Meet the Latest Donor Giving Big to a Museum's Audacious Capital Campaign

Approximately seven months after I looked at a $75 million windfall to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a post titled "Fundraising on a Tightrope," the museum, once again, is basking in the afterglow of another large gift.

LACMA trustee Eric Smidt and his wife, Susan, pledged $25 million in support of the museum’s continued growth, service to the community, and plan for a Peter Zumthor-designed permanent collection building, putting its campaign halfway toward a not-too-modest goal of $600 million.

The new building — arguably the kind of bold capital expense that could sink a museum — will replace four of the LACMA's seven current buildings. And so far, the museum's big bet is paying off. The LACMA project remains on track with its proposed schedule to begin construction in mid-to-late 2018. The new building is slated to open in 2023. 

At the same time, LACMA has more than doubled its audience over the past decade, welcoming over 1.4 million visitors in 2015. Two new Renzo Piano-designed buildings, BCAM and the Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, have provided large, state-of-the-art exhibition galleries. 

Needless to say, the museum's tight-knit network of donors like what they see. That $75 million donation came from Elaine Wynn and A. Jerrold Perenchio. The former, who pledged $50 million, is one of the world's top art collectors and museum co-chair. The latter is the former chairman of Univision. He promised $25 million. At the time, it represented the largest monetary donation in the museum's history. 

In addition, back in 2014, Perenchio announced that he would be donating most of his massive art collection — at least 47 pieces valued at $500 million — to the LACMA upon his death. His only caveat: The LACMA must first complete construction of the $600 million building. How's that for motivation?

Smidt, meanwhile, is the chairman and CEO of Harbor Freight Tools, which operates over 700 retail hardware stores in 47 states and generated revenue of approximately $2 billion according to an April, 2012 Moody's Investors Service report. A Los Angeles native, he and Susan, who received her BA in communications from Texas State University, San Marcos, have supported a wide range of community-serving organizations — including healthcare, education, law enforcement, and veterans — mostly through anonymous donations.

They recently established Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a philanthropic initiative that supports the revival of career technical education in the skilled trades in American public high schools. Smidt has also been a longtime supporter of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, University of Southern California and UCLA. 

But for all of my analysis and conjecture, the motivating factor behind Smidt's gift is actually a simple one. 

"I was born here in Los Angeles, and wasn't exposed to art as a child," he said. “When I joined the LACMA board, I realized what I missed in my youth and the wonderful things that can happen when a public museum opens its doors to the community."