Wealthy people have always loved slapping their name on buildings. Giving money to a public body is a noble act, but when that donation has naming rights attached, people have to ask the question: is the wealthy person donating the money because they care about the building, or are they naming it for some other reason?
Last week, this newspaper reported that College plans to rename the Samuel Beckett Theatre as the “Centre for Creative Arts”, and try to attach a named sponsor to the building. So this question is particularly important for Trinity at the moment.
The beauty of putting your name on something is that it requires absolutely no context and normally has nothing to do with what made you the money in the first place. Gary Silverman makes this point in a column for the Financial Times in 2015. At the time, Sandy Weill, a former Citigroup chief executive, had attached his name to a number of third-level institutions.
Silverman suggested that Weill would be better off paying tribute to the products that meant he could donate money to those schools in the first place. Maybe, he wrote, he could pay tribute to a “Subprime Medical College” or a “Term Life Insurance Recital Hall”. Maybe Trinity could ask him to sponsor the new building and call it the “Offshore Centre for Creative Arts”?
Not only does naming a building immortalise a rich person’s name, it also immortalises it in such a way that they are remembered for the great school they gave money to or the great work that that school produces, instead of for, as was the case with Weill, the somewhat embarrassing ways they made their fortunes.
In No Logo, journalist Naomi Klein describes universities as “quasi-sacred spaces”, which “remind us that unbranded space is still possible”. There is nothing wrong with wealthy people giving back, but College would do well to remember what universities are for when they go hunting for a wealthy person – or company – to put their name on the new centre. And keep in mind the name that it is replacing.