Surprising? Not Really. A Look at That Big Gift to MoMA

The MoMa

Every now and then, we come across a gift in the arts philanthropy space that can be sincerely considered a surprise. 

Los Angeles financier Jeffrey Gundlach's $42.5 million gift to Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery? Total surprise. Gundlach had not been a contributor to the gallery or a supporter of any other museum. 

Steve and Alexandra Cohen's recent $50 million gift to the Museum of Modern Art? Not a surprise. Steve is an avid lover of contemporary art and is worth many billions of dollars. He and Alex have been ramping up their philanthropy across all fronts, including their giving for art. Cohen has said that a "perfect day" is going down to Chelsea to browse art galleries. Imagine how much he enjoys wandering around MoMA. I'd wager—and it's an admittedly low-risk wager—that this gift is a mere harbinger of more big arts giving to come from the former—and likely future—hedge fund titan and his wife.

The Cohens' philanthropic work and the ups and downs of Steve's career are probably familiar to most readers, but a quick recap is nonetheless required. 

Cohen began collecting art in 2000. Fifteen years later, his art collection was valued at $1 billion. The Steve and Alexandra Cohen Foundation was established in 2001, and focuses on education, children's health, the arts and veterans affairs. The Cohens have also given big for research on Lyme disease. Cohen joined the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., where his foundation gave a $1.2 million gift in 2012.

In 2013, Steve's hedge fund, SAC Capital, pleaded guilty to insider trading and agreed to pay a $1.8 billion fine. Not long afterwards, we asked, "What do you do if you're a disgraced billionaire with more money than all but three of the largest foundations in the United States?" One answer: Step up your philanthropy. 

(Again, though, let's be clear: The Cohens were dedicated philanthropists long before U.S. investigators showed up at SAC and almost certainly would have ramped things up nonetheless as their wealth increased.)

In the arts world, the Cohens gave $110,000 to the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 2014. In 2015, the foundation gave $2 million to the Whitney Museum of American Art. And last year, Cohen, who had given big to the MoMA in the past, joined the museum's board of trustees.

Cohen made noise in the arts philanthropy space, albeit indirectly, earlier this month, when the Ford Foundation announced the creation of the Art for Justice fund to support criminal justice reform. Seed money to the tune of $100 million came from the proceeds of collector Agnes Gund's sale of a Lichtenstein to Cohen. 

Taken in isolation, these arts-related news items weren't jaw-dropping, but collectively speaking, they suggested a building momentum. The Cohens had made some eight-figure gifts to New York-area hospitals. A mega-gift for the arts seemed inevitable.

And so the inevitable became actual. The $50 million gift, made through the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, will support MoMA’s expansion project, which will add 50,000 square feet of gallery space when completed in 2019. The MoMA will create the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Center for Special Exhibitions, its largest contiguous gallery where major shows are staged, on the sixth floor of the current building.

"This gift will have an extraordinary impact on our ability to present exhibitions at a scale that is virtually unprecedented," Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, said in the statement.

You know what's also virtually unprecedented? The fundraising success of MoMA's ambitious $400 million expansion project.

Huge capital projects can generate costly downstream financial risks and widen the inequality gap across the museum world, but Cohen and his billionaire brethren don't seem to mind. Last year, David Geffen gave $100 million to the cause. And in 2015, Kenneth Griffin gave the MoMA an unrestricted $40 million gift.

Things seem to be proceeding swimmingly. In June, the museum revealed its final design for the project. Sometimes it pays to go very big.

Which brings me back to my contention that the Cohens' gift is merely a precursor of bigger things on the horizon. Commenting on last year's $275 million pledge to support military veterans by opening up free mental health clinics around the country, Inside Philanthropy's Ade Adeniji noted that "it's a reminder of just how much money this couple has to work with... we're talking about a couple with three times the assets of the Rockefeller Foundation." 

Looking ahead a few years, our guess is that the Cohen pile will grow larger still. Banned from managing outside money until 2018, Steve Cohen, at the ripe age of 61, is reportedly seeking to raise $20 billion for a new hedge fund set to open in early 2018. According to the Wall Street Journal, it would represent the biggest U.S. hedge fund launch in history.

Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who pursued Steve Cohen for years, is probably not thrilled with all this. But if you're among a growing list of nonprofit institutions that has caught the Cohens' eye, Steve's return to the hedge fund business is very good news indeed.