Charmed and Charitable: The Archetypal Regional Donors Behind a Big Arts Gift

 Ruslan Galiullin/shutterstock

Ruslan Galiullin/shutterstock

Developments in Milwaukee provide more good news for “highbrow” performing arts organizations operating in locales not named New York City or Los Angeles.

Prominent local philanthropists Donna and Donald Baumgartner donated $10 million to the Milwaukee Ballet to provide foundational support for the company’s new home. As a significant component of the Milwaukee Ballet’s $26 million capital campaign, the Baumgartner Center for Dance is scheduled to open in fall 2019. The campaign will also benefit the Ballet’s Artistic Fund, which will “enhance the ballet’s trajectory of recognized choreographic excellence and spur development of new works.”

Like most regional arts donors, the Baumgartners’ gift came after decades of support. “Donald’s first-ever contribution to the arts was in the 1970s—and it was a $3,000 gift to Milwaukee Ballet,” Donna said. “It gives us immense pleasure to make this milestone gift more than 40 years later.”

The Baumgartners serve as honorary co-chairs of the capital campaign, while Donna serves on the board and as special events committee co-chair. Donald is also a member of the advisory committee for the Harmony Initiative, a collaboration between the ballet, the UWM Peck School of the Arts, and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The initiative aims to cultivate the city’s arts and higher education institutions and better address funders’ and audiences’ needs.

These efforts seem to have paid dividends. The Milwaukee Ballet is $3 million away from its $26 million capital campaign goal, and this institution’s momentum can be seen on a number of fronts.

First, record-setting ticket revenue of over $2.5 million, including the world premiere of Beauty and the Beast. Given the sheer number of distractions vying for audiences’ free time, this is no small feat—the lack of significant box office returns is one of the biggest challenges facing performing arts organizations today. To understand the scope of this challenge across the highbrow performing arts space, look no further than the orchestra world, where a majority of orchestras now rely on philanthropy more than earned income.

Research and common sense also suggest that box office success is inextricably linked to engagement. But cracking the engagement code is often easier said than done. The Wallace Foundation has allocated $52 million to exploring this challenge, recently looking at Ballet Austin's efforts to expand audiences for unfamiliar works and the Seattle Symphony's use of market research to engage new residents in a rapidly growing city.

The Milwaukee Ballet has made extensive progress on the engagement front. It cited 25 percent growth in “community engagement,” reaching nearly 40,000 people through various outreach initiatives, including its Ballet Beat summer program.

This isn’t to say the ballet is resting on its laurels. The second component of the capital campaign is the “Give Back to Milwaukee Fund,” which will support an expansion of the ballet’s community engagement programs, including Tour de Force, a collaborative program between the ballet and the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

Another success factor here is the growth of Milwaukee Ballet’s Summer Intensive program. The previous iteration hosted 181 students from 22 states and four countries. (Fun fact: Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy is the only professional dance school in the Midwest accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance.)

Of course, when it comes to fundraising success, it takes two to tango (unfortunately, I couldn’t conjure up a ballet-appropriate adage, here), and the city’s arts organizations have enjoyed consistent support from Donald and Donna Baumgartner.

A throwback to Milwaukee’s industrial halcyon days, Baumgartner founded Paper Machinery Corporation (PMC) in 1951. As chairman and CEO, he helped the company become the world’s primary source of converting machinery for the production of paper cups, paperboard containers and custom packages. He also holds patents on machines for manufacturing paper drinking cups.

In 2016, he and his son, company president John Baumgartner, announced they were creating an employee stock ownership plan that will turn PMC into a 100 percent employee-owned company.

The same year, Donald and Donna pledged $8 million to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s endowment. Their gift is dedicated to support the position of museum director, which is titled the Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Donald is a current trustee and a past president of the board.

The couple has also provided support to the Milwaukee Film Festival, Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company, and the Next Door Foundation, which focuses on early childhood education.

The announcement of the Baumgartner’s Milwaukee Ballet gift coincides with the release of Donald Baumgartner’s biography, With the Wind at His Back: The Charmed and Charitable Life of Donald Baumgartner, by Kurt Chandler.

Donna said that the new ballet center “has been the company’s dream for many years, and it is an absolute pleasure to help convert it to a reality. Donald and I share not just a love of dance, but we value the transformative power this organization adds to the life of our community.”