THIS CITY HAS been rather spoiled when it comes to supporting the great institutions of civic life. Because it is the national capital, much has been given to it. And because much has been given, Washington has rarely summoned up adequate energy for the arduous job of raising money for those public necessities that the government does not provide -- a hospital, for example, or a theater.
George Washington University has decided, in desperation, to try to sell or lease the university hospital to a profit-making hospital corporation. The university doesn't have the money for the renovations that the hospital needs.
A few days earlier the Folger Shakespeare Library reluctantly said that it will close its fine repertory theater, one of the more important centers of the city's cultural life. The reason is the same as the university's: the money has run short. The theater ran a deficit of a quarter of a million dollars in its last season.
Both these decisions will deeply distress people in and around this city. But it's no good screaming at the embattled trustees of nonprofit organizations who are being forced by their accountants to make unpleasant choices. GW's board is defending its primary obligation as a university to teach students. It is correct in holding that the hospital must not encroach on resources that support teaching. Similarly Amherst College's trustees, who administer the Folger, are protecting the library as a great scholarly resource from being eroded by the theater's losses.
There are notable examples of great philanthropy in Washington, but most of them represent money that was made elsewhere and sent here as a gift to the whole country. Andrew Mellon's National Gallery is one impressive case. Otherwise, from the hospitals to the Kennedy Center, most of the heavy money came from the federal government. And now the government is cutting down that flow of aid.
This city lacks the kind of proud and proprietary civic leadership you will find, to cite a close neighbor, in Baltimore. There people have a clear idea of what's important to the city, and a stronger tradition than Washington's of supporting it themselves. And yet there's no lack of money here. The level of incomes in the Washington area is one of the highest in the country. Perhaps these two distressing announcements, one from a university's board and one from a library's, mean the people of Washington are going to have to work harder, and give more, if they are to keep the institutions they cherish.