Lawrence B. Benenson, a real estate investor and third-generation partner of Benenson Capital Partners, is fueled by a strong, emotional current that drives his work, philanthropy, and art patronage. The excitement he feels when he has ideas of how to better society is “like a lightning bolt that goes through my brain,” he effuses. The effect that it has on the more than 100 organizations that he actively supports and the art that he collects is indeed electrifying. For him, there is intrinsic value in free will, trusting in one’s instincts, and investing in experiences.
Benenson has always been a collector. As a child, he saved hotel sewing kits and airplane alcohol bottles. This is when the “disease,” as he refers to it, developed. “I’m not a collector,” he says. “I’m an accumulator” of meteorites, postcards, baseballs, and anvils, and artworks by Matisse, Miro, Saul Steinberg, and Judy Chicago, and apparently everything else. He encourages others to seek out things and moments that have emotional resonance. “It’s fun, and you are allowed to have fun. Experience the world,” he says. “That’s why we have the ability to remember. I don’t understand why a lot of people go to baseball games, rock concerts, and other events and watch the action on the screens of their iPhones. I think remembering the feeling you had when you were present is much more enriching.”
An example of this free-spirited approach to experience-hunting is his recent acquisition of a large OTB (off-track betting) sign that used to hang in Midtown Manhattan, though he admits he has no idea what he’ll do with it. He remembers visiting the OTB once and betting on horse races and is happy to have a giant souvenir.
Earlier events that shaped Benenson in a profound way are ones he shared with his mother, Peggy Benenson, with whom he met Andy Warhol and visited galleries on West Broadway in Soho. With Charles B. Benenson, his father, he went to the Neuberger Museum at SUNY Purchase and other museums every winter weekend in his childhood. Combined with his unique sensibility, these experiences positioned him to become a force in the art world. In 2016, ArtNet put him on its list of the 100 top art collectors in the world.
Arbitrary rankings don’t impress Benenson and neither does buying art for investment purposes. His relationship to art is purely organic and emotional. If he finds a painting that he loves priced at $50,000, Benenson says he typically calculates his remaining life expectancy. Living 50 more years, will he receive enjoyment worth $1,000 per year with that painting on his wall?
In 1996, his father’s lawyers asked Benenson to choose artworks from his father’s art collection. Believing that all the art was going to Yale as his father had told him, “I picked what was emotionally important to me from my childhood not knowing at the time that I would actually own these artworks. It was pure how I chose them. I did it without any regard for the art market.” Shortly thereafter, he found himself in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood visiting galleries. “It was a door to a universe that’s in my blood,” he says.
Benenson welcomes museum groups, scholars, and students to experience his home in Connecticut, and he personally leads tours through his collection, a rare approach in the art world. What work would he like to add to his collection? “The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.” But not to hang on his wall. “I want it very badly. I want to own it so I can sell it and give all the money to charity.”
“I asked a close friend, ‘What’s the difference between philanthropy and charity?’ and he replied, ‘Philanthropy is about the giver; charity is about the receiver,’” Benenson says. “I would like to be regarded as a charitarian, not as a philanthropist.” His altruistic nature makes him a passionate charitarian and champion of education, equal rights, and improving the lives of others.
It’s not enough to put your name on a building; that does not make someone a giver. For Benenson, it is essential to ensure that money donated to an organization goes directly to help people and makes the world a better place. He is disenchanted with the current plethora of foundations and donor-advised funds, many of which he believes are thinly veiled tax-avoidance vehicles.
“Say someone creates a private foundation to find a cure for arthritis because his sister has arthritis, and he just earned a $30 million bonus at work. The IRS regulation reads that he must spend at least 5% fighting arthritis, every year. Not give, spend. The person can pay his brother $100,000 to be the foundation’s treasurer, can pay his sister $100,000 to be the president, and spend $300,000 on office space, computers, and traveling to conferences. Now, only $1 million goes to finding a cure for arthritis, and the philanthropist will give that money to a foundation that actually hires doctors and does research. This so-called philanthropist can easily earn 5% on the $28.5 million in perpetuity. The $28.5 million for which he earned a tax deduction just rots in a bank,” Benenson explains.
“Extrapolate that across the tens of thousands of private foundations that have been created in the United States in the last 40 years; that’s why there’s not enough money to pay teachers, policemen, and firemen. It’s why bridges are falling apart, roads have thousands of potholes, and there’s not enough money to fix the infrastructure of our country—because of all the tax deductions that have been sucked away by many of these so-called charitable foundations.” Donor-advised funds are highly problematic, too, says Benenson, because there is no time limit by which the money must be given to charity. One of his solutions: Sunset clauses that call for foundations to disperse all of the endowment within five to seven years.
Advocate for New York City
Of the many charities with which he is involved, and he is on the boards of 12, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and providing quality schooling for underprivileged children are Benenson’s priorities. He is passionate about City Harvest, a New York City organization that has rescued 61 million pounds of surplus food from restaurants and fed 1.2 million hungry New Yorkers. Inspired by his father, who promised to pay for college for students who received their high school diplomas, Benenson is a board member of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which provides tuition assistance to lower-income families within the Archdiocese of New York.
Through New York’s Center for Arts Education, Benenson advocates for arts programming. He joined the board 10 years ago because he was saddened and angered by the decimation of musical, theatrical, and visual arts classes in New York City’s public schools. “Many principals continue to choose basketballs for the few over paintbrushes for all,” he says.
While he values his own formal education at the Trinity School and Duke University, he was most deeply influenced by his parents, Peggy and Charlie, and by Marianne Kerner and Thornton Bradley, who helped raise him. They each imparted their humanitarian spirits and emphasized learning by experience. Benenson has deep respect for creative thinkers who make lasting impacts on others. He admires Laurie Tisch, CSQ’s 2018 New York Visionary of the Year, a family friend and a major charitarian. “She is a living landmark in New York. She uses her money wisely to make the world a better place.”
One of Benenson’s most prized possessions is his Abraham Lincoln-signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which represents his dedication to social justice and equal rights. Whether he is teaching classes on that historic document to incarcerated youths on Rikers Island or asking for higher taxes for the wealthy and a higher minimum wage, along with other Patriotic Millionaires, Benenson is a rare combination of conscientiousness, brilliance, and kindness.