Millions to Ensure a Regional Museum Can Attract Top-Notch Leadership

It's a good time to be a museum situated between the two coasts.

We recently looked at news out of Denver, where Colorado developer and philanthropist John Madden donated 120 pieces, valued at roughly $10 million, to the University of Denver. A week or so before that, we reported on a "Most Important Arts Philanthropist's" next big move. The philanthropist in question is Alice Walton, and her move is an ambitious plan to transform an idled Kraft cheese plant in Bentonville, Arkansas into a space for contemporary art exhibitions, artists' projects, music, theater and film.

Which brings us to yet another example of how focused arts philanthropy can help change a city's cultural profile. In this case, the city is St. Louis and the philanthropists are Barbara Taylor, former president of the Art Museum board, and her husband Andy Taylor, executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings.

The couple recently gave the St. Louis Art Museum $21 million to endow the museum’s directorship, effective January 1, representing the museum's largest single cash gift ever. The money comes on the heels of $5 million from the Taylors for the museum’s new sculpture garden and more than $10 million the couple gave for the museum’s new wing.

When you add it all up, the Taylors' gifts represent a kind of holistic approach towards place-based arts philanthropy. 

The Bilbao Effect is a term named for the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in northern Spain in 1997, and describes situations in which an imaginatively designed museum or ambitious capital expenditure can make a city a top destination for tourists and art lovers. These types of projects are, by their very nature, splashy and glamorous—but they're just one component of a larger and interrelated framework whereby a museum, and by extension, its home city, can expand its cultural profile.

The Taylors seem to understand this.

As previously noted, their gifts totaling $15 million for the museum's sculpture garden and new wing, are smaller-scale examples of the Bilbao Effect in action. These are gifts designed to get people to walk through the museum's doors—repeatedly. And yet, their more recent and larger gift of $21 million was earmarked to endow the museum’s directorship—a very un-Bilbao-like goal.

The underlying message, here? The prettiest sculpture garden in the world can only get you so far; a world-class museum needs world-class talent.

The Taylors' gift will allow the museum to spend more on operations, while also head hunting in the future for top-notch (read: expensive) directors. "It means the museum can compete in the national and international markets for talent," said current Director Brent Benjamin. "It really makes it possible for the museum to have the person it wants to have in this position."

The endowment gift addresses a distinct market reality—it's becoming increasingly expensive for museums to hire and retain world-class directors. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, chief executive compensation at five major city institutions—Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis Zoo, Missouri History Museum, and the St. Louis Art Museum—rose from a combined total of $661,000 in 1990, to $1.3 million in 2000, to $2.5 million in 2010—a 280 percent increase over the two decades.

The St. Louis Art Museum's Benjamin, meanwhile, is poised to make $640,000 in total compensation this year. Contrast this salary with the Museum of Modern Art's Glenn Lowry (a controversial $2.1 million) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Thomas Campbell ($1.3 million).

Commenting on St. Louis Science Center CEO Bert Vescolani, Douglas Yaeger, chair of the Science Center, summed up the state of market forces succinctly: "If we want to keep him here, we’ll have to pay what the market is."

As one would imagine, these market forces comprise a national phenomenon. With the new Taylor grant in hand, the St. Louis Art Museum joins museums in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York who have endowed directorships. 

As for the Taylors, they've been incredibly active in the St. Louis region over the past few years. In 2015, the couple donated millions of dollars to the Missouri History Museum’s efforts to renovate the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum downtown. And last June, they gave $92.5 million to 13 cultural institutions and charities around Missouri.

In fact, when it comes to using philanthropy to transform St. Louis, it's a family affair for the Taylors. Andy's father, Jack, founded Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and gave $30 million to bolster the endowment of the city's Forest Park in June of 2015.

See more articles by Mike Scutari.