Payoff: An Ambitious Renovation Project Nets an Historic Lead Gift

Denver art museum

Denver art museum

Recently, I looked at how a Chicago family bailed out a university after a $123 million building left the school very much in the red. The lesson? High-stakes capital expenses can have high-stakes consequences.

But organizations take the plunge on audacious capital campaigns because they believe gamble will pay off. And given recent news we've covered, who can you blame them? The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is methodically approaching its $600 million fundraising goal. Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery's recent $42.5 million donation from financier Jeffrey Gundlach instantly transformed its capital campaign into "probably the fastest" in U.S. history. 

And while it's a long way from the finish line, the Denver Art Museum's ambitious $150 million plan to renovate its iconic North Building recently got a big lift in the form of a $25 million gift from Board chairman and philanthropist J. Landis “Lanny” Martin and his wife, Sharon. The gift marks the largest single financial donation in the museum’s history.

Martin founded Platte River Equity in 2006 after serving as CEO of publicly-held industrial, chemical and metals companies for nearly 20 years. He moved to Denver in 1981. In 2013 the couple gave an unrestricted $10 million to his alma mater, Northwestern University, where he's a trustee. That year the couple also committed $15 million to support the school's campaign for athletics and recreation.

But Landis' real love is the arts. In a 2013 Denver Business Journal profile, we learn that Landis—dubbed "Denver's Man of the Arts"—funded the restoration of a giant soup can at Colorado State University that bears the signature of Andy Warhol, donated $1 million to renovate and restore a museum in his hometown of Grand Island, Neb., and gave $6 million to Denver's Clyfford Still Museum in 2011.

He and his wife also gave $5 million to the Denver Art Museum in 2006.

Officials hope to complete the renovation in time for the structure's 50th anniversary in 2021, at which point it will be renamed the J. Landis and Sharon Martin Building. The project will also offer expanded educational resources for youth and school groups, additional gallery space for the Design and Western American art collections and improved visitor circulation, according to officials.

It's all exciting stuff, but a gamble is still a gamble. The project is in the initial design phase and while the museum hopes to break ground by the end of 2017, museum Director Christoph Heinrich declined to say how much of the $150 million has been raised or exactly where fundraisers are looking for the rest of it. 

Lucky for him the museum's based in Denver. As previously noted, the city boasts of one of the country's most vibrant economies and philanthropic art scenes, along with many more wealthy people than once was the case. That's another angle of museum fundraising we've been following: how the rise of new regional wealth is now fueling the rise of art museums in places that were once off the beaten trail in terms of where big donors hang out. Now, with the mega rich seemingly everywhere, some regional institutions see ambitious fundraising campaigns as a way to solidify an ethos of new high-level arts giving in places where it didn't previously exist. 

The cake is definitely rising in Denver. This is where developer John Madden's recent donation of 120 pieces, valued at roughly $10 million, doubled the value of the University of Denver's existing art holdings overnight and where the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation narrowed its mission to focus almost exclusively on the arts. And did we mention, dear artist-readers, that it's a lot cheaper than New York or Los Angeles?

We've devoted a lot of space at IP to the unforeseen risks that can sink an ambitious capital project. Yet at the end of the day, some gambles are riskier than others. The Denver Art Museum operates in a region flush with cash and has the city's "Man of the Arts" at the helm. Most museums would happily take those odds.