The Koch Brothers Rebranding Through Philanthropy

Curator's Note

I work at a liberal arts university in Wichita. One of the first things I noticed about my university was the names of the buildings: one for a car dealership, a library named for a donor, and a dorm called New. A pleasant oddity is the high number of buildings named for women who served the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. It is a change of pace that I bring up frequently to my students. The conspicuous act of naming a building has a connotation that cannot be dismissed. My alma mater built four new buildings in a year: two dorms, an arts center, and a sports center. Only one of the buildings was named for a donor and only one had a glossy-viral-thank-you video that was recognized on ESPN.

Wichita is a notable city, in our media climate it is most talked about in terms of its famous sons: The Koch Brothers. The political goals of the Koch Brothers are well-documented. This includes millions of dollars in ads to support candidates and odd pet projects and including a campaign to deny a tax levy to the Columbus Zoo. Koch has a different public face in Wichita because they are the largest employer and their philanthropic giving reaches all parts of town. From the basketball arena for the WSU Shockers, a YMCA fitness center, the Sedgwick County Zoo's Chimpanzee habit, and the Wichita Arts community the Koch family insures the community interacts with their legacy. The Koch family has not stopped with the city limits of Wichita. The Koch family sponsors a wing of the Smithsonian, the New York City Ballet, and dozens of philanthropic organizations. In the middle of all of this giving, Koch industries have expanded fracking and earthquakes are on the rise Wichita. I was teaching in the building named for the car dealership during the 4.8 quake in November.

Philanthropy in culture is less about principled giving and more about (re)branding. There is something insidious at stake with this movement of philanthropy, barely a week goes by without a $1000 tip left for a server, successful Kickstarters, not to mention the Ice Bucket challenge. I am all for peer collaboration and social support, but where is the public support?


When planning this week I had not even considered the Koch brothers, and you make a great case for how they might be the most conspicuous givers among us. I especially love your idea of giving as (re)branding - which makes me think of Chick fil-a. As a company that offers a tangible product, their philanthropic persona is such an important part of their brand. Your post has me seeing branding through philanthropy all over the place!

I have neoliberalism and nomlists rhetoric stuck in my head. There is a strange side effect of this generosity, a business may leave a community and leave philanthropic ghosts. In the last ten years a number of airline manufacturing has left Wichita. What is left are baseball field named after Learjet and empty buildings.

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