Let's Get Inclusive: An Atypically Large Gift Yields Lessons for Libraries Everywhere

 Credit:  emin kuliyev/shutterstock

Credit:  emin kuliyev/shutterstock

Every now and then, we come across a gift that is both an outlier and a bellwether in its relevant corner of philanthropy. Such is the case with the $55 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to renovate the New York Public Library's (NYPL) Mid-Manhattan Central Circulating Branch.

On the one hand, public libraries receive relatively scant philanthropic support. By supporting a larger $200 million renovation effort, the recent gift to NYPL—an institution unique in its size, location and history of philanthropy—is an exception and not the rule.

On the other hand, the library's overarching goal of boosting inclusiveness, diversity and accessibility is universal and increasingly appealing to socially conscious funders everywhere. (And I mean everywhere. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is headquartered in Greece.)

The main takeaway for public libraries? Don't try all of this at home. Just some of it.

Let's start with the NYPL's larger renovation project. Back in 2012, it floated a $1 billion plan that called for moving the circulating library at the Mid-Manhattan branch into the main Fifth Avenue flagship. Four years earlier, the library had received a $100 million donation from Wall Street financier and library trustee Stephen A. Schwarzman.

But the plan ultimately drew fervent criticism from pundits, scholars and the general public, and was abandoned in 2014. In November of 2016, the library’s board approved a more pragmatic $200 million redesign. 

Give credit to the library's board for dialing back its ambitions. If we've learned anything from the visual arts space, it's that donors are increasingly spooked by risky capital projects. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation may have been less inclined to cut a check for $55 million if the total project was $1 billion instead of a manageable $200 million.

Work on the renovation began this summer, and the foundation's gift provides the funds for the library to finish the makeover.

Now, up until this point, 99 percent of public libraries won't be able to identify with much of the NYPL's saga. It's only when you drill down into the library's conceptual goals and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation's line of thinking that exportable lessons begin to materialize.

In a recent piece, I looked at a set of takeaways, courtesy of the Knight Foundation, aimed at public libraries seeking donor support. Knight's advice was refreshingly simple. Complement community-building activities. Embrace technology. Create an inclusive and civic-minded environment.

Anthony W. Marx, the library’s president, channeled these sentiments when announcing the library's revised plans last year. "At a time when America seems to be closing opportunities and feeling less inclusive, this library is making the largest investment in its history in a central branch library that provides opportunities for all to learn and is welcoming to all comers."

This emphasis on inclusion, according to the library's formal announcement of the Niarchos gift, will form "a seamless physical and digital 'midtown campus,'" despite remaining in separate buildings.

"The idea that there would be one hub, one campus, was very important to us," said Andreas Dracopoulos, foundation director and former library trustee. "We want people to say, 'I'm going to the library,' without anyone having to ask, 'The one on the right side of Fifth Avenue, or on the left?'"

The gift aligns with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation's mission of funding a variety of development challenges, which includes education and access to healthcare. With offices on Madison Avenue, it has provided extensive support for New York City-based causes, including public libraries.

The foundation awarded grants to the Queens Library Foundation from 2012 to 2014, while a separate 2014 grant funded the NYPL's Out-of-School Learning Time initiatives. 2017 brought more interborough love in the form of support for Brooklyn Public Library programs, including its New York City Public Artist in Residence initiative. 

Stavros Niarchos is also one of three funders that supports the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, which rewards public libraries for being the "unsung heroes of New York." 

The foundation's support for public libraries isn't just extensive, it's also a bit ironic: One of the few major institutional supporters of American public libraries is headquartered in Athens.

The renovated New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Central Circulating Branch will re-open in 2020 as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library. Until then, the library's guiding principle remains removing "perceived barriers to access" throughout the system. "It does feel like we’re in a moment of people saying, 'We have to have a place where we all can be together,'" said Marx, "And the library is that place."

It's this line of thinking, endorsed by funders like Stavros Niarchos and Knight, that libraries everywhere should take to heart.

In related news, check out our take on Marilyn and Jim Simons' $25 million gift to support, among other things, capital improvements at the NYPL's three East Harlem branches.