A Quick Look at Another Big Give to Endow a Museum Directorship

While ruminating on a recent $21 million endowment for the St. Louis Art Museum's directorship, a wise sage noted that "the prettiest sculpture garden in the world can only get you so far; a world-class museum needs world-class talent."

It's a lesson that isn't lost on the museum's Midwest brethren located 373 miles north in "Cream City," also known as Milwaukee. (The city's other nicknames include the City of Festivals and the German Athens of America, by the way.)

Donna and Donald Baumgartner pledged an $8 million gift to the Milwaukee Art Museum to the Museum's endowment. Their gift is dedicated to support the position of Museum Director, whose title will be named the Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Dan Keegan, the museum's director for the last seven years, is leaving the museum as of late May.

This is the largest gift made to the Museum's growing endowment fund in the institution's history.

Now, it sounds like a relatively straightforward gift, and on the surface, that's true. But when properly contextualized, the Baumgartner pledge also fits into various patterns we've been seeing across the museum world lately.

The first is the fact that the gift is earmarked for a directorship position. Just like the St. Louis Museum give, the one to the Milwaukee Art Museum suggests that growth starts from the top. Small-city museums need to compete for talent on a national, if not global scale, and that takes—spoiler alert!—money.

Here's current St. Louis Art Museum Director Brent Benjamin, commenting on the gift: "It means the museum can compete in the national and international markets for talent." And here's Donna Baumgartner, one half of the couple that gave to the Milwaukee Art Museum: "We've been so inspired by Dan Keegan's leadership and vision for the future, in particular his passion for securing the viability of the Museum for generations to come. We wanted to carry on his legacy and keep the momentum going."

Whicn brings us to our next point. Lord knows there's no agreed-upon "museum growth" roadmap for stakeholders that says, "OK, first off, beef up your collections. When that's done, endow a directorship. Then spring for a bold capital project." This clearly isn't a linear process and museums juggle these missions simultaneously.

But it's intriguing to see how museums—particularly those in smaller cities—are choosing to allocate their recent windfalls. As recently noted here, we expounded on what it takes for cities like Indianapolis, Denver, and Worcester to create world-class art destinations far from coastal mega-museums. And when you examine each case study, you'll find there's no consensus. 

The Indiana University Art Museum will use their gift to renovate its building and beef up its collection. The University of Denver will also benefit from a $10 million donation of artwork from local developer John Madden. Meanwhile, as previously noted, the the St. Louis Art Museum and, as we've seen here, the Milwaukee Art Museum will put their eggs in the directorship basket.

And what, pray tell, about the donors themselves?

The Baumgartners are longtime supporters of the museum, and Donald is a current trustee and a past president of the board. He was part of the architecture selection committee and served as chairman of the building committee during the construction of the museum's Santiago Calatrava-designed addition, which opened in 2001, the equivalent of the museum's own bold capital project. (And evidence suggests the bet paid off. The addition has since become the iconic symbol of Milwaukee.)

What's more, the historic gift to the Museum's endowment comes on the heels of the Baumgartner's recently announced transfer of ownership of the family company, Paper Machinery Corp., which makes the machines used to produce paperboard cups and containers, to its 250 employees. 

The museum also received $23 million in irrevocable promised gifts, including the $8 million from the Baumgartners, according to a staff person with Buzz Monkeys, which handles communication for the museum.