A Little Bit of Both: How This Gift Represents "Old" and "New" World Mega-Giving

UC Irvine

UC Irvine

A recent New York Times article argues that the "Old World" model of mega-giving, whereby a collector hands over his or her collection to an established museum for safekeeping, is becoming increasingly rare.

Those in the field attribute this phenomenon to the changing psychographic profile of collectors. Hedge fund titans and tech billionaires don't mind keeping their work in storage or hanging valuable paintings in a living room. Others may choose to start their own museums from scratch.

News out of Southern California, however, points to a gift that shares characteristics of both "Old" and "New World" arts philanthropy.

Joan Irvine Smith, an arts patron and the great-granddaughter of James Irvine who established the James Irvine Foundation, announced in late October that she will donate her entire California Impressionist painting collection, valued at $17 million, to the UC Irvine campus.

According to the school, the family plans to christen a personal landmark with an anticipated new museum at the UC Irvine campus, and the permanent home will house the collection. UC Irvine will not demolish the campus's Aldrich Park to build a new museum, but it will seek funds to build one near the center of the campus.

Needless to say, by handing over her collection to a trusted institution, Smith's gift certainly exhibits "Old World" tendencies. And much like another recent Southern California arts gift, where Eugene (Gene) Rogolsky, a Beverly Hills AIDS research clinic doctor, pledged his collection of more than 700 works to the USC Fisher Museum of Art, Smith wants her entire collection to stay together in one location. Again, very "Old World."

What's more, her family's philanthropic lineage feels "Old World," at least by America's relatively youthful standards. The James Irvine Foundation, a recurring object of analysis here at IP, set up shop in 1937. Since then it has awarded over $1 billion in grants to more than 3,000 nonprofits that elevate arts engagement, education, and public policy decision-making.

Lastly, like a classic "Old World" collector, Smith and her family's foundation want to maximize the public's accessibility to the work. The Irvine Museum collection has traveled across the U.S. and around the world 18 times to international institutions.

And yet, at the end of the day, the family and the school are building a new museum from scratch—an arguably "New World" decision. That being said, Smith and Irvine's vision is a different beast than, say, hedge fund billionaire J. Tomilson Hill or industrialist Peter Brant opening their own private museums. For example, you'll need an appointment to view the latter's collection on his sprawling private estate in the hills of rural Connecticut. On the other hand, Smith's work will continue to be exhibited at the Irvine Museum, which is free and open to the public, until the new museum is built.

Smith's donation also comes at time when her great-grandfather's foundation finds itself at the crossroads. In yet another example of a major funder pivoting towards combatting inequality, earlier this year James Irvine Foundation President and CEO Don Howard proclaimed that "as we move forward, we will focus on expanding economic and political opportunity for families and young adults who are working but struggling with poverty." 

As a result, fewer organizations will receive arts-related grants from Irvine than in years past, according to Josephine Ramirez, Irvine's Portfolio Director.

So even though Smith's gift is unrelated to the Irvine Foundation's pivot, it can nonetheless double as a kind of grantmaking-by-proxy to the Southern California region. Howard Gillman, the school's chancellor, envisions UC Irvine becoming the center for California art with the Irvine family's world-class pieces as its foundation.

"It's so tremendously exciting," he said. "We know how historic and foundational the collection is for our broader aspirations."