A Low-Risk Proposition: More Funders Get Behind University Art Centers

entrance to cal state, Northridge. photo:  Ken Wolter/shutterstock

entrance to cal state, Northridge. photo:  Ken Wolter/shutterstock

The Denver Art Museum (DAM) recently announced it will move forward with the $150 million renovation of its North Building later this year, whether or not a critical city bond package passes in November.

The sound you hear is the collective gulp of nervous donors, administrators, and fundraisers in and around the Mile High City.

IP coverage has presented the museum as a successful outlier in a big-ticket fundraising climate replete with abandoned wings and alienated donors. Failing to secure public funding will certainly throw a wrench in the works. If the bond package doesn't pass, planners will likely push back the completion date and fundraisers will need to develop a strong affinity for Red Bull.

Sounds stressful, doesn't it?

Contrast developments in Denver with news out of Arkansas, where Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation made a historic $120 million gift to the University of Arkansas (UA) to create the first and only art school in the state. Or consider news from Southern California, where the Cal State University system received gifts for two on-camp arts centers—gifts that, as I'll soon argue, fall on the more placid end of the donor risk spectrum.

First up, Cal State University, Northridge announced a $17 million gift from Younes and Soraya Sarah Nazarian, awarded through the couple's Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, in support of its Valley Performing Arts Center. In recognition of the gift, it will be renamed the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center ("The Soraya") for the Performing Arts.

Meanwhile, roughly 67 miles southeast, Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center netted a $100,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Spread over two years, the grant will support the center’s artist-in-residence program. A previous Warhol grant of $100,000 from 2014 to 2016 allowed the center to recruit artists and leverage matching support from donors.

Indeed, each gift subscribes to the idea that the on-campus arts center can be a powerful nexus point to engage the larger community. It's an idea that appeals to donors reluctant to dole out millions for, say, a museum wing that may or may not get built. 

The appeal is pretty obvious. Rather than create demand that isn't there yet or revitalize an entire neighborhood—a truly noble, albeit far more financially fraught proposition—the Nazarians and the Warhol Foundation are investing in preexisting ecosystems blessed with a built-in audience of college students and residents.

Indeed, the Nazarian's gift is going to an organization that has increased revenue and attendance by more than 50 percent in the past three years. The future Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts currently generates more than $2 million in annual ticket sales, with average attendance at 70 percent.

The Nazarians moved to the United States with their four children in 1979, fleeing the demonstrations and violence that preceded the Iranian Revolution. Younes eventually established one of the largest importer/exporters of construction machinery and equipment in the Southern California. He also became an early investor in San Diego-based Qualcomm, Inc., whose co-founder, Dr. Andrew Viterbi, is also a big arts patron in the region.

Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation's Los Angeles giving is focused on supporting educational causes, as well as policy and the arts. The Nazarians are also strong backers of Jewish causes, which informs the work the family does both in L.A. and beyond. 

And in 2014, the Nazarians' son, David, a Los Angeles-based businessman, philanthropist, and Northridge alumnus, made a $10 million gift that was recognized by the renaming of the university’s business school. 

"The Nazarians' generosity is unlike any CSUN has ever experienced," CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison said in a statement. "Younes and Soraya have ensured that we can continue to deliver the finest music, dance, and theater events, engaging communities throughout Los Angeles and Southern California."

Steingraber said the gift will provide long-term stability to performing arts programming by creating an endowment that will help pay for international touring orchestras that cost more than other billings.

Which brings me back to news out of Denver, where long-term stability is in short supply.

As noted, the DAM remains committed to the building's renovation regardless of if the bond package passes later this year. But what if it doesn't pass?

"You always have to prepare and be realistic,” museum director Christoph Heinrich said. "We just had a meeting today looking at what could be deferred, and if this is something we could do over 10 years instead of two years. The scope would switch dramatically, and we would have to continue fundraising like crazy."

Sounds stressful, doesn't it?