiting a city in a post-Soviet country, I had my first encounter with a moral dilemma regarding financing my cultural project with dirty money. As a matter of fact, at the time the money in question acquired a degree of respectability by being successfully laundered through different channels and was up for grabs by the starving local arts community.

 

I was offered assistance by a deputy director of a government cultural institution, who was on the board of a cultural fund, set up by one of the country’s oligarchs, to support my project. I knew the history of that person’s road to wealth – robberies and murders to acquire the initial capital followed by buying politicians and government officials and establishing himself as a “respectable” businessman with all the appropriate attributes – giving money to charities, supporting good causes and setting up a cultural fund (the latter being very much a la mode among the very rich in that part of the world since supporting culture seems to give the “best bang for the buck” among both westerners and the locals due to publicity and the positive vibes of the culture itself). I said “no” because for me personally any kind of association with the person in question did not feel right and felt that my acceptance of the money would somehow validate him. This meant that it would take me a lot longer to achieve what was originally planned, but it was a personal choice. Looking back, I realize that I had the luxury of having that choice. Living in the West, I could look for other sources of financing and support. But what about people living in that country? Their options were definitely much more limited.

   

This is the time of crises in Europe, and the arts live through one of their darkest moments. Governments cut financing to cultural programs, the competition for the remaining funds is fierce, art galleries turn into free museums since nobody is buying anymore, and not-for-profits have to do a balancing act to survive. The situation is much worse in Eastern Europe where “there is no money in the bank” and artists often have to rely on the new rich who often welcome an opportunity to show off their furs, cars and diamonds at some glamorous openings. In fact, after the accumulation of the primary capital, a process which involved a lot of unsavoury activities, the new rich feel that the rules of the game have changed and they can now afford to play it by the rules. And why not - laws and transparency guarantee that their cronies will not easily take away their wealth if their political contacts can no longer guarantee their safety.

   

Furthermore, the newly discovered expensive goodies, like houses and yachts on the Cote d’Azur, apartments in London, vineyards in France, have the new rich take a further step in associating themselves with the West, i.e. via business, stock exchange, etc. However, who would want to deal with gangsters, right? Well, there is a recipe for that too – charity and culture. Some generous donations to charitable foundations, chaired by prominent Western figures, and well-publicised cultural events held in the West, and one can almost feel the air of respectability oozing from the satisfied patrons.

 

One Harvard professor of my acquaintance once said that sometimes it is the questions and not the answers that are important. I think questions often serve as a tool of inquiry into the issue and keep us focused on the subject at hand. So here are my questions:

 

Can we take money from the people that we despise for a good cause? Do we validate them by doing so?

 

Are we sending the message to our children that it is ok to steal, cheat and sometimes even murder if later you give money to a good cause?

 

And, finally, does money really smell?

  

I was offered assistance by a deputy director of a government cultural institution, who was on the board of a cultural fund, set up by one of the country’s oligarchs, to support my project. I knew the history of that person’s road to wealth – robberies and murders to acquire the initial capital followed by buying politicians and government officials and establishing himself as a “respectable” businessman with all the appropriate attributes – giving money to charities, supporting good causes and setting up a cultural fund (the latter being very much a la mode among the very rich in that part of the world since supporting culture seems to give the “best bang for the buck” among both westerners and the locals due to publicity and the positive vibes of the culture itself). I said “no” because for me personally any kind of association with the person in question did not feel right and felt that my acceptance of the money would somehow validate him. This meant that it would take me a lot longer to achieve what was originally planned, but it was a personal choice. Looking back, I realize that I had the luxury of having that choice. Living in the West, I could look for other sources of financing and support. But what about people living in that country? Their options were definitely much more limited.

   

This is the time of crises in Europe, and the arts live through one of their darkest moments. Governments cut financing to cultural programs, the competition for the remaining funds is fierce, art galleries turn into free museums since nobody is buying anymore, and not-for-profits have to do a balancing act to survive. The situation is much worse in Eastern Europe where “there is no money in the bank” and artists often have to rely on the new rich who often welcome an opportunity to show off their furs, cars and diamonds at some glamorous openings. In fact, after the accumulation of the primary capital, a process which involved a lot of unsavoury activities, the new rich feel that the rules of the game have changed and they can now afford to play it by the rules. And why not - laws and transparency guarantee that their cronies will not easily take away their wealth if their political contacts can no longer guarantee their safety.

   

Furthermore, the newly discovered expensive goodies, like houses and yachts on the Cote d’Azur, apartments in London, vineyards in France, have the new rich take a further step in associating themselves with the West, i.e. via business, stock exchange, etc. However, who would want to deal with gangsters, right? Well, there is a recipe for that too – charity and culture. Some generous donations to charitable foundations, chaired by prominent Western figures, and well-publicised cultural events held in the West, and one can almost feel the air of respectability oozing from the satisfied patrons.

 

One Harvard professor of my acquaintance once said that sometimes it is the questions and not the answers that are important. I think questions often serve as a tool of inquiry into the issue and keep us focused on the subject at hand. So here are my questions:

 

Can we take money from the people that we despise for a good cause? Do we validate them by doing so?

 

Are we sending the message to our children that it is ok to steal, cheat and sometimes even murder if later you give money to a good cause?

 

And, finally, does money really smell?