One of the most fun parts of my job here at IP is putting on my Freudian bifocals and pondering the psychological reasons that compel philanthropists to give. The overarching idea is that we can build profiles for certain kinds of funders and elegantly fill each bucket accordingly.
My colleague and IP founder David Callahan has done much of the legwork. In his forthcoming book, The Givers: Big Philanthropy and the New Power Elite Shaping Our Future, Callahan outlines these profiles, ranging from The Pledgers (folks like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) to The Grandmasters who "see the whole board of public life and how different issues connect" (think billionaire Herb Sandler), to "Save-the-Worlders," who, you know, want to save the world.
Today, I'd like to place Dallas Museum of Art benefactors Jennifer and John Eagle in the New Medicis category. John Eagle is a local car dealer and president of the DMA's board. Much like Alice Walton, whose family foundation has been working wonders in Arkansas, funders like the Eagles use their fortunes to scale up cultural infrastructures. This goal has become particularly important in an era of cuts to the arts (although as recent news out of North Texas suggests, that area isn't exactly hurting for cash).
The Eagles recently donated $3 million to the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) for renovation of its North Entrance. As a sign of gratitude, the DMA will rename the entrance "Eagle Family Plaza." In addition, the Hamon Charitable Foundation chipped in an additional gift of $1.3 million for the project, for a total contribution of $4.3 million.
I did some additional armchair psychological thinking and asked myself, "Sure, New Medicis, like the Eagles, exert inordinate power to shape the society we live in, especially in urban areas where arts institutions tend to be based. But clearly their interest isn't solely rooted in power. What else is at play?"
One answer is a variant on pure, unadulterated benevolence. That would come in the form of improving access to the arts. Think about it. Funders spend their whole lives amassing fortunes, only to give them away. They want to maximize the impact of their money, and the best—and arguably only—way to do it is to radically expand access to what they're providing.
In what is perhaps no coincidence, the DMA previously required visitors to pay for admission. This didn't work out. So in 2013, the DMA made admission free. Attendance skyrocketed, contributing to the need for further renovation and construction. Now, if you're Jennifer and John Eagle, the New Medicis of North Texas, would you be more inclined to see your money go to an organization with paid entry and flagging attendance, or free admission and surging attendance?
(That was a rhetorical question, by the way.)