Lewis Tse Pui Lung/shutterstock

Lewis Tse Pui Lung/shutterstock

The New Museum in New York recently announced the construction of a second building to be named in honor of trustee Toby Devan Lewis, who pledged $20 million in support of the project—the largest gift ever received by the museum.

The museum has raised $79 million thus far, including $3.1 million from the city and $1.8 million from the state, toward its goal of $89 million. Of this amount, $63 million will go toward construction costs of the new building. The museum hopes to raise an additional $26 million for endowment and cash reserves. Groundbreaking for the new building is scheduled for 2020; a projected opening date is set for 2022.

The campaign serves as an instructive case study into the timeless appeal of capital projects during a time in which donors and workers increasingly question the utility of these kinds of ambitious and costly undertakings.

The story begins a little over three years ago when the New Museum announced an $80 million capital campaign to mark its 40th anniversary and tenth year at its Bowery location. After nearly a decade on the Bowery, visitation had grown by 400 percent and the number of people served by its programs had grown 4,000 percent. The expansion project would enable the museum to double its exhibition galleries, expand educational initiatives, improve circulation, add more public amenities, and improve the visitor experience.

The announcement came after a “quiet phase” of fundraising in which the museum raised $43 million in lead gifts from several members of the museum’s board of trustees.

Capital Project Blues

The risks associated with ambitious capital projects are well-documented. Construction projects often go over-budget and blow past their intended completion date. Fundraisers and administrators fail to factor in downstream maintenance costs, leading to an endless fundraising vortex. As New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin noted, “If it’s hard to raise money for new buildings, it’s even harder raising money to sustain them.” And an emerging crop of younger, equity-focused donors have shown a noticeable lack of interest in funding gaudy new wings. The “social justice issue is huge” for this demographic, said M+D co-founder Sean McManus. “It’s one thing to experience traditional works of art, but what are institutions doing to drive social change?”

This confluence of factors has stymied the best-laid fundraising plans at major institutions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, faced with a $10 million deficit, delayed a $600 million capital project to redesign its modern and contemporary art galleries in 2017. (Late last year, the museum announced that it had reactivated its plans for the wing, albeit in a scaled-back form, thanks to its new admissions policy, which contributed to a 41 percent increase in revenues, and its decision to turn over The Met Breuer to the Frick Collection.)

More contentiously, in late 2017, the Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic’s half-billion-dollar plan for a gut renovation of David Geffen Hall went back to the drawing board. “There was a general sense that the project had just gotten too complicated,” said Lincoln Center president Debora L. Spar.

The decision prompted David Geffen, who gave the center $100 million back in 2015, to excoriate wealthy New Yorkers for what he called a “shameful” record of supporting the city’s high-brow institutions. But can you blame them, really? Given the city’s widening economic disparities, should we fault donors for passing on a project whose costs, according to board chairman Oscar S. Schafer, were “appreciably more than $500 million or $600 million,” and perhaps even as high as $800 million?

As philosopher Peter Singer, the unofficial spokesperson of effective altruism, once said: “Giving tens of millions of dollars to established institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I think there are better things you can do with that money.”

Workers “Are Not Oblivious”

Effective altruists aren’t the only ones questioning the utility of $800 million capital projects in an economic climate in which average Americans can’t seem to get ahead. Last June, about 100 Met workers and supporters, some of whom chanted “shiny new building, shabby old wages,” rallied outside the museum as donors and trustees met to discuss stalled contract negotiations.

Protesting staff wondered how the museum could afford a $450 million renovation and expansion project but couldn’t afford to cover the costs of its workers’ healthcare. “There’s a lot of uncertainty around that issue, and our members need these costs alleviated,” said Athena Holbrook, a collections specialist and member of the union’s bargaining committee. In mid-August, parties settled on a five-year contract that addressed issues like employee health benefits, salary raises, and opportunities for upward mobility.

Meanwhile, back in January, workers at—you guessed it—the New Museum formed New Museum Union-UAW Local 2110. On June 18th, more than 70 New Museum workers signed a letter addressed to Lisa Phillips, the museum’s director since 1999, alleging that the museum does not pay a significant number of its employees more than $51,000—which, according to the union, is what management has previously stated is a living wage in New York.

A few weeks later, museum workers staged a protest to bring attention to labor negotiations. A union member told The Art Newspaper that the museum told staff members that the merit-based raises that are often given to some employees after annual performance reviews were not likely to happen this year because of “economic challenges.” A museum spokesman responded by saying, “We value and respect our staff tremendously and will continue to work together, as we always have, to advance the museum’s mission.”

The New Museum’s workers, noted The Art Newspaper’s Victoria Stapley-Brown, “are not oblivious to the sums amassed in the capital campaign.”

Contextual Factors

Given the financial risks and dubious optics associated with an ambitious capital project, the New Museum’s campaign could have been a tough sell for donors. But it’s important to consider the larger historical and philanthropic context at play. Therefore, let’s once again travel back in time to 2016.

On the heels of the New Museums’ capital campaign announcement, the Times’ Randy Kennedy looked at the financial and competitive realities facing what he called “the scrappiest sibling in the bursting family of contemporary art museums in New York City.” At the time, the city’s arts organizations were on the hook for approximately $3.47 billion in capital projects. The Whitney Museum of American Art had just opened a sleek new building. And one of the New Museum’s contemporary art competitors, the MoMa, was raking in donations, including a $100 million gift from David Geffen in April of 2016.

Any impulse the New Museum’s stakeholders had for wanting to “keep up with the Joneses” was compounded by the fact that the museum was experiencing unprecedented growth. From its humble beginnings as a one-room office on Hudson Street, the museum has more than quadrupled its budget and revenue in the last 10 years. It has increased its staff from 135 to 30. Attendance had skyrocketed.

In 2016, Phillips told Kennedy the museum needed more space so exhibitions can be kept in place during turnaround periods, allowing the museum to remain open as one big show leaves and another is installed. “It’s hard for an audience—and we have a loyal local and international audience—that expects to come to us and can’t because we’re down for a while,” she said.

The New Museum initially envisioned renovating the building adjacent to its Bowery location. But, as the Times’ Robin Pogrebin writes, the museum and architects quickly realized that this option would cost more and compromise existing galleries. And so architects will construct a new building from scratch.

“We’ve become an international cultural destination over the last decade,” said Phillips. “After years of study, we concluded that the new construction would be the most cost effective and the most spatially effective to achieve functionality, connectedness and public accessibility.”

Critical Trustee Support

While capital projects are inherently risky undertakings, it would be a mistake to paint them all with a broad brush. Museums tend to launch such campaigns for the simple reason that they’ll likely succeed. The New Museum is only $10 million away from its goal. There are at least three key reasons for this.

The first is the idea of scale. The New Museum’s campaign goal of $89 million, while certainly ambitious, is peanuts compared to, say, the MoMA’s efforts. As of July of 2016, the MoMA had raised over $650 million. And while many organizations in the city are chasing what are theoretically finite dollars, there’s still plenty of money to go around. As Michael Hamill Remaley, then the senior vice president for public policy and communications at Philanthropy New York noted roughly a year before the New Museum’s campaign went public, the city’s “1 percent is not hurting.”

Remaley made this statement when the S&P 500 stood at 2,028. As of August 2, 2019, the S&P 500 was at 2,931, a 31 percent increase.

The second reason behind the New Museum’s success is the fact that its trustees stepped up mightily during the campaign’s “quiet phase.” Trustee donations have accounted for roughly 54 percent of the money raised so far, while city and state funding constituted 0.001 percent. This disproportionately robust trustee support isn’t always a foregone conclusion.

Earlier this year, SMU DataArts released its latest report on national fundraising trends in the arts and culture sector. It found that government funding supported an average of 6 percent of expenses for art museums—more than twice the amount of support provided by trustees. Trustee support also lagged behind individual support, which stood at 5 percent.

Or consider a more practical example underscoring the importance of trustee support: One of the reasons the Met initially tabled its capital project was its inability to secure a transformative lead gift.

Toby Devan Lewis, the trustee behind the $20 million gift to the New Museum, is a philanthropist, art collector, author, and curator. She was married to Peter B. Lewis, the former chairman of Progressive Insurance Company who passed away in 2013, from 1955 to 1981. A Giving Pledge signee, Peter B. Lewis was a supporter of left-leaning think tanks, advocacy organizations, and arts and education causes.

From 1985 to 2005, Toby was the curator of the Progressive Corporation’s extensive art collection. In 2006 she began the Toby Fund, a private foundation to foster creativity in the arts, education, health, environment and the development of progressive institutions. She serves on the boards of the Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Cleveland International Film Festival.

Lewis’ $20 million gift to the New Museum follows a previous $4 million commitment to the institution. In 1998, she was honored by the New Museum for her “significant contribution in bringing the visual arts and creative experience to the work environment.”

Ahead of the Curve

Back in February, the MoMA announced it would close its doors from June 15 to October 21 to rehang its collections. Commenting on the museum’s impending shift in curatorial strategy, Leon Black, the museum’s chairman, told the Times, “We don’t want to forget our roots in terms of having the greatest Modernist collection, but the museum didn’t emphasize female artists, didn’t emphasize what minority artists were doing, and it was limited on geography.” He added, “Where those were always the exceptions, now they really should be part of the reality of the multicultural society we all live in.”

Black’s statement speaks to the third reason behind the New Museum’s fundraising success—the fact that it’s been way ahead of the curve when it comes to highlighting historically underrepresented artists.

After the New Museum announced its capital campaign in 2016, the Times’ Kennedy wrote, “Especially since its move to the Bowery, the museum has focused on artists and works not widely seen in New York, such as contemporary art from the Middle East, from former Soviet republics and from self-taught artists. It has also emphasized art by women. (The six exhibitions now on view are all by female artists.)”

And in a philanthropic climate in which donors expect museums to provide something more than a transactional and passive arts experience, the New Museum connects over two million people a year through its online and off-site projects. Examples include IdeasCity, which fosters “visionary urban action” by connecting creative communities with policymakers; Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference, which pairs top artists with leading technologists to create new works; NEW INC, an incubator for creatives working at the intersection of art, technology, and design; and Museum as Hub, a program for exchange and collaboration between international arts institutions.

The New Museum also organizes various education and engagement initiatives, including experimental study program for high school students, summer apprenticeships for teens, professional development seminars for teachers, partnerships with community organizations, family arts activities, and the Bowery Artist Tribute and Digital Archive.

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