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Philanthropist Joan K. Davidson remembered as a "fierce advocate" for the Hudson Valley

Joan K. Davidson
Samira Bouaou, Epoch Times
Philanthropist Joan K. Davidson died Friday at the age of 96.

Friends and colleagues are remembering the late philanthropist Joan Kaplan Davidson as a champion for the arts and preservation in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Joan K. Davidson died Friday at the age of 96 in Hudson. Her son, Jon Matthew Davidson, told the New York Times that, simply, “her heart gave out,” after a life of public and philanthropic service.

That service included stints as a staffer for then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s, as the chair of the New York State Council on the Arts in the 1970s, and as the commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation in the 1990s.

She is perhaps best known, though, for her work running the J.M. Kaplan Fund, taking over her father’s organization from 1977-1993 and overseeing its support for critical New York City projects like Westbeth Artists Housing, Greenmarkets, South Street Seaport, and the renovation of Gracie Mansion. A lot of that work she continued as president emeritus, advocating for environmental, conservation, and social justice causes in New York City and upstate — particularly in the Adirondacks and Hudson Valley, where Davidson spent a considerable amount of time at her Germantown estate, Midwood.

Peter Paden, former head of the Columbia Land Conservancy, says Davidson was a "fierce advocate" for environmental causes in the region. In addition to serving on the boards of organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, she was one of the earliest trustees of the Columbia Land Conservancy when it launched in the 1980s.

"She was an early board member at a time when not only was the Columbia Land Conservancy a new organization, but the whole notion of local land trusts were still kind of a new idea at the time," he explains. "And I think a lot of people didn't necessarily appreciate the potential such organizations have for a really significant impact in the conservation of communities — and Joan did. And she was a consistent and generous and enthusiastic support throughout."

In 1995, Davidson turned her focus to books, and founded the Fund’s publishing grants arm, Furthermore, in Hudson. Program Director Ann Birckmayer worked alongside Davidson at Furthermore for 25 years. She says the program helped publish more than 1,400 nonfiction books to date, granting over $8 million to nonprofits across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

"Joan just absolutely loved books. She loved the way they looked, she loved the way they smelled, she loved the way they felt when you held them in your hand, the way they provoked thought, expanded knowledge," says Birckmayer. "She considered them contributions without which we would be the poorer."

In 2013, Davidson launched Furthermore’s Alice Award, a larger, $25,000 prize awarded annually to an illustrated work chosen by a jury of panelists. By the end of the year, Birckmayer estimates Furthermore will have given $385,000 in Alice Award grants to first-place recipients and honorable mentions.

Elena Siyanko, executive director of the performing arts theater PS/21 in Chatham, was not only a close friend of Davidson, but a tenant — the pair met through Davidson’s work with Furthermore, and for years, the two swapped stories and artistic debates almost every other day. Siyanko says Davidson was cultured in the true, original sense of the word: she had a profound interest in all kinds of subjects, from art and science to politics.

"It wasn't a put on, you know? Where somebody has money and they begin collecting art, let's say," Siyanko adds. "She was very much of that old regime, and that incredible spirit of the past, that boundless curiosity and openness."

While Davidson dealt mostly in small grants and investments, she was very much what Siyanko calls a “hands-on investor” — she would often meet grantees in person, to discuss their needs, concerns, and goals. She says Davidson not only stepped up when PS/21 suddenly found itself short of funding in 2019, following the death of founder Judith Grunberg, but she also provided similar grants to keep various Columbia County organizations afloat during the pandemic.

"J.M. Kaplan Fund and her way of giving was the most unbureaucratic, the most direct, the easiest application you could ever imagine," says Siyanko. "And I think that effect, if you think about what effect she had on the local scene, was extremely powerful."

Other grant recipients from Davidson and the J.M. Kaplan Fund include Adirondack Experience, Adirondack Wild, Hudson Hall, Scenic Hudson, Historic Hudson, the Fisher Center at Bard College, the Thomas Cole Historic House, the Shaker Museum and Library, the Columbia Land Conservancy — and yes, even WAMC. In a statement, the station called Davidson a "true friend" who helped keep its mission alive for many years.

Jay DiLorenzo, executive director of the Preservation League of New York State, says Davidson served the organization for decades, both as a trustee and as a patron. He says she was instrumental in some of the League’s core programs, including its technical assistance program for residents and municipalities looking to learn how to preserve historic structures in their downtowns.

"She hired a consultant to design the program, and she actually, through the [J.M.] Kaplan Fund, provided the grant funding that established the program and paid the first director for it," he notes. "And that technical assistance program is still a core program of the Preservation League to this day."

In addition to providing grants during the pandemic, Siyanko says Davidson never stopped hosting events at her Carriage House at Midwood — even if they had to be held 12 feet apart. Last summer, Davidson launched an extensive series of Midwood events encouraging attendees to quote “Listen, see, think, agree, disagree, and have fun!”

Pamela Herrick, director of the Ulster County Historical Society, worked closely with Davidson to curate the 15 events, from art exhibits to public speakers.

"For me, as a woman in her mid-career, it was very interesting to work with a woman who had such a substantial public life, and who was also very much the center of the orbit of her very large family," says Herrick. "I found that very inspiring."

If all of this seems like a lot, that’s because it is. Siyanko say Davidson’s death came as a surprise to her family and friends, because even at age 96, she never slowed down. The Sunday before Davidson died, Siyanko says she joined her for lunch with former Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, talking political strategy after the fall of Roe v. Wade last year.

"Then the following Tuesday she had another big dinner, the next day she had another dinner with her son and his daughter, and then on Friday when she died she was supposed to have yet another event, and then on Saturday she was supposed to have this Carriage House / Midwood conversation," Siyanko adds. "So, it’s as if she walked out of a party, you know?”  

Siyanko says Davidson was a frequent host of Democratic Party fundraisers and candidates over the years, supporting candidates including New York Governor Kathy Hochul, now-Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado, Congressman Pat Ryan, and State Senator Michelle Hinchey.

In a statement, Democratic State Assemblymember Didi Barrett of the 106th District called Davidson a “beloved friend,” adding “I will always picture Joan at Midwood surrounded by family and friends, orchestrating multiple conversations about arts and politics.” In his own statement, Congressman Marc Molinaro, a Republican from the 19th District, remembered working with Davidson to designate the Hudson as New York’s first Heritage River, as well as several other waterfront and preservation projects.

Davidson is survived by her four children, 12 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren – and many, many friends. Every year, Furthermore hosts a ceremony for the recipient of the Alice Award. This year, Birckmayer says, the next generation of the Kaplan family will be there to celebrate and represent Davidson. In the meantime, the J.M. Kaplan Fund has put together a page on itswebsitewhere colleagues and loved ones can post their remembrances.

“They don’t make them like Joan often, and I feel so grateful to have known her," says Birckmayer.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."