"Trickle Down Philanthropy" and the Worcester Art Museum: A Case Study

Sifting through Donald Trump's tax plan brings to mind the late, great Yogi Berra—it's "Déjà vu all over again." Trump's tax plan, like those of his Republican counterparts, is predicated on "trickle down economics," the idea that by cutting taxes on the top, those at the bottom will see a benefit.

Lucky for you, that's all we'll say about that. But it came to mind when coming across news out of Worcester, Massachusetts. The American economy, needless to say, is still in flux. Regions that have been reliant on manufacturing wealth are scrambling for new ways to create a sustainable local economy. And the effects of these complex dynamics inevitably trickle down to nonprofit arts organizations and their bank accounts.

In this way, the following case study of the Worcester Art Museum can act as a bellwether for other arts organizations looking to adapt to ever-changing economic environments.

Let's start with the basics. The internationally acclaimed museum, founded in 1896, contains over 50 centuries of art and has the distinction of being the first museum in the U.S. to acquire paintings by Monet and Gauguin. In this sense, it's like a big city museum tucked away in a small town with a population of just over 180,000.

There's just one problem. Unlike big cities that have larger economic bases, small towns like Worcester are overreliant on individual industries. It's the classic "factory town" scenario. And in the case of Worcester, the industry is manufacturing. Or, to be accurate, was manufacturing. In the last decade or so, the area's manufacturing base has dried up, and with it, manufacturing wealth, and with that, the museum's donor base.

Fortunately, the museum received a lifeline in the form of $4 million from the Myles and C. Jean McDonough Foundation. The gift will support the endowing of the museum's directorship, which will now be named in the McDonoughs' honor, thereby creating some breathing room to allow the museum to address basic overhead costs like electricity and heat. Facing the area's post-industrial economic climate, museum Director Matthias Wascheck noted, "It's a completely different ball game. We need to think about how we make the museum sustainable."

The gift is part of a larger $15.25 million give from the Worcester-based foundation, who generally support museums and organizations devoted to historical preservation, higher education, and human services. Other recipients from this grant cycle include the American Antiquarian Society, Tower Hill Botanical Garden, and Music Worcester. Gifts ranged from $500,000 to $4 million.

Now, cynical readers may sit back and say, "Well, that was easy! Just have a foundation cut a multi-million-dollar check. Why didn't we think of that?" But a closer examination reveals that this gift, not surprisingly, didn't appear out of nowhere.

First off, 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. 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. In other words, the museum is simply pivoting to its strengths.

These strengths dovetail nicely with its compelling program offerings, including the reinstallation of the museum's Old Master collection, which, according to the museum, has rekindled visitor engagement. Recent exhibitions like Knights! and Samurai! have also provided compelling, family-friendly fare.