A Look at the Fundraising Model Behind This Small Town Museum's Big City Windfall

Conventional wisdom suggests that these are trying times for small-town arts organizations.

After all, the money's usually concentrated in the big cities. And where there's money, there's talent—a recent report from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland suggests that big city organizations tend to poach professional expertise, including dancers and directors, from smaller regions. Then there's the issue of evaporating gifts, compounded by an uneven economic recovery and ongoing turbulence in the stock market.

News out of Louisville, however, suggests a refreshing alternative to this narrative.

The Speed Art Museum—dubbed by the Art Newspaper as an "an under-the-radar institution" far from a major art capital—pulled off a $60 million renovation without a cent of public funding. In fact, it exceeded its initial goal by a cool $10 million. How did they do it?

Strangely enough, the answer lies approximately 970 miles to the east, in Massachusetts. Back in October, we looked at Worcester Art Museum's impressive fundraising prowess, noting:

The museum, faced with a shrinking donor base and changing economy, knew a fundamental strategic shift was in order. The temptation to emulate their big-city competitors had always been strong, but as a long-term financial strategy, it simply wasn't feasible. [Director Matthias] Wascheck noted that the museum's mission moving forward would be to resist the urge to imitate heavyweights like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

And so figuratively speaking, the Speed Art Museum took a page out of Worcester's handbook. As the oldest museum in Kentucky, Speed resisted the urge to "Keep up with the Joneses" in Chicago or New York and doubled down on celebrating 250 years of fine and decorative arts in the commonwealth. It's also tackling present-day issues. According to Art Newspaper, site-specific commissions include a work addressing a Confederate monument opposite the museum. 

Then there's the museum's fundraising strategy. It may not be the most elegant analogy, but the Speed Art Museum's approach is a three-legged stool composed of major donors, corporations, and crowd funding. Regarding the former, the museum pulled from Louisville's long history of homegrown philanthropy. Members of the Brown family, who own the Brown-Forman Corporation (which produces Jack Daniel’s whiskey), contributed $18 million to the project. Meanwhile, local physicians Elizabeth Pahk Cressman and Frederick Cressman gave $10 million for the art park and plaza.

On the corporate front, the museum leaned heavily on the state's bourbon industry, receiving support from Heaven Hill Distilleries as well as Louisville Gas and Electric Company.

Lastly, anonymous donors have challenged the community to match a $500,000 gift with the Speed 365 campaign. So far, $125,000, or an average of $50 per gift—we call it the "Bernie Sanders Effect"—has been raised online and through text-message donations.

On a related note, IP recently spoke with Worcester Art Museum's director of philanthropy, Nora Maroulis. Click here for an in-depth look into their successful fundraising strategy.