Last July, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, announced that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was donating $200 million to the National Air and Space Museum — the biggest gift in the history of the institution. But what the announcement didn’t disclose is that the generous donation came with a catch: Absent from a written agreement between the two sides is a “morals clause,” which would allow the Smithsonian to remove Bezos’ name from its buildings if his actions or public image were determined to be misaligned with its values.
According to the July announcement, $70 million will go toward the renovation of the flagship National Mall Air and Space Museum, which has been ongoing since 2018 and which will account for the DC location’s temporary closure for the better portion in 2020. Another $130 million will help get a new education center named after Bezos off the ground. Bezos’ donation will also fund a “cutting edge technology infrastructure and an enhanced visitor experience,” Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch said in a celebratory video announcement.
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In exchange for his donation, Bezos’ name will be emblazoned on the outside of the Bezos Learning Center in three locations: facing Jefferson Avenue and the National Mall, facing Independence Avenue, and inside the museum.
The billionaire’s name will be affiliated with the center for at least 50 years, and starting in July, the Smithsonian was to begin using his name “immediately,” according to MarketWatch, which first published the story.
In 2011, the Smithsonian set a 20-year expiration date on naming rights for all donors “to get away from perpetuity” in donation agreements, a spokeswoman told MarketWatch. Bezos was afforded an exception due to the size of his gift.
In addition to appearing ubiquitously throughout the learning center, Bezos’ name will also be found in other, less expected, places: a glass sculpture that will hang from the ceiling of the museum; a wall in the Smithsonian Castle; and a donor wall at the Chantilly, Virginia, location. The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents — members of which include Vice President Kamala Harris, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Senator Patrick Leahy — authorized the agreement on July 14, 2021, just one week ahead of Bezos’s blast off into suborbital space.
In a statement to Hyperallergic, a Smithsonian spokesperson said that the absence of morals clause or termination rights in its agreements was typical for the institution, and that it “evaluates these issues on a case-by-case basis when they arise.” But Ben Soskis, a senior research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, finds it troubling that the Smithsonian is “formalizing a relationship in which it’s — for half a century — going to be closely tethered to the name and reputation of an entrepreneur who is highly controversial.”
An article co-authored by four lawyers at Venable LLP headquartered in Washington DC suggests that “every naming rights agreement should include a morals clause, defining particular circumstances that would be embarrassing or harmful to the organization’s reputation and values.” Binding naming rights agreements have become a source of liability for museums who find it impossible to extricate themselves from reprovable donors, most notoriously Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, whose names continue to grace many major museums in the U.S. and globally.
The Smithsonian and Jeff Bezos have developed an increasingly close relationship in recent years. A founding donor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he gifted the museum $1 million in 2016. The Smithsonian, in turn, has honored Bezos on multiple occasions: he received an American Ingenuity Award for Technology in 2016, a James Smithson Bicentennial Award from the National Museum of American History in 2016, and a Portrait of a Nation Prize in 2019.