networks in expanding cultural spaces, part III

new yorker 5.jpg

Observed: an unlikely solution finds an improbable solution

Proposed: that we can give an account of the network that connects them

Yesterday: the transition from stage 1 to stage 2

Today: stages 2 through 5

The transition from stage 2 to stage 3 is pretty clear cut. Real estate magnates read The New Yorker and they know an investment opportunity when they see one.

The magnate put up $400,000 to fund the Chudnovsky brothers. In return, he got at least at least one mention in The New Yorker, a philanthropic project that differentiated him from other real estate magnets (of whom there are, I believe, several in NYC), elevated standing in the social world of NYC, a claim to “getting” and supporting what is peculiarly New York about New York. (I am making assumptions about the magnate’s motives. I apologize if these are unfounded, diminishing or unduly Machiavellian. ((Hey, if you want a rosy view of human nature, stay away from the dismal sciences.))

In sum, the magnate converted $400,000 into a pretty substantial body of social and cultural capital. We can’t do this calculation precisely. But there is a PR expert somewhere who could assess the ROI with a fair degree of accuracy. (How else do PR firms decide what to charge?) At the very least, the investment brought him: more profile, more invitations, broader social access, higher social access, and finally a larger business network. This, in turn, gives him access to more and loftier real estate deals. This, in turn, will improve the financial resources with which he can fund subsequent philanthropic “gestures” that the spiral may continue upward.

Many investors pay much more for much less. Museum sponsorship can be much more expensive and receive no reference in the New Yorker or word of mouth treatment. Below, I have included a passage from my new book that describes the more traditional bargain.

Now how does the magnate collect his social and cultural capital? It is not enough to make the philanthropic gift, one must be seen to make the philanthropic gift. Mention in The New Yorker is one way of doing this. Another is showing the Chudnovsky brothers off at a Manhattan soiree. Thus have patrons always harvested the investment. Thus have clients always been obliged to “sing for their supper.” Patrons compete and sometimes trump other patrons when they show off their clients. Patrons impress status non combatants when they show off their clients. Patrons draw in other would-be clients by showing off their clients. Getting the Chudnovsky brothers to show up for a soiree was very good for business. (And it doesn’t matter that their heads are teeming with numbers, racing off in pursuit, say of pi. Really, they just had to turn up.)

In the transition from stage 3 to 4, the ROI soiree model holds with one small difference. When the hedge fund manager shows off the Chudnovsky brothers at his soiree, he is leveraging the magnate’s accomplishment. He is cutting himself in on a piece of the action. For this evening, he too is a patron of the life of the mind. Why is this ok? Why should he help himself to the anthropological consequences of the magnate’s beneficience? It’s ok because he is staging his friend, the magnate’s, generosity. Now the investment is being put to work in the world. It is being lent out. (Is this something the actor understands? Oh, something tells me a hedge fund manager could work it out.)

Little does the fund manager know he plays a much larger role in our network. For he is a MET patron, and this entitles him to cameo appearances from MET curators. Thus does he let the world know of his philanthropy. As it happens, the evening that he invites Chudnovsky brothers, he also invites a curator who happens both to know about the Unicorn problem and to have a wife who is teaches math.

And now we move from stage 4 to stage 5. And wouldn’t we like to have been there when the penny dropped. When asked what they did for a living the Chudnovsky brothers probably said something conversation-stopping like, “oh, we calculate pi.” All eyes glazed over except those of the curator’s wife, who released finally from the tedium of these events, said, “really?” with an intensity of feeling that quite took the brothers aback. And it wasn’t long before the brothers were gazing upon the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries and supplying a solution that was otherwise permanently, structurally, beyond the problem solving powers of even a museum as mighty as the MET.

Geez, this is taking way too long. Tomorrow, then, the thrilling conclusion to the mystery of “networks in expanding cultural spaces.”

Excerpt from Culture and Consumption II

Museums also have had long, intricate relationships with local families of high standing. These families supply precious resources: social authority, cultural capital, and political influence. They have offered their children as curators, their spouses as volunteers, their matriarchs and patriarchs as board members, patrons and donors. They have made the museum a repository of material culture (e.g., china, furniture, art and silver) that has helped define their status in the community (Warner, Low, Lunt and Srole, 1963, p. 107).

The relationship is not asymmetrical. Status flows to these families as it does from them. In the crudest case, the museum will trade social standing for infusions of cash. In effect, it launders wealth so that a “new” family may become (or begin to become) an “old” family. Normally, the exchange is more complicated and more delicate. Museum and family seek a balance in their exchange. There are many currencies in the exchange: money, events, names and naming, objects, prestige, standing, and influence of several varieties. What is given and what is got are calculated with some care. The bargainers seek a rough sense of parity (when an exquisite one is not possible).

Inevitably, there are asymmetries. Some families rank so high they must necessarily give more status to the museum than they get. Others rank sufficiently low they must always get status more than they give. All of this requires careful calculation about what is owned to whom, and someone on staff capable of making them. In a robust status community, the museum is simultaneously a participant in, an arbiter for, a contributor to, and a beneficiary of the process by which status is reckoned and apportioned. (I appreciate that this “exchange” model of the relationship between families and the museum does not always square with the family’s point of view. Many families see their contributions to the museum as “free gifts” offered in the classic tradition of liberality and not because of the consequences that may follow from the act of giving (Kelso 1929).)

5 thoughts on “networks in expanding cultural spaces, part III

  1. Rockster

    I love this stuff!

    Though you’ve touched on this, I’d like to see a bit more direct treatment of the influence of “social network diversity” on the probability of each connection happening. Actors in Stages 3, 4 & 5 (and maybe 2) will be in their career due to evolutionary forces that select for people with “big” social nets. You aren’t successful in those jobs without them, and you are less likely to get the job/career in the first place without one. However… “big” does not directly imply more diverse. Big, however, does mean that 2nd and 3rd degree connections are more likely to be diverse… so then part of the trick is to have astute actors in the mix.

    Stage 3 (the real estate dude) is the actor most likely to have a diverse network. One hypothesis is that every chain like this you look at will have one actor whose economic success is dependent on the size and diversity of their personal network. Does the famous “mail this letter from Nebraska” experiment, which I believe showed the influence of 4 hyper-connected individuals, support this hypothesis?

  2. Carol Gee

    In 1989 my Anthropology professor thought I ought to change my major to Anthro, but I became a clinical social worker instead, specializing in Women’s Issues. So let me throw some additional questions into the mix following your fantastic three-part series. 1)These days are the connections you describe more horizontal that heirarchical? 2) In the families/museum mixes, who decides these ventures, men or women? Do couples discuss it, or is it all unconscious given their generational heritages? 3) Does gender even apply?

  3. Louise Franke

    Do couples discuss this? You bet they do. I have an uncle who spent years- YEARS- scheming to get onto a Museum Board. He then bought an auction house- essentially, he became dealer so that he could raise his social profile- and also use his wife’s love of STUFF- to get a professional discount. The whole thing is cagey- in a slimy kind of way.
    So the answer is, yes, couples DO talk about this stuff.

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