How Did This Huge Gift Break Three of Art Philanthropy's Most Basic Rules?

To quote the an old adage, "There's an exception to every rule," and the world of arts philanthropy, is, well, no exception.

Take recent news out of Buffalo, where Albright-Knox Art Gallery just received a $42.5 million donation from Los Angeles financier Jeffrey Gundlach. The gift fast-tracks the museum's ambitious fundraising effort, dubbed "probably the fastest capital campaign in U.S. history," according to Janne Sirén, the gallery’s director.

Not coincidentally, Gundlach's gift also breaks at least three of art philanthropy's most basic rules:

1. Donors usually telegraph their intentions. Most big-time museum donors come with a track record. David Geffen. Ken Griffin. Steve Cohen. Henry KravisAlice Walton. What's more, their gifts, besides being large or numerous, generally fit some sort of thematic pattern. Griffin, for example, likes funding art initiatives that have strong educational components. Kravis has given heavily to New York-based arts museums for years. Buffalo-bred Gundlach's gift, on the other hand, came completely out of the blue. According to the Times, Gundlach had not been a major contributor to the gallery in the past or a particularly big supporter of any other museum.

2. Gifts of this nature aren't supposed to be this large. So Gundlach, chief executive and founder of DoubleLine Capital, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1.7 billion, wasn't a huge arts proponent. No biggie. Every now and then, we still see a donor like Gundlach appear out of nowhere, unexpectedly opening the checkbook for a worthwhile hometown cause. But close to $43 million? That's outrageous! And it's also unprecedented—Sirén said it is the city's largest cultural gift from an individual. 

3. Fundraising is supposed to be hard. Like, excruciatingly hard. Talk to any fundraiser and they'll tell you that running a huge capital campaign is akin to descending into a nightmarish purgatory state. Hitting up donors is time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes tacky. Momentum wanes. The general public loses interest. Costs skyrocket. The situation in Buffalo, however, is different. Thanks to Gundlach's gift as well as support from Amy Cappellazzo, a Sotheby’s chairwoman, the museum has raised $103 million for its $125 million expansion in in less than 12 weeks. (That's roughly $51,091.27 per hour for those keeping track at home.)

Now, Gundlach's gift maps to conventional wisdom ins some ways. Take the idea of the ever-powerful lead gift. Someone had to step up and get the ball rolling. Gundlach reasoned, "I wanted this project to succeed, so I thought, I know how we can do it, but it will take somebody to show up and to really motivate giving."

What's more, Gundlach figured—and rightfully so—such a large gift would have maximal impact given its recipient's relative size. "I tend to do things, not with teaspoons, but to try to make a difference," he said. "Let’s say I gave $42.5 million to the Met—you wouldn’t be able to find it with a microscope."

Bonus rule:Time heals all wounds. We admit, this rule doesn't apply to philanthropy as much as it does to professional sports. But bear with us anyway. The Buffalo Bills infamously lost four Super Bowls in a row during the early 1990s.The most excruciating loss was probably Super Bowl XXV in 1991, when Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal attempt at the end of the game. Sportscaster Al Michaels' "wide right!" call has since become synonymous with the game itself and the Bills' tragic futility.

When expounding on the motivations behind his gift, a clearly still-scarred Gundlach said he wanted things to be "basically wrapped up by Labor Day, because these things lose momentum. I didn’t want another wide right field goal from Buffalo."