"A Big Gift Anywhere." Another Small Town Museum Nets a Big City Donation


A historic gift to the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is yet another example of how "small town" museums are increasingly netting the kind of gifts that would make their big city brethren envious.

In turn, these gifts raise a question for small cultural institutions everywhere about how to get in on the growing funding action.

The big boost for the Ackland Art Museum came from a Massachusetts couple, retired orthodontist and Harvard Professor Sheldon Peck, and his wife, Leena, who donated 140 works on paper—including 134 European master drawings—valued at $17 million. And for good measure, they also gave an $8 million endowment to support the development of the museum.

Peck, unsurprisingly, is a UNC alma mater. He received his undergraduate degree at the school and his doctorate from the UNC School of Dentistry in 1966. After teaching at Harvard, he returned to UNC's dental school as an adjunct professor of orthodontics, a position he still holds, although he has retired. 

Press releases announcing such gifts often include words like "transformational" and "game-changing." Sometimes, the term is used strictly for hyperbolic purposes. That is not the case for the Ackland Art Museum. The Peck's total gift comes to $25 million. The museum's operating budget is only $3 million. The museum serves roughly 40,000 visitors a year. 

The museum's director, Katie Ziglar, sounded floored. "To be honest, it would be a big gift anywhere, even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or another huge institution. I’ve been working in museums for 30 years, and it’s the largest gift that has been given to any museum I’ve worked for." 

So why are museums off the beaten path increasingly netting such huge gifts? Well, each gift, as always, is unique, and quite a few of the big donations going to regional arts institutions are to going to places based on campuses. In many cases, it's an alumnus with a deep connection to the school in question. Peck's gift didn't appear out of the blue. He has donated art to the Ackland since 1988, and has been a member of the museum’s national advisory board since 1987.

A second driver at play involves macroeconomic trends. As I noted in a previous post looking at the University of Arizona's staggering fundraising success:

It's well known that the past few decades have seen a huge pile-up of new wealth in the hands of America's top 1 percent. What's less appreciated is just how widely dispersed this wealth creation has been. To be sure, much of the new money can be found in places like New York and California, but there are now legions of wealthy people living in many places. As a result, we're seeing an upsurge in regional philanthropy in areas like the Southeast and Upper Midwest.

Lastly—and this proposed driver is admittedly infused with a good deal of conjecture—is the idea that for some donors, the bloom is off for giving to some of the very top art institutions like the MoMA or LACMA. In an age of so many billionaire donors, it's become harder for mere multi-millionaire donors to feel like their money makes a decisive difference at those places. And if they have art to donate, like the Pecks, the big institutions are even less desirable destinations for their largesse. Who wants their precious collection sitting in storage with tens of thousands of other pieces?

Then there's the way that many of these big institutions are embracing mega-capital expenses, which can be a turnoff to some donors, especially as more indicators point to the deleterious effect of risky projects. And the fact that many such projects, like the Met's $600 million expansion, have been delayed due to lack of funds certainly doesn't help matters, either. 

The Peck gift echoes a recent $5 million matching gift from Judy and Leonard Lauder to Maine's Portland Museum of Art's endowment fund. Upon announcing this gift, the museum press release declared, "While we recognize the importance of buildings, we also recognize the tremendous importance of economic stability for cultural institutions."

Add it all up, and some donors conclude that a collection gift or a check for an endowment will do more to move the needle than a new wing.