When Programming Pays: Proof that Foundations Still Care About Innovative Exhibitions

If you're like me, you read this recent title in the New York Times—"Museum of the City of New York Receives Record Gift"—and braced for an extremely large dollar amount. Given the size of gifts flowing to Big Apple institutions as of late, can you blame me?

But it wasn't meant to be. Don't get me wrong, the record-breaking $10 million gift from the Thompson Family Foundation is certainly historic, but it proves that "historic" is a relative term—especially in a place like New York City. 

What's more, I'd argue that such verbiage buries the lead. The real story, here, is that in a cultural philanthropy world consumed by what one blogger eloquently dubbed "cash-induced cognitive dissonance," some foundations still care about good, old-fashioned programming.

Let me set it up for you.

Last November, after five years of preparation, the museum launched "New York at Its Core," an ambitious, 8,000-square-foot exhibition designed to explore 400 years of New York City history. The show is organized around the themes of money, density, diversity and creativity, and features information on figures like J.P. Morgan, Fiorello H. La Guardia, and Jane Jacobs.

It's the kind of classic, hometown museum programming that continues to proliferate across the country, news which often gets drowned out by headline-grabbing mega-wings, headline-grabbing delayed mega-wings, and headline-grabbing billionaire collectors who aren't "into" mega-wings.

As a result—and to be fair, I'm speaking from an anecdotal perspective here—I usually don't come across many game-changing, programming-oriented gifts. The most recent analog that comes to mind is Kenneth C. Griffin Charitable Fund's $5.5 million donation to Chicago's Field Museum to create a new display on Antarctic dinosaurs. 

The Thompson Family Foundation, however, was clearly impressed. Its $10 million gift equals, conveniently enough, the amount of money the museum spent on "New York at Its Core." The money will support the museum’s endowment for educational activities related to the exhibition, which include class trips, music, dance and art workshops, and lesson plans that describe the city’s past, present and future.

As for the foundation, as previously noted, it exhibits what we can reasonably call "black box" tendencies. In May 2014, it reported over $545 million in assets and more than $24 million in total giving. Yet the foundation doesn’t have a website and doesn’t seem to accept unsolicited grant requests. (It reminds me of what they say about a pack of mountain lions: You can't see them... but they can see you.)

All in all, this is the kind of gift that should warm the hearts of smaller museums and perhaps make directors at "legacy" institutions embroiled in mega-project madness feel a bit existential. 

The Museum of the City of New York resisted the mega-project siren song and conjured up programming that tapped into civic pride. Did it come with its own set of risks? Of course. Were they the kind of risks that could wreak havoc on the balance sheet, alienate donors, and generate more than a few PR fires? Relatively speaking, not really.

And yet, a foundation enthusiastically responded for good measure.

“It’s a transformative gift,” said Museum Director, Whitney Donhauser. “It validates the work the staff has done for years to create strong educational programming around our exhibits.”