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.
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.
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: 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.
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.