Beloved New York Philanthropist Joan Davidson, a Champion of the Illustrated Book

May 19, 2015 Updated: May 22, 2015

NEW YORK—Books neatly stacked on a long table, a chest of drawers, on the floor, or standing in formation on a wooden bench hold an expectant presence in the spacious living room of the philanthropist Joan Kaplan Davidson’s apartment on the Upper East Side. 

While she searches for the illustrated book that won The Alice Prize last year, she finds the inaugural winner. “This was the first year,” she said in a well-tempered tone, as she let the beautiful fat book drop to the floor with a bang.

No worries. “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties” by the Brooklyn Museum can withstand the blow due to its well-crafted binding.

“To get The Alice you have to be good at everything,” said Davidson, elegantly gesturing with her hand. She then explained that you have to be a good writer, editor, designer, and so on. The Alice Prize is the culmination of Davidson’s darling project called Furthermore—one of the numerous endeavors that her family’s foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, supports.

Since Davidson’s father, Jacob Merrill Kaplan, established the family run foundation in 1945—in addition to supporting public spaces, the environment, historic preservation, migration, and innovation projects—it has always funded books “as part of the regular program,” Davidson said.

Furthermore gives about 50 publishing grants a year averaging $5,000 each, supporting books about art, history, nature, and the built environment. Since 1995 it has given over 1,000 grants totaling $5 million. The Alice is selected from illustrated books that have been produced after receiving a Furthermore grant.

Books of Joan Kaplan Davidson's, a leading New York Philanthropist, in her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan on April 6, 2015.  (Samira Bouaou/ Epoch Times)
Books belonging to leading New York philanthropist Joan Kaplan Davidson, in her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, on April 6, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

“It takes a lot of money and effort and thought to put out a beautiful book, and so we want to encourage the publishers and editors, and all the people involved to keep on doing it!” she emphasized.

If her table could talk, it would recount all the discussions, deliberations, persuasions, and back-and-forths, the five distinguished judges go through to select the award-winner each year.

“We keep going around and around until we finally agree. It’s very exiting, and then we have lunch,” she said chuckling.

The jury—Michael Bierut, partner of Pentagram design studio; Paula Cooper of the Paula Cooper Gallery; Maria Kalman, a writer and illustrator; Gianfranco Monacelli, director of The Monacelli Press; and Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery—met on May 20, and this year’s winner will be awarded at the Frick museum in New York in October.

We want the real experience, we want the pleasure.
— Joan K. Davidson, philanthropist

She just turned 88 this month, and with the energy of someone half her age, Davidson has been running Furthermore since 1995 just purely “for the fun of it,” she said. It’s just the right size of a project for her at this time.

The ease and grace in her mannerisms, and her tempered voice, countered with an occasional hearty laugh from the gut, communicates a life of fulfillment that simply cannot be faked. The consensus among her friends, when asked to describe her most prominent characteristics, could be summed up in two words: gracious and determined.

It’s soothing listening to her, if only from simply knowing that here is a woman who has dedicated a whole lifetime to caring deeply about quality, about community, and about protecting our natural environment and cultural heritage, and of course that includes books.

The Virtues of Print

Davidson cherishes books, especially well-made books, beautifully designed, with content and images that fill the soul.

She explains: “We all live in the modern world. … If you want to look something up you’ve got your Web and its very useful, and so on. We want efficiency, we want to do things fast. On the other hand, we want the real experience, we want the pleasure.” She refers to the tactile experience of holding a book in your hands, turning the pages, reading the author’s composed thoughts. Some people even love the smell of books. It is an enriching intimate experience.

“It’s the efficient against the pleasurable, and the abstract against the tangible, and I think as a human being you need that. You can’t just live on mechanical efficiency—it’s not enough,” she said, before biting into a mildly sweet cookie. 

People are making the point that they still need print.
— Joan K. Davidson, Philanthropist

She picked up one of a dozen newspaper clippings sprawled on the floor surrounding her feet. “Did you see this little item about first and business class passengers now having a magazine?” she said.

“People are making the point that they still need print, you know?” she said. “Maybe we are watching a whole revolution back: back to books, back to real pictures. I mean when did 18th century drawings ever become obsolete, we love them as much now as they [people back then] did.”

Joan Kaplan Davidson, a leading New York Philanthropist, points out a Financial Times article, titled
Joan Kaplan Davidson, a leading New York Philanthropist, points out a Financial Times article, titled “Books resilient as readers remain true to type,” in her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan on April 6, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/ Epoch Times)

For correspondence, she still writes on the back of illustrated post cards and puts them in an envelope. She agrees it’s somewhat like sending an electronic text message—but “it’s private!” she pointed out. “The whole world doesn’t see it. It’s the last vestige of privacy, isn’t it? If you have any secrets, you better put them in an envelope and seal it. Do not put them online,” she said, adding another defense for print.

A Community of Browsers

As much as books are beautiful objects to be read and touched, their presence in bookstores and libraries—essential to meandering through those semi-private public spaces—gives ground for what Davidson called “rejecting the impersonal. … You want to be in that community of browsers!” she emphasized.

And like the books themselves, she cherishes that community. It’s what motivates her to work on Furthermore. Publishers, editors, writers, and designers are all struggling to make ends meet. 

It’s no wonder Davidson loves the pulse of New York City. She takes part in its choreography. She frequently walks across Central Park and through the streets during the week. “I love walking, I love humanity on the street,” she said.

“I think people crave a real community with people. … It’s a deeply felt human need, a sense of community, which is the real thing.”

I think people crave a real community with people. … It’s a deeply felt human need, a sense of community, which is the real thing.
— Joan Kaplan Davidson, philanthropist

On the weekends she enjoys Midwood, her Columbia County estate overlooking the Hudson River in Germantown, New York. It’s peaceful. It’s quiet—an idyllic setting so well depicted by Hudson River School 19th century painters. But then she gets a “little antsy,” she said. “So I come back into town, and when I cross 96th Street, there is everybody on the street! It’s so exiting!”

One day she was coming out of the subway station at Grand Central Terminal and she ran into someone she called “sort of a tycoon” who used to be in the government. She said he was horrified, and said, “What are you doing taking the subway!”

“If you are my age, you are not supposed to do that,” she said quietly, smiling. There’s a charm to taking the subway, “You see everything! I love it,” she said. “I do not do Uber, as a matter of principle. I’m sticking with the yellow cab,” supporting a traditional New York industry.

Generations of Kaplans 

Davidson’s leadership and influence has touched almost every historic preservation project in the city that you could think of, said Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society of New York and the former chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, at her annual garden party at Midwood.

When asked about how she feels about the impact that she has had, she answers rather bashfully, “It’s very exciting to see good things come [about] or survive, and when my father helped save Carnegie Hall—can you imagine that being knocked down in favor of a red industrial building? Ah!” she gasped.

Her father, part of the second generation of Russian immigrants, grew up as in Lowell, Massachusetts. Eventually he became the owner of the Welch Grape Juice Company and a banker. Davidson’s mother was very involved in the arts and museums. She ran the American Federation of the Arts for years. 

After running the fund for over 30 years and becoming one of the most respectable foundations in New York City, Kaplan turned it over to his daughter in 1977. Davidson ran it for over 20 years with a two-year hiatus while she was the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation commissioner under Gov. Mario Cuomo.

When she ran the fund, it was the generation of the famous philanthropic families, the Astors and the Lehmans, when “You could kind of run it in a personal way,” Davidson said. “So I had the freedom of supporting the things that I really cared about. There was a board of trustees, but they didn’t pay much attention,” she added.

The fund mostly supported New York City and state projects, but also national organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and Human Rights Watch, which are headquartered in New York City. “Now everything has to be so official and formal, and you have to make a proposal and it has to be approved by this committee and that committee,” she said.

When she was parks commissioner in 1993 she had to sever all connections with her family’s fund. When she returned in 1995, she became president emeritus, as there was already a director in place, and her four children and her sister’s three children had already become the new trustees, so she established Furthermore.

The grandchildren revere their grandfather as the founder. They have been involved all their lives with the family tradition. “I think they are doing a very good job,” she said. Her children have expanded the fund’s interests to support projects in Europe, Asia, and even the Antarctic. 

The track record of family foundations in general is not that great. “Usually in the next generations they fall apart, they either fight over the money, they can’t agree on anything, or they spend it badly, or the money disappears,” Davidson said. “So I think it is sort of a miracle that ours is still going strong in the third generation, and the next generation, their children are knocking at the gates!”

They want to come on too, and I think my kids are saying, “Now wait a minute, we haven’t had a long enough run,” she said chuckling.

Joan Kaplan Davidson, a leading New York Philanthropist, talks about her life and work in her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, New York, on May 6, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/ Epoch Times)
Joan Kaplan Davidson, a leading New York Philanthropist, talks about her life and work in her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, New York, on May 6, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/ Epoch Times)

This Is New York is a feature series that delves into the lives of inspiring individuals in New York City. See all our TINYs here: epochtim.es/TINY

Follow Milene on Twitter: @milenefernandez