September 2000

How top British museums woo US donors

The Royal Academy, Tate, British Museum and National Gallery are all raising money successfully in the States, where 600,000 households report income exceeding $5m

Photo: Frank McKenna on Unsplash

Non-profit institutions have long depended on financial assistance of “friends” organisations, whose contribution can range from several hundred dollars a year to several million. While many Americans may associate these groups with museums in the US, which get little public money, it is also the case that many overseas organisations, ranging from Oxford and Cambridge Universities to museums such as the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the British Museum and the Royal Academy have also started to look westward.

London’s Royal Academy was the first to break ground in the US in 1983. Since then they have received close to $32 million in donations. The Tate has followed, formally opening an office in Manhattan last September. The fact that their parent bodies are 3,000 miles away seems no impediment to raising millions of dollars in record time.

Generally, American patrons are from that group of 600,000 US households with wealth ranging from $5 million to $100 million. In 1997, it was estimated that each family from this economic segment donated an average of $1.2 million to philanthropic causes, according to a survey conducted by the Deutsche Bank’s Bankers Trust Private Banking division.

The key feature shared by the four UK museums’ friends groups share is their appealing tax status: Americans can claim their donations as charitable deductions under the IRS tax code. Other benefits include invitations to receptions, magazines and newsletters and some organisations offer elaborate trips.

Unlike many organisations in the cutthroat world of New York fund-raising, the four British museums are relatively co-operative with each other. And, true to British character, all four keep exceedingly low public profiles.

Tate Gallery American Fund

The latest British friends on US shores are those of the Tate Gallery American Fund. The office only opened last September, but is making impressive strides. Presided over by Richard Hamilton, a nine-year veteran of the Tate’s fund raising division, the office to date has recruited 100 patrons at $1,500 fee annually.

The American group began 12 years ago when the British born Edwin Mounton, who oversees the giant AIG fund, gave anonymously a $6.5 million endowment to purchase American paintings and sculpture for the Tate. A major Constable collector, the ninety-one-year-old Mr Mounton has resided in the US for sixty years. His ninety-year-old wife collects contemporary art. Also in 1988, the American Patrons program was established to permit US citizens to receive tax deductions on both funds and art membership contributions.

More recently, in the $200 million campaign to build the Tate Modern, $125 million was obtained from Americans. Among those donating to that campaign were the San Francisco Haas family (the Levi-Strauss fortune), Donald and Doris Fisher (of the Gap) as well as Leonard Lauder (of the Estée Lauder cosmetic giant), plus , Richard Fisher, former chairman of Morgan Stanley, who donated $20 million.

“With those contributions in place, we felt we needed a permanent presence in New York to maintain those relationships as well as nurture new ones,” says Mr Hamilton. Prior to the opening of the office, both Mr Hamilton and Tate director Nick Serota would pay two visits to the US annually to cultivate donors.

Mr Hamilton’s original fund-raising target was a modest $1 million. But that goal is already met. By July, the Tate friends had banked $5 million and had another $5 million pledged. “A new goal is being established,” adds Mr Hamilton.

When asked what was the social milieu profile of the Tate’s friends, Mr Hamilton explained that while the Royal Academy is considered “very social” and the British Museum “more academic”, the Tate friends are primarily interested in modern and contemporary art. Generally, the friends range in age from thirty-five to eighty with the majority in their fifties, all collect and especially like art world events. Mr Hamilton also aims to target a younger audience. From the US, the Tate receives approximately thirty gifts of $10,000 annually, and twenty donors are paying off pledges of $250,000.

But this Tate group does not restrict its focus to wealthy New Yorkers. Since Mr Hamilton’s arrival only twelve months ago, he has travelled 60,000 miles to LA, San Francisco, Aspen, Chicago and Dallas.

In addition to private funding, the office solicits and receives funding from American foundations. To date, they have obtained funds totalling “the big seven figures” from the Starr Foundation, best known for its gifts in the medical arena, along with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation for an exhibition of Hudson River school paintings in 2002.

The total budget for the Tate’s American Fund is a surprisingly modest $250,000. One reason the costs are so slim is due to Donald Marron, Paine Webber CEO, MoMA board member and celebrated collector. The Fund is located in the PW headquarters and receives free offices from Mr Marron, who is a member of the Tate International Council, a development committee whose membership is 40% American.

The Tate offers invitations to Tate receptions and dinners, visits to private and corporate collections, as well as complimentary catalogues of selected Tate exhibitions and a subscription to the Tate magazine. The opportunity to sit on acquisitions committees is also available.

Like the Royal Academy’s American Associates group, the Tate Fund keeps a low profile. Curiously, they are not even listed in the Manhattan telephone book, and when this reporter phoned the Museum of Modern Art for information, their office of communications replied that they had never heard of such an organisation. “We are on an internal telephone system here,” explains Mr Hamilton.

Royal Academy Trust American Associates

Founded in 1983, this group set up New York City offices in November 1984. The parent body differs considerably from the other British organisations with friends in the US. “We are totally free of government subsidies while practically every other cultural organisation soliciting in the UK, excepting Glyndebourne, is not,” explains Katherine Ockengen, president and executive director. She received an OBE in 1997 for her distinguished service.

In some ways, the Royal Academy has the longest tradition of contact with the United States. A number of prestigious Americans have either been students or members of the Royal Academy. The painter Benjamin West served as the second RA president. Gilbert Stuart, who painted perhaps this nation’s most famous American portrait, that of George Washington, and James McNeil Whistler studied and exhibited at the London institution. With those American ties in hand, this group began its first campaign with the meagre goal of £6,000.

To date, the RA here has taken in $31,780,638, much of it for the first phase of the restoration and development programme at Burlington House.

The achievements are staggering: the creation of the Sackler Wing; the restoration of the main galleries; renovation of the school; a new library and print room as well as the establishment of an endowment fund. The New York office of the director and a staff of three and a half is run on a budget of $450,000 annually, a surprisingly low figure compared to the rest of the New York fund-raising world.

Today, with 2,500 on their mailing list and 90% of them personally known to Ms Ockengen, she targets Anglophiles and art lovers. She scours the Forbes 400 wealthiest list as well as Art News’ “World’s Top 200 Collectors”. Enrolment fees run from $150 for a Junior Member (under the age of forty) to $25,000 for the Benjamin West Society. The $1,500 level is the largest group, with 100 members. Privileges include the usual reception, exhibition and lecture invitations. Those who give $10,000 and $25,000 are permitted to use Burlington House for entertaining.

The prowess of the RA is manifest in its letterhead studded with famous names in both the philanthropic and art worlds, from J. Carter Brown (former director of the Washington, DC National Gallery of Art) to A. Alfred Taubman, and Mrs. Arthur M. Sackler.

Despite this group’s enticing trips and programmes and its effective fund-raising efforts, this organisation is relatively unknown in America. “My concern is that we are asking people to take funds away from American institutions and spread them across the Atlantic, so to some degree a low profile makes sense for us,” Ms Ockengen said from her Madison Avenue office.

The American Friends of the National Gallery, London

The American Friends of the National Gallery may be the most soft-sell, soft-spoken organisation of them all. It does not recruit members nor does it organise events. The group only brings in five to seven new donors annually, but their presence has been significant. The American Friends have been instrumental in the purchase of several important paintings, including Bartolome Bermejo’s “St Michael triumphant over the Devil” and Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Portrait of a lady with a squirrel and a starling”.

When asked about competition over fund-raising dollars, something which was hinted at by the other organisations, their written reply read, “The directors and staff have never addressed that question”. When asked how they distinguish themselves from the American Friends of the British Museum, the answer was “We are not familiar with the American Friends of the British Museum.”

Established in 1985 to support the National Gallery and provide a tax-exempt basis for American donations, the American Friends have raised in excess of $85 million and the market value of their invested funds total a hefty $131 million as of 31 December 1999. To date, they have granted more than $90 million to their parent body. The initial basis of their funds was a £50 million gift from the philanthropist J. Paul Getty.

As with the other institutes such a hefty funding effort is accomplished with relatively minor financial expenditure. It cost only $152,000 in 1999 to run the office administered by a New York City-based management company.

As to how they identify potential donors, “approaches are made only to Americans with strong links to the National Gallery itself or to the UK more generally—either being a UK resident or spending a significant amount of time there.” The eight-member board of the American Friends includes the New York philanthropist and collector Jayne Wrightsman, the London antique dealer, Christopher Gibbs, who is a close advisor of Sir John Paul Getty, Raymond Seitz, former US ambassador to Britain, the British-born, US-based academic Angelica Zander Rudenstine and the publishing millionaire, Lord Gavron.

American Friends of the British Museum

In ten years, the American Friends of the British Museum have raised just over $25 million. With a mailing list of 3,000 and some 200 serious donors, the top benefactors—best friends, as it were—are Raymond and Beverly Sackler, who have given over $1 million. Foundations which have given generously include the Annenberg foundation with a total bequest of $10 million. A total of $18.5 million has been raised in gifts and pledges for the Great Court campaign, according to Sue Devine, the executive director. The group offers lecture series and symposia, predominantly in New York. “We knew we could not compete with the Royal Academy’s social events, so we decided to focus on educational programming. We have access to 200 specialists from the British Museum and people in New York love this.”

Ms Devine says that many of their American donors are part of a small circle of philanthropists who contribute to other museums worldwide. “They have their own collections and are highly educated”, is how Ms Devine describes the friends. The membership for the British Museum overlaps with the American Friends of the Tate and the Royal Academy.

Like the Tate Friends, the BM group keep their costs down through renting arrangements with benefactors. Housed in a building owned by the Paley Foundation, the BM organisation’s rent is below market.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "How the Brits woo the US donors"