Remarks by Warren Barnett upon his acceptance of the Holmberg Arts Leadership Award, March 12, 2019, at the Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee



I wish I could have a sendoff like this when I am standing at the pearly gates and St. Peter is trying to decide to let me in.  It would make my admission easier, I am sure.

It is a common misperception that awards like this are the work of one person.  In this case at least, it is not.  I want to recognize my staff who are here, and whose work is such a factor in the success of my company and my subsequent generosity:

Chris Hopkins, George Bryant, Jennifer Hairston, Yvonne Hobbs, Mary Chastain, Jud Ferguson, John Loehle, and Elizabeth Murphy-Spivey.  

I also want to recognize the clients of Barnett & Company, some of whom are here today. Privacy laws prevent me from singling them out, but you know who you are.  It is through your patronage and support of Barnett & Company that our history of funding the arts is possible.  This award is as much yours as it is mine.

I am honored to be the sixth recipient of the Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award.  It is a significant title, named after a great person who did so much for Chattanooga and the arts in her lifetime.

Ruth would have been 98 today, the day of her birthday.

Ruth Holmberg was a good woman.  She could have lived a life in New York high society, but instead decided to come to Chattanooga to oversee the family’s investment in the Chattanooga Times, begun by her grandfather, Adolph Ochs, in 1878.

Having grown up in New York, Ruth knew the impact the arts could have on people’s lives. Along with her progressive views on race, education and women in the workplace, Ruth had a positive influence on many aspects of Chattanooga life.  She led by example, and that example, among others, was that of a benefactor and philanthropist.  

Today, thanks to philanthropists, Chattanooga has the largest freshwater aquarium in the world.  We have the oldest volunteer theater company in continuous operation in this country, due to the many people who have supported it over the years.  We have a symphony that is far above average for a city of this size.  It has been selected to play several world premier pieces, due to the support of those who wish to see it succeed and grow.  We have the longest linear park in the world, in the form of a bridge devoted exclusively to pedestrian use.  Again, it was benefactors who saved the Walnut Street Bridge from demolition, led a campaign for its renovation, and saw it through.

We have a public television channel that, more than the programs of any public channel in any adjacent state, seeks to promote local content and put Chattanooga and this region in its best light.  It can do so because it is local, it is real and it is independent.  It is not free, which is where the benefactors come in.  Anyone can watch, but hopefully people with means will pay.  About 35 percent of the people in the Channel 45 viewing area receive television signals by use of rabbit ears.  This statistic predates cord cutting.  Many viewers simply cannot afford cable.  The local benefactors of public television make sure that they and their children are not left behind.  

Chattanooga annually hosts an arts fair that is ranked among the top 25 in the nation, thanks to the Association of Visual Arts.  We are holding this gathering in a wing of the Hunter Museum which houses one of the country’s oldest collections of nineteenth and twentieth century American art, to say nothing of the more recent art it displays, some of which is above us.  

Chattanooga is creating one of the most distinguishedsculpture parks in the country. The Sculpture Fields at Montague Park’s renown attracts both artists and visitors from all over the world.  Our city government is placing art on sidewalks and public spaces.  Our vehicle for supporting art startups, Artsbuild, has been studied by over twenty other cities in the country as a role model for inception arts funding.

None of these things occurred spontaneously.  They are the results of benefactors and advocates, who embraced ideas that at the time were just concepts and continued to support them and their growth to realization.

Benefactors come in all sizes.  Anyone who buys a ticket or takes out a membership to an arts organization is a benefactor.  These people help to legitimatize the demand for art which is important when requesting funding from foundations and outside organizations.  Art galleries are benefactors in the sense that they showcase artists’ works to those who wish to purchase the same and provide income to the artists as a result.

However, only about 40 percent of a non-profit’s organizational expenses are covered by ticket sales and memberships.  The balance is funded by the generosity of benefactors, philanthropists, governments and foundations.  Some of you have heard my remarks on philanthropy before.  I think it will hurt no one to hear them again.  

Philanthropists are people who can start a ball rolling and by their example get others on board and bring an idea to fruition.  Larger benefactors have a sense of noblesse oblige. This is a French expression that literally translates into, “the obligations that come from being a member of the nobility.”  It was coined before the French Revolution as a gentle way to remind the monarchy that the wealth bestowed upon them entailed a reciprocal responsibility to their subjects.  Another way of saying this is the New Testament phrase, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Potential large benefactors oftentimes are afraid of outliving their money.  To which I reply, that is what wills and bequests are for.  However, let me say from personal experience that there is a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing your funds utilized while you are still on this earth.  You are here to witness the results of your generosity.  Unless you believe in reincarnation, you will not witness them otherwise.

Philanthropy is, I believe, the closest you ever get to playing God in this life.  You give to causes larger than yourself, and the recipients are legion.  They may not know you, and you may not know them, but that is okay. 

Those who know me know that I have no children.  Actually, I do have children.  I have hundreds of children.  My children are aspiring actors, musicians, dancers and artist of many media.  For some of them, the arts are a way to embellish their application to get into the college of their choice.  For others, it may be the only island of stability they have in an otherwise unstable, unpredictable, inescapable and chaotic domestic upbringing.  And while these children do not know my name, nor I theirs, that is not the important thing.  The important thing is that they are being given this opportunity to develop themselves and to make of it what they can.  The opportunity exists because of the benefactors and philanthropists who make it so.

I will close with a poem by Emily Dickinson, which I memorized at McCallie.  It has been an inspiration in my life:

If I can keep one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain,

If I can ease one life’s the aching, or cool one pain,

Or help one lonely robin back to its nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

Thank you, and good evening.