DNYUZ, December 2020
When Robert F. Smith, the billionaire philanthropist, became the new chairman of Carnegie Hall in 2016, he seemed almost too good to be true. He promised to be a stabilizing presence at Carnegie after the brief, tumultuous reign of his predecessor. He was a benefactor with deep pockets and a strong interest in the hall’s education efforts. He was the rare board leader of color in a field where diversity lags. And he was cheered as a national hero last year when, during his commencement address at Morehouse College, he pledged to pay off the student debt of the entire graduating class.
So it came as a shock this fall when Mr. Smith, 58, admitted to having played a supporting role in what federal prosecutors called the largest tax evasion case in U.S. history — acknowledging that he had “willfully failed to report” over $200 million in income — and signed a nonprosecution agreement in which he agreed to pay large fines and cooperate with investigators.
Mr. Smith’s admission that he had failed to report a substantial amount of income to the I.R.S. made Carnegie Hall the latest in a line of major cultural institutions that have found themselves facing questions about the actions of the benefactors that they rely on for their very survival. Carnegie’s leaders are standing firmly behind Mr. Smith, even as some philanthropy experts question whether he should remain in the position.
“I am a huge fan,” said Sanford I. Weill, a member of Carnegie’s board who served as its chairman for 29 years. “He has done an outstanding job leading Carnegie Hall. He has been very philanthropic and he has helped grow our institution to reach new heights.”
The news could not have landed at a more difficult moment for Carnegie, the nation’s premiere concert hall, with its stage silenced by the pandemic that has put the classical music industry in crisis. A poster near its locked front doors this fall riffed on the ancient joke — “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!” — with a plea for “Patience, patience, patience.”
By way of explanation, Mr. Smith has essentially said he is human and he is sorry.