A Historic Down Payment: Unpacking a Record Alumni Arts Give

Upon reading news that the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture received a $20 million gift from renowned art dealer and influential contemporary art world figure Margo Leavin to rebuild and expand its aging graduate art studio facilities, we couldn't help but think of a lyric from the (underrated) Mamas and Papas tune "People Like Us": Oh what a dump / Now it's a palace.

This, of course, isn't to say the school's aging studios resemble a "dump." Not by any stretch of the imagination. However, check out the artist's rendering of the future site and you'll agree that the renamed UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios will most certainly resemble a palace.

And so our analogy is somewhat effective.

What's more, Leavin's gift is the largest single gift ever given by an alumni to the arts within the UC system. According to the school, it will ensure that its Department of Art, the "No. 2-ranked graduate fine arts program in the nation, can sustain its preeminence and enhance its ability to deliver the highest caliber education and training."

In an age of when causes like STEM education and medical research are more likely to motivate campus givers, we're always excited to see major donors stepping forward with arts funding, and we've written about a few recent big gifts along these lines lately—as if there's a growing agreement among wealthy liberal arts types that they urgently need to play defense against the technocratic barbarians pressing through the university gates. 

On the other hand, we can't help but fret that this particular donation is another example of an alumni Bilboa Effect-inspired gift at the higher education level.

After all, the earlier quote is rather telling. The gift suggests that one the best way—the best way?—to "deliver the highest caliber education and training" is a world-class physical structure.

Of course, we see this phenomenon across both the arts and non-arts spaces at the higher education level, but it nonetheless calls to mind some of the perils of building a said multi-million dollar structure—unforeseen downstream renovation costs, endless fundraising, etc.

Related: For Museums, the Road to Insolvency Can Be Paved With Huge Checks

But we're not here to rain on anyone's parade. Rather, we're simply accentuating the obvious: Ambitious capital projects continue to appeal to both alumni looking to give their alma mater a boost and donors keen on supporting the construction of a new wing in a mega-museum or concert hall.

Better yet, Leavin's gift provides shows that donors aren't afraid to "go big" and support the arts at the cash-strapped state university level. Actually, perhaps "cash-strapped" is an understatement in this instance.

Back in February, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley said that the university had a "substantial and growing" deficit that could threaten its long-term stability and that it needed to "reduce expenses and raise revenues to maintain its position as a premier public institution."

Scary stuff, particularly for proponents of the liberal arts and humanities. Those fields always seem to be the first ones ones on the chopping block. All of which makes Leavin's gift doubly encouraging.

When complete, the resulting 38,000-square-foot building will increase useable space by 40 percent. The new studios will also include public exhibition space and an artist-in-residence studio that will "further enrich the department’s engagement with the arts community locally and globally."

As for Leavin, she was instrumental in the city's transformation into a world-class global center for contemporary art. From 1970 to its closing in 2012, the Margo Leavin Gallery presented more than 500 exhibitions, 400 of which were solo shows for a roster of artists, including Ellsworth Kelly, whom we chose out of a dozen or more other listed artists simply because we've written about his foundation in the past.

"A gift like Margo’s goes a long way towards helping us ensure that the future of the arts is strong at UCLA," said David Roussève, interim dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

We'd also like to end this post by defending our opening Mamas and Papas reference. Yes, it was forced, but the band was based in L.A.—that's not insignificant—and opportunities to namedrop them don't come around too often.