"I think society is in trouble when culture is ignored"
March 21, 2015 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Have you ever fantasized about what you would do if you won the lottery? In June, Roy Cockrum of Knoxville, TN won the Powerball jackpot, taking home $115 million after taxes. Cockrum, whose varied career has included stints as an actor, stage manager, and Episcopal monk, has announced that he plans to use his new wealth to support ambitious productions by American non-profit theaters.

Cockrum told the New York Times that the genesis of this idea was a trip to London, where he saw Nicholas Hytner's expensive, epic adaptation of Philip Pullman's book His Dark Materials:
“I knew that the lack of government support made such productions all but impossible in the United States,” he said. “I made a mental note that if I ever got some dough, I would try to do what I could to support nonprofit theaters being able to do that level of production.”
The Roy Cockrum Foundation has announced the first two projects it will be funding, both located in Chicago: the Goodman Theater's 5-hour adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, and Steppenwolf Theater's world premier of Tracy Letts's play Mary Page Marlowe.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious (50 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nice to see a story of a lottery winner doing something sensible with it.
posted by localroger at 7:29 AM on March 21, 2015 [14 favorites]


Good for him! My lottery-charity fantasy is starting an open-source/Creative Commons textbook organization.
posted by Metafilter Username at 7:31 AM on March 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


This is cool, thanks!

Man I think about what I'd do if I won the lottery so much. Probably I'd buy a big old row house somewhere near Dupont Circle and I could help people out by giving them somewhere to stay while they got on their feet (particularly LGBTQ teens, ideally, with an appropriate support system) and then fund tons of abortion clinics all over the country. If I did that I'd likely need to invest some of the money in a bulletproof vest, but it seems worth it.

Mr. Pterodactyl and I have also discussed how we would keep a staff artist on retainer so we'd have someone to call whenever we had an adorable idea and we needed to see pictures of it right away. We'd call and be like "We need concept drawings of a dinosaur hospital right now. Most of the nurses should be apatosauruses and I'd like at least one young stegosaurus getting a checkup from a T-Rex. Thank you."
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:44 AM on March 21, 2015 [26 favorites]


This is a brilliant idea and will probably be his own salvation as well. Lottery winnings frequently are more like the monkey's paw than an unalloyed boon.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:46 AM on March 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


And he has money left over for fur-lined underwear.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:51 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Awesome!

Also, I had no idea that there were Episcopal monks.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:57 AM on March 21, 2015


Sadly, Abon Sapi, he's set it up so that you can't apply for a grant without an invitation. The foundation seeks out worthy theaters and asks them if they have any potential productions for which they would like to apply for funds.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:02 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


How absolutely wonderful.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:07 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've had my plan in store for years: in the foothills of a mountain, I'll set up a dog rescue/sanctuary. We'll have an adoption center, of course, but we'll have permanent spots for disabled dogs, senior dogs, and dogs with behavior issues who have such a difficult time getting adopted.

Imagine a corral swarming with packs of little chihuahuas and weenie dogs and mutts, tiny tongues a-wagging.

We'll have well-paid and highly coveted internships for veterinary students, and provide employment to vulnerable populations, with a heavy emphasis on hiring dog caretakers who are transgender, young people of color, queer, and/or ex-convicts. We'll meet with Father Greg Boyle, Angelica Ross, other leaders who have experience in providing comprehensive services to these populations. We'll sponsor our employees' educations and give them a safe place to return to on breaks.

There will be farms, and gardens, and mountain bike trails up on the mountain. There will be a little restaurant and some cabins; tourism will help keep us self-sufficient (though of course my riches don't hurt). I'll hire all my busted, no-cartilage-left-in-their-knees ex-messenger friends to maintain the trails and bikes and lead rides. Vistors can have an organic breakfast grown on premises, take a bike ride, then play with dogs all evening. They can even borrow a puppy to sleep with at night.

The name?

Ranch Dressing.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:17 AM on March 21, 2015 [24 favorites]


> "... Nicholas Hytner's expensive, epic adaptation of Philip Pullman's book His Dark Materials"

(I saw that! It was really quite good. Much better than the movie. The way they did the daemons was particularly well done.)
posted by kyrademon at 8:27 AM on March 21, 2015


(Also, good for Cockrum.)
posted by kyrademon at 8:28 AM on March 21, 2015


Zeppelins. Also a submarine.
posted by notyou at 8:31 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


This guy is so righteous. I am only a little jealous that he is basically living the dream I have had for years. (Though in my version, a part of the Foundation would be dedicated to grants of $50k and under to tiny experimental companies that are doing new work. Entirely self-serving, given that that's the kind of theater I do, but *shrug*.)
posted by minervous at 8:44 AM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've figured out my magic number where I would never have to work again and live comfortably for the next 40+ years. After that, I can find cool things to learn and to support.

I'd like to get Fr. Greg Boyle to see if he can export the Homeboy Industries model to other areas where there are large urban populations that have no hope and no prospects.

And I would donate to public libraries. Public (not 'pubic' as I just typed) libraries should be like cathedrals.
posted by dfm500 at 8:59 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Awesome! The arts deserve and need support.

I have often thought the best way to handle lottery winnings is to give it away. My fantasy involves no-strings-attached housing for my loved ones in need and giving a big chunk to the local syringe exchange. Keep my job, maintain the status quo otherwise.
posted by Hopeful and Cynical at 9:00 AM on March 21, 2015


Nice to see a story of a lottery winner doing something sensible with it.

I wouldn't call this sensible, exactly. Culturally beneficial, sure. Sensible would be buying a Senator or the next President, if possible. Funding a hospital for people who can't afford treatment. Educating children. Feeding people.

Not shitting on this--I think it's great that a mega lottery winner is doing something for other people.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'd spend my money advertising facts. Unvarnished facts about vaccinations, climate, resource cost of meat, deforestation, ocean stock depletion, working conditions in Bangladesh, etc. raising consciousness of these things, in hopes that it influences behaviors/decisions.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:16 AM on March 21, 2015 [12 favorites]


I'll donate one side of my Zeppelin, fish.
posted by notyou at 9:25 AM on March 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


This makes me happy.
My lotto fantasy is kind of the same but for writers. And a health care fund for artists.
In other countries, of course, people vote to spend their taxes on this kind of thing.
posted by From Bklyn at 9:36 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would build or retrofit community-oriented eco-friendlier (with compost toilets! and rainwater! and so forth!) developments with integrated bike/ped paths with native plant green belts and garden plots instead of lawns. And then use the money from selling it to repeat.

I would also make all the designs available to the public for free.
posted by aniola at 10:10 AM on March 21, 2015


And I would pay someone else to run it. I would want to continue with my awesome life more or less as it is.
posted by aniola at 10:18 AM on March 21, 2015


I would go to the dentist.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:25 AM on March 21, 2015 [11 favorites]


I'd fund sane candidates for local and state-level offices in competitive districts.

Concurrently, I'd fund a transparency institute, hiring investigative journalists and private detectives to uncover evidence of corruption and malfeasance, regardless of party affiliation.
posted by percor at 11:48 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is great and I'm glad to hear about it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:59 AM on March 21, 2015


Sensible would be buying a Senator or the next President, if possible.

Actually I think it is exactly this kind of attitude which Mr. Cockrum is hoping to counter by introducing us to the arts.
posted by localroger at 12:11 PM on March 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


The arts, for all I'm a supporter, don't put food on tables. They don't write anti-humane policy. Experimental though deserving plays don't speak to tens of millions of people every night telling them healthcare is bad.

The reality of the US political system is that everyone's for sale. If you've got the money to play that game, may as well buy one of your own and try to make the world a better-in-the-Maslow-hierarchy-sense place. Yes, we need plays and music and dance and books and movies and sculpture and paintings. Absolutely.

People also need food on their tables, jobs they can go to, and a future that isn't a nightmarish dystopian hellscape. When one has that kind of money, funding plays--and, again, I absolutely agree that arts funding is incredibly important--is circuses when people need bread.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:26 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Brocktoon: "I would go to the dentist."

Not sure if that's my mouth hurting from laughter or sympathy.
posted by symbioid at 1:20 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I support that he's doing it, and I won't deny it's beneficial to society, but I worry that this merely continues along the same cultural consciousness that gets us to this point in the first place.

Charitable contributions towards a cultural thing such as non-profit theaters is certainly better by not "playing the game" by, I dunno, buying a Senator. But at the same time, it's still playing the game.

I guess, I would hope that in addition to funding projects in particular, that funding research into changing the ways the arts are funded, and pushing for greater support socially would be part of that. I didn't RTFA, so perhaps he's doing that as well.

So I'm not complaining... I have concerns, but overall I think this is a good thing. Would that more people did this sort of thing.
posted by symbioid at 1:26 PM on March 21, 2015


Society, and life, has to be about more than mere survival. This is the one thing religions understand that secular thought just can't wrap its mind around.
posted by effugas at 1:28 PM on March 21, 2015


The arts, for all I'm a supporter ...

Well you don't sound like much of a supporter. All arts funding is going, by your logic, to circuses rather than bread. Mr. Cockrum has what sounds to us like a hell of a lot of money, but against the kind of problems you're talking about he doesn't have much more money than we do. He could feed all the hungry in the US for maybe a couple of days before joining them, broke. What good would that do?

We all, even those who suddenly find ourselves with a few hundred million dollars, have to pick our battles. Mr. Cockrum has chosen his, something dear to him that gets scant attention from other powers. He is using his money to enrich and enlighten others. That is meaningful, compared to buying a mansion and a yacht or pissing it away on blow and hookers. It is probably more meaningful than anything he could accomplish by dabbling in politics, where his would still be a rather small influence.

Properly run, his foundation will outlive him and continue his legacy. Bread lasts a day, and then it's gone. Art lasts for generations. Mr. Cockrum's sudden fortune is a drop in the bucket of the global problems you complain he isn't addressing, but what he's done is put his windfall where it can make a real and visible difference. If you don't think that's meaningful, then you are part of the exact problem he hopes to help solve.
posted by localroger at 1:29 PM on March 21, 2015 [13 favorites]


As an eternal-sometimes-occasional-always artist, I deeply appreciate what this guy has done. I get the Maslow-hierarchy-of-needs critique, too, and this guy would, for me, end up waaay near the bottom of a a long list of wealthy people very actively using their wealth to attack humanity-as-a-whole, were such an exercise engaged in seriously.

Were I suddenly in possession of great wealth, I'd do a bunch of smaller, direct giving to individuals, but now that I think about it, maybe the first thing I'd do is make Jessamyn an offer she (hopefully) couldn't refuse to come back and run the place. This might involve the making of several further offers that (hopefully) could not be refused, to benevolent mods and overlords, past and present, so that I could get my pony Metafilter. Of course, an independent account so large that the future of Metafilter would never for even a hypothetical moment be in question would go part and parcel with these.
posted by riverlife at 1:42 PM on March 21, 2015


Society, and life, has to be about more than mere survival.
So absolutely true.
I'll spend my magic money on getting as many people to mere survival as I can.
posted by fullerine at 2:44 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think I object to the idea that arts funding constitutes circuses in the 'bread and circuses' formulation. Roman gladiatorial combat does not, in my mind, equate to modern-day experimental theater.

Perhaps the phrase you're looking for is 'bread and roses'? I think Mr. Cockrum's gift is far more in that spirit, all things considered.

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!

posted by nonasuch at 2:54 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


The arts, for all I'm a supporter, don't put food on tables. They don't write anti-humane policy. Experimental though deserving plays don't speak to tens of millions of people every night telling them healthcare is bad.

Artists can design posters that can educate people about health care.
Writers can write novels that influence public opinion about important issues.
Experimental plays spoke to thousands of people in this country, educating them about current events, public energy policy, housing crises, and the dangers of disease.
And arts patronage certainly "puts food on the tables" of the artists.

The arts, for all your protestation, don't seem to have much of your cognizance, much less your support.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:38 PM on March 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


Maybe if artists received a living wage for their work they would be at their leisure to make the difference we so prudently demand of them any time the subject of giving them anything at all is breached anywhere ever.
posted by an animate objects at 4:18 PM on March 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


He is using his money to enrich and enlighten others.

Enlightenment means nothing when you're on welfare.

The arts, for all your protestation, don't seem to have much of your cognizance, much less your support.

Thank you for demonstrating exactly how very little you know about my life.

His kind of money could make actual measurable differences in everyday life for a whole lot of people--food, education, safety, healthcare. Wanking about how important the arts are is a display of privilege.

What would you rather have, a great book, or knowing where your next meal is coming from? A movie, or medication? A play that requires an education in order to appreciate, or the education necessary to appreciate it?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:11 PM on March 21, 2015


Let me repeat:
ARTISTS NEED TO EAT
ARTISTS NEED TO PAY RENT
ARTISTS NEED HEALTHCARE
ARTISTS HAVE FAMILIES that need to eat, have a place to live, healthcare, material resources and education
ARTISTS BUY MATERIALS
ARTISTS (often) NEED SUPPORT STAFF who eat, live somewhere, need healthcare, have families etc....

So this is targeted financial support for people. And the public even gets some pleasure out of it!
posted by Dreidl at 12:39 AM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mod note: Folks, let's chill a bit on the personally directed and generally insulting stuff, and maybe try to avoid the impulse to make this into a big fight? It's just a discussion.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:20 AM on March 22, 2015


What would you rather have, a great book, or knowing where your next meal is coming from?

The elephant in the room that's crowding the common sense out of this sentence is that we live in, ostensibly, the developed world. Your next meal is coming either from the money your make at your job or support services. Now, if support services aren't available well that's why we vote, that's why we have government - and I would like to put forth that if that government is t doing its job, then it should be changed.
I'm not of the group that believes private charities should pick up the slack in government programs. Either welfare or support for the arts.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:51 AM on March 22, 2015


His kind of money could make actual measurable differences in everyday life for a whole lot of people--food, education, safety, healthcare. Wanking about how important the arts are is a display of privilege.

Fortunately, though, this one man is not the only source of charity, community outreach, financial support, or institutional giving in the world. In fact, there are other lottery winners throughout time who have indeed used "their kind of money" to make the kind of "actual measurable differences in every day life" you're referring to - and anyway, speaking of "his kind of money," the average NGO or charitable organization still handles way more money than he does. So he's still a very small drop in the bucket, but fortunately there are many other drops.

And what he has noticed, to his credit, is that all too often, supporting the arts gets dismissed as "wanking about privilege" - usually by the people who are themselves privileged. Have people noticed how any time anyone wants to criticize the lives of the poor, it's usually by focusing on the things they do for rest and recreation? The books they read, the movies they see? The fact that they even see movies rather than saving all their money for other things, presumably because you don't get to have fun when you're poor? Wanking about the arts is indeed a display of privilege, but I suspect it's not the kind you mean.

Charity is not a zero-sum game. There are plenty of other people taking care of funding the food banks, charity hospitals, and schools. The entire charitable structure will not vanish because this one man has not devoted his tiny portion of the collective charitable wealth of the country to set up an arts foundation. And a a huge number of artists will themselves be supported in the very kind of "measurable" ways people are fretting about, and what's more is that the rest of society will also benefit through some "unmeasurable" ways.

Rather than society having been somehow cheated because this man made the "wrong" kind of donation, this is a case when someone made a donation in which everyone can benefit in different ways.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:10 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think you missed my point. And I said in my first comment that this is culturally beneficial. My objection is lionizing this guy when he could have done so much more. You say "There are plenty of other people taking care of funding the food banks, charity hospitals, and schools," and sure there are some. Not nearly enough.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:16 AM on March 22, 2015


Mod note: A couple of comments deleted; please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand—not at other members of the site.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:30 AM on March 22, 2015


This is a stupid argument. He wasn't obligated to do anything socially beneficial with the money. Most lottery winners don't. He actually did make some medically-related donations: he donated a million dollars to a local hospital, and one of the articles mentions that he made a substantial donation this summer to MSF to assist with anti-Ebola efforts. But he's someone who is deeply invested and knowledgeable about theater, because he spent 20 years working in that field. He has informed ideas about how he could do real good with his money in the world of theater. He has friends and former colleagues in that world who can help him make good decisions. For instance, he tapped someone he knew from the Knoxville theater scene to run his foundation. I think he decided that he would rather concentrate his efforts on an area where he knew how to make a difference, rather than trying to start from scratch figuring out issues about which he didn't have any deep knowledge. It's easier to mess up if you don't know much about the issue that you're trying to address. And it's ok that theater isn't the most important thing in the world, because it's his money, and he could just as well have bought a private island or spent it all on strippers and blow.

I also think that some people are overestimating how much money this is, in the grand scheme of things. It's a huge amount of money, but to put things in perspective, you would have had to have $1.55 billion to make the list of 400 richest Americans in 2014. Sheldon Adelson is worth about $30 and the Koch brothers together are worth about $100 billion. That's who you're competing with if you're trying to buy a senator, and I don't think this guy's measly $121 million is going to do much in that arena.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:50 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


We're not really lionizing Mr. Cockrum because he did the optimal thing that is best for all mankind with his money; we're lionizing him because he did not do the thing most lottery winners end up doing, which is blowing it on useless toys, scams, hookers, and blow. He put it in something that enriches the rest of us in a way he personally thought was not being served by other sources.

Now I'm sure all of us have our own pet preferences. Some of us would favor other arts. Some might feed the hungry or build housing for the homeless, although those would quickly find out that a hundred million dollars is indeed a tiny drop on the scope of the problem. Some might try buying a senator but they would find themselves in competition with folks like the Koch brothers who can still outbid them.

Part of making a mark on the world is making it bright, and part is knowing where to put it. You could say that Alfred Nobel might have made better use of his dirty fortune than passing out a bunch of gold medals when there were hospitals full of people maimed by his invention. But even Nobel's fortune could make only the smallest dent in that immediate problem. Instead he used his windfall to encourage individuals he thought might change the world in better ways. One can still question how much real good the Nobel Prizes have done over the years, but here's a thing you can't question -- we all know who Alfred Nobel is and what he did. If he had spent his money building hospitals we probably wouldn't, and it's unlikely anyone would remember him except as one of the monsters who made war more lethal. Instead he started a conversation about bettering our world that continues to this day.

Mr. Cockrum has decided to spend his money making it possible for some small theatres to do some kickass productions. In addition to bettering the world in a very specific way that is important to Mr. Cockrum, that will involve producers, directors, actors, costumers, propmasters, and other professionals who will not be on welfare because they have good work doing what they love.

If you don't think that's worthwhile enough use of the money, in most states you can always buy your own lottery ticket.
posted by localroger at 5:56 AM on March 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Enlightenment means nothing when you're on welfare ... What would you rather have, a great book, or knowing where your next meal is coming from?

I mean, I get where you're coming from, but the times in my life when I've been the most (materially) poor have also been the ones when I most appreciated the arts - books, in my case. Living a relatively comfortable middle-class lifestyle now, I still love to read because it's an enjoyable past-time, but the times in my life when I've been struggling have been when books have been the most important to me. Partly as an extremely cheap or free form of entertainment and escape (thanks, libraries! you rock!) but mostly for the feeling of not being alone.

I think this guy is doing a great thing. Is it, necessarily, the absolute best thing he could possibly have done for humanity? Probably not, but that's an absurd standard to hold anyone to. And who knows? For basically as long as human history has been being recorded we have examples of works of art making real, critical differences in people's lives. Perhaps one of the projects Mr. Cockrum funds will turn out to be one of them.
posted by lwb at 7:25 AM on March 22, 2015


Is it, necessarily, the absolute best thing he could possibly have done for humanity? Probably not, but that's an absurd standard to hold anyone to.

Good thing that's not the standard I'm advocating, then?

Putting money into theatre--and, again, that is culturally beneficial--is providing benefits to people who are already privileged enough to go to the theatre in the first place. Is it spiritually uplifting, mentally important, socially important? Yes. And it's also a display of privilege. (So is, for example, wanking on a website about what is and isn't privilege, so don't think I'm not tarring myself with the same brush here.)

What I'm saying is, he could be providing this money to people who need it more. MeFi talks about privilege a lot; here it is. Right here.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:06 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


is providing benefits to people who are already privileged enough to go to the theatre in the first place

You seem to be forgetting the people who put on the show.

And it's also a display of privilege.

Mr. Cockrum is the lucky owner of $120,000,000 in privilege. The chance to acquire that is the reason he bought the lottery ticket.

You seem to think his foundation will only benefit wine-sipping cheese-nibbling dilettantes who prefer the live theatre to more democratic fare like Dumb and Dumber To. In addition to all the arguments you have generally acknowledged exist but elided in practice as to the usefulness of the arts, you also seem to be forgetting the performers and support staff. I've certainly never before encountered the rather hilarious idea that the staff of small off-broadway live theatres are swimming in a bucket of privilege. That's the very sort of people who you can keep off welfare by paying them to do what they love.
posted by localroger at 12:44 PM on March 22, 2015


That's really, really missing my point. I'm done trying.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:41 PM on March 22, 2015


We understand your point fine, dude. We just disagree with it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:58 PM on March 22, 2015


Mod note: You've all made your points pretty clearly; at this point please let this strand go.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:00 PM on March 22, 2015


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