HomeBusinessJoan Kaplan Davidson, Philanthropist Who Championed New York, Dies at 96

Joan Kaplan Davidson, Philanthropist Who Championed New York, Dies at 96

Joan Kaplan Davidson, a prominent preservationist and philanthropist, passed away at the age of 96 in Hudson, N.Y. Her son, John Matthew Davidson, confirmed her death, stating that she passed away in a hospital. The cause of death was not specified, only that “her heart gave out.”

Throughout her life, Ms. Davidson held various influential positions in New York City. She served as chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts in the 1970s and as New York State parks commissioner in the 1990s. However, she is best known for her role as president of the J.M. Kaplan Fund from 1977 to 1993. The foundation, established by her father in 1945, supported projects dedicated to improving the quality of life in New York City.

Although the J.M. Kaplan Fund had a smaller endowment compared to other larger foundations, such as Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, it played a crucial role in funding efforts to save buildings, support cultural institutions, and restore landmarks in New York City. Under Ms. Davidson’s leadership, the fund contributed to saving Carnegie Hall and creating Westbeth, an artists’ housing complex in Lower Manhattan. The fund also financed the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, which aimed to renovate and preserve the mayor’s residence.

Ms. Davidson focused the fund’s efforts on issues related to New York City’s architecture, design, and quality of life. She also supported programs in the arts, civil liberties, human rights, and conservation of natural resources and rural preservation in upstate New York. The fund provided relatively small grants, strategically using funds to get causes off the ground.

Born in 1927 in New York City, Ms. Davidson was the daughter of Jacob and Alice Kaplan. Her father, a successful businessman and philanthropist, founded the Kaplan Fund and played a significant role in saving Carnegie Hall. Ms. Davidson credited her parents for shaping her political and philanthropic interests and working style.

She attended Cornell University and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1948. She later obtained a postgraduate degree in education from Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan. After teaching school and working as an advertising copywriter for Macy’s, she married C. Girard Davidson in 1953. They had four children and divorced in 1967.

In 1970, under Ms. Davidson’s management, the Kaplan Fund partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts to establish Westbeth Artists Housing, one of the first housing projects specifically designed for artists. Westbeth became a historic landmark and provided homes for many artists.

Ms. Davidson took over the management of the Kaplan Fund in 1977, following her father’s retirement. She embraced her father’s hands-on approach to philanthropy, supporting innovative projects such as greenmarkets to benefit both city consumers and farmers. She also funded projects like publishing a juror’s guide to Lower Manhattan as a reward for jurors.

In 1993, Ms. Davidson was appointed as New York State commissioner of parks, recreation, and historic preservation by Governor Mario M. Cuomo. She continued to be involved in conservation efforts, particularly in the Hudson Valley.

Ms. Davidson’s legacy was celebrated in the book “It’s a Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the Fight for a Better New York,” published in 2020 by Roberta Brandes Gratz. She was proud of the Kaplan Fund’s impact on New York City and its focus on smaller, meaningful initiatives.

Ms. Davidson is survived by her four children, twelve grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. She lived in Germantown, N.Y. until her passing.