David H. Koch, whose death was announced by his family on Friday, was to some a polarizing figure because of his lavish support of conservative political causes that helped advance Libertarian ideas and the far-right, while countering the science of climate change. But within cultural circles, he was largely uncontroversial, a result of his prodigiously generous support for the arts and the enthusiasm he demonstrated for institutions like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“They seem to like me there, and I like them,” Mr. Koch said of Lincoln Center 11 years ago, when he made a $100 million gift to the institution. “So I think we’ve got a deal.”
A man who credited his mother for fostering his love of the arts, he ended up donating tens of millions of dollars to a variety of organizations, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
He also sat on several cultural boards, hobnobbing there and at galas, with people of varying political persuasions. The longstanding decorum of such gatherings suggested that, like sedate family Thanksgiving dinners, politics was not generally a polite topic for conversation.
So it was that Mr. Koch found himself standing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House nine years ago, in black-tie, being applauded for his generosity to the American Ballet Theater during its annual spring gala.
On either side him: Blaine Trump and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.
Whether cultural boards will remain such safe zones for trustees whose fortunes and politics prompt external criticism is very much an open question, given the recent debates over board members who sell opioids or munitions. (Mr. Koch made his fortune in the chemical and fossil fuel industries.)
But on Friday, few who served as trustees alongside Mr. Koch were drawn to that discussion.
Adrienne Arsht, a vice chairwoman of the Lincoln Center board, said she became friends with Mr. Koch when they served on the board of the American Ballet Theater in the 1980s. She recalled attending a performance of “Cabaret” some years ago with him and his wife, Julia Koch, where he sat at a cafe table describing his mother’s role in nurturing his appreciation for the arts. She was a fan, he said, of many art forms, including ballet, classical music and opera.
“He talked so strongly and lovingly about how his mother would take him and his brothers to New York to see theater, and they’d pack in something like five shows in the time they were there,” she recalled.
Mr. Koch’s $100 million gift toward the renovation of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in 2008 was transformative, enabling a full-scale renovation of the stage, complete with an enlarged orchestra pit that mechanically rises. It is known today at the David H. Koch Theater and remains a home for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater.
Mr. Koch had long been a fan of ballet. When he made his gift — at the time the largest private capital donation in Lincoln Center’s history — Mr. Koch said he had been “going to the New York State Theater for 40 years,” and was “absolutely convinced that the quality of the work was world class.” His wife served on the board of the School of American Ballet, where the Koch’s daughter enrolled. Mr. Koch was also the longest-serving member of the American Ballet Theater, having been a trustee for 25 years, and he contributed more than $6 million to the company.
In making his gift to the State Theater, Mr. Koch did not mandate that the theater be renamed for him in perpetuity. A new donor could be named, he stipulated, after 50 years — with members of the Koch family retaining the right of first refusal — to allow the building to “regenerate itself with another round of major fund-raising,” he said at the time.
Mr. Koch’s $65 million gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art underwrote the redesign of its outdoor entrance area, now called David H. Koch Plaza. The two-year renovation, completed in 2012, included new fountains, paving, lighting and seating areas.
“He was extraordinarily generous every step of the way,” said Emily K. Rafferty, who was president of the Met at the time. “He was an active member of the Met’s board and cared deeply about what we were doing.”
Even though Mr. Koch’s politics may not have entered the board room, his role in the arts was not without controversy. The renaming of the Met’s plaza after Mr. Koch prompted protests. Objections were made to Mr. Koch’s seat on the board of the American Museum of Natural History, given his support for organizations that challenge climate change.
Dozens of members of the scientific community signed a letter that called for museums of science and natural history to “cut all ties” with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists like Mr. Koch. He resigned from that board in 2016, although a spokeswoman said at the time that his departure was unrelated to the protests.
In an interview with Crain’s five years ago about his philanthropy — which also included significant donations to hospitals like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and NewYork-Presbyterian — Mr. Koch said he put his name on so many buildings to send a message to liberals.
“One reason is that the left-wing Democrats highly enjoy calling me an evil Koch brother, and the contributions I make in these many areas are tremendously worthy,” he said. “It sends a message to the political groups in this country that don’t like the conservative Republican businessman.”
Mr. Koch also donated $35 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History — where he served as a member of the advisory council — to renovate the dinosaur hall and establish the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins and $20 million to the American Museum of Natural History, which established the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.
Cristián Samper, who ran the National Museum when Mr. Koch made major donations said his personal views were left at the door.
“He was a really great donor in that he supported and trusted you, but never in any way tried to insert his own points of view,” Mr. Samper said. “I have had donors like that in the past, who are keen to have their own ideas in there, but he was very hands off.”