Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Next Generation of Major Donors to Museums: Interview with David Gelles

Last week's New York Times special section on museums featured a lead article by David Gelles on Wooing a New Generation of Museum Patrons. In the article, David discussed ways that several large art museums are working to attract major donors and board members in their 30s and 40s.

The article both energized and frustrated me. I was excited to see coverage of an important issue of generational shift, but I was frustrated that it appeared to perpetuate traditional, clubbish standards of donor cultivation. I was curious to learn more about what was behind the article.

Fortunately, I had an outlet for my curiosity. David and I have known each other for a decade. We first met in Washington DC through a mix of social and professional circles. David describes himself as a "museum brat." He is the son of Bonnie Pitman, an extraordinary museum leader and educator who has served as director of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and as a board member for AAM. David introduced me to one of my museum heroes (and his godmother), Elaine Heumann Gurian. He grew up with a special love for and perspective on museums that makes his commentary particularly well-informed.

We've kept in touch over the years as our careers evolved--mine in museums, his in journalism--and I called David to learn more about the story behind the article.

NS: Why did you want to write this story?

DG: The initial idea really came from me trying to bridge my current beat – finance, Wall Street, mergers and acquisitions -- and thinking about how that can apply to the museum world. It struck me quite obviously that the people I cover on a day-to-day basis, especially the younger bankers, are some of the future major donors for museums. I cover all these guys who make 7, 8 figures a year. Inevitably, these are the people museums are going to want to attract to join the board and make major gifts.

At the same time, from my background in the museum world, I’ve gotten to know some of these boards and board members and see how they operate. By the time my mom was at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, I was in my late teens/twenties, and I started to know the board socially, including Bob Fisher, who is now very involved with SFMOMA. I’ve known Bob for 15 years now. We have some mutual understanding and trust. I knew something about this world.

NS: I struggled with your article because you note that these younger people are looking for something different from their donor experience, but many of the examples--the wining and dining--seems like same old, same old in terms of approach to engagement.

DG: Let me first note that this was very deliberately a piece about recruiting young donors who could give substantial gifts and join at the board level. Programmatic engagement is a very different story.

Wining and dining is always going to be a part of this donor cultivation. Let’s face it – people like to be social and have a drink. But I do think some of these examples are really something very different. For example, in the article I talk about SFMOMA and how they dealt with the museum being closed for renovation. They brought in Yves Behar onto their board, a designer in his 30s. He and some of the other younger board members were absolutely the key to get the museum out of the building and into the city. And it was through the younger patrons that they were able to spread SFMOMA all over the Bay Area.

NS: The article mentions that as part of that project, SFMOMA has an outpost in Los Altos. I have a kind of cynical perspective on that--that Los Altos is an extremely wealthy area and a place for donor cultivation, not for engaging people who might not otherwise experience art and art museums. I worry that some of these examples perpetuate income inequity and the perception of museums as  being for the 1%.

DG: I wrote this article coming to museums on their terms. I’m not trying to make value judgments about whether or not it’s a good thing that museums are cultivating wealthy patrons. The fact is that large institutions are heavily reliant on big donations. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is really not the story I wrote.

I do think it’s fair to ask whether museums have become too complex, too expensive – incredibly complex, incredibly expensive to run and maintain -- and that necessitates an incredible high level of giving. In an age of high income inequity, that means you have to focus on major gifts from major donors. And rising income inequality means fewer individuals have the capacity to make major gifts – not less money to go around, but fewer pocketbooks.

NS: It seems like some of the giant institutions in the article--the MoMAs of the world--will probably be just fine with their Young Collectors groups and so on. But the generational shift seems much more threatening to the vast majority of museums that are smaller, not in huge cities, not big names.

DG: Absolutely. Smaller, less marquee institutions may face problems going forward. I included the Delaware Art Museum as an example of this. 

There are a couple of key demographic trends that impact this. There is wealthy flight back into the cities – that’s left a lot of regional and more rural institutions exposed. There's also the transience issue. It's just not the case anymore that professionals are likely to stay in one place for their entire career, especially with our generation. There's an example from Minneapolis in the article about this--a donor that the Walker Art Center was cultivating who moved to New York. This isn't just happening at the highest income levels: it's generational. In the last five years, I’ve moved from Berkeley to Miami to SF to NY... and I wouldn't be surprised if I move again.

NS: Transience seems like a really interesting issue here. What are some of the ways that you saw organizations addressing this mobility of donors and prospects?

DG: When new money comes to town, institutions need to be pretty quick on their feet. The ICA in Boston probably did a pretty good job of that. They saw a confluence of an emerging biotech community with the fact that the institution was going to expand rapidly and they were able to tap into and engage those academic/biotech leaders as donors.

NS: I'm curious to hear more about your experience working with these young bankers on Wall Street. One of the things you covered a bit in the article is some of the reports out there about how younger donors want to be engaged differently--seeking more accountability, wanting their money to go to active projects as opposed to endowments or long-term operating. Is that something you see when you look at the young bankers you cover on a daily basis?

DG:I didn't do exhaustive reporting on this directly, but yes, I think so. I think of one friend of mine who is involved in several museums in New York City, a very successful young banker who very deliberately chooses smaller museums where he can see his money at work. He funds smaller exhibitions, maybe is able to build a relationship with a curator, feel like his voice is heard. He very intentionally choses that versus being one of 600 in the Met’s Young Patrons group. He likes that intimacy. That’s a kind of accountability in itself.

NS: I guess a bigger question about these bankers is the extent to which they are involved philanthropically, irrespective of focus. It's one of the big questions where I am, near Silicon Valley. There's a lot of stress about whether a culture of philanthropy exists with young wealth, or whether people would rather be spending the money on themselves or deploying it differently, like through impact investing.

DG: There is a culture of young philanthropy in NYC, perhaps in contrast with Silicon Valley. In New York, it’s deeply woven into the fabric of the social scene. The social calendar is dictated by galas. There is party season at the end of the year. And then there’s spring party season. That’s a real part of the social currency of the town – and to attend, you have to buy tickets, buy a table, get invited.

When it comes to the donor experience, other communities could probably learn a thing or two from New York. Take San Francisco: there actually is a stable population of people who built their careers in Silicon Valley. A lot of institutions could find whatever that community is and find ways to create those long-term ties. New York is not the only city with a social calendar.

NS: Sure. But another way to look at it is that these galas and this social calendar perpetuate a kind of cultural elitism that exacerbates class disparity. I think what I struggle with most is the sense I get, throughout the article, that this kind of old-guard cultural elitism is being perpetuated for younger generations.

DG: I don’t think museum parties are perpetuating class disparity.

NS: Really? The other lead article in the Museums section was about protests at the Guggenheim, branding that museum as the "1% museum." What do you think the Guggenheim 1% thing is about?

DG: I could see how some people would view events like those at the Guggenheim and other big institutions as a manifestation of class disparity. And of course it is a reflection of certain haves and have nots in society. But I don’t think the museums and the museums' social programs are what are perpetuating class disparity. It might be a reflection of that disparity, but I don’t think they are responsible. 

NS: I guess as someone who runs a small museum that isn't in New York, I struggle with this kind of coverage that seems to perpetuate the dominance of a story about what museums are that is not reflective of the broader population--of people or museums. I worry that this kind of article problematizes our conversations in smaller communities by focusing attention on examples that aren't really relevant to our experience. 

DG: I'm sorry you feel that way. That's not representative of most of the feedback I've been getting. 

I don’t think the lesson is that you have to have a huge fancy party in the atrium to cultivate new donors. That’s not the point. The point of the article is that there’s a generational shift happening here, the next generation has different philanthropic priorities, and museums are finding a variety of ways to try to build bridges.

NS: That makes sense. I appreciate what you are trying to do. And so let's end on a positive note: in the best case, what do you hope the article will do?

DG: I hope it will serve as a prompt for institutions of all sizes across the country take seriously the need to engage with a new generation of donors and visitors. Though that wasn’t the thrust of the article, it’s really part and parcel of the same thing.

But Bob Fisher alluded to it in the article with his quote about a sleepy museum of antiquities. If you are a sleepy institution, it’s going to be hard to get this generation, our generation, involved at a programmatic and a philanthropic level. I have a hard time saying that, because I love little antiquities in vitrines. But I would have a hard time making that a philanthropic priority.

That’s the tension: how can museums, which are still temples of culture, do a bunch of things at once? They need to do what they have evolved to do—maintain an ever-expanding collection, much of which isn’t on display and needs to be storied, insured, conserved, plus doing their own curating to be programmatically relevant, displaying outside exhibits, and then of course trying to do public programming that gets through the door people who might not want to stare at beautiful little objects like I do. Add to that engaging this new generation – both through programming and as donors. Museums have a lot of work to do.

My hope is that this article demonstrates some of the ways that some big institutions have done it somewhat successfully and also serve as a clarion call to the rest to take it seriously.

How do you grapple with engaging the next generation of major donors at your institution? Are you finding ways to do so that are changing as your museum and your community changes?
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