Meet the Silicon Valley "Renaissance Donors" Behind This Epic Challenge Grant

It's a good time to be a public museum in Los Angeles.

First, we learned that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art received two major donations that will bring it closer to reaching its ambitious $600 million fundraising campaign. And now comes news that 5.2 miles west (via Wilshire Boulevard), the University of California at Los Angeles' Fowler Museum received a $1 million gift and a pledge to match up to an additional $14 million in donations from long-standing supporters Jay and Deborah Last.

The latter gift is, quite obviously, smaller than the former, but it is intriguing nonetheless as it hews closely to many threads we've been seeing across the visual arts world lately. So let's get right down it.

At its core, the gift underscores the classic motivational incentive of the challenge grant. According to UCLA, the Last's most recent gift and matching challenge is "intended to attract new donors who will join with them in supporting the Fowler Museum."

Makes sense to us. As we noted in a piece expounding on the virtues and drawbacks of a $30 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation challenge grant to the National Gallery of Art:

Clearly, Mellon is using both challenge grants as a tool to create long-term financial sustainability predicated on expanding and diversifying the funder base at both museums. From a financial and operational perspective, this is a good thing. If a challenge grant provides the necessary carrots and sticks to help set an arts organization on a path toward financial sustainability, who's to argue?  

Not Jay Last, that's who. "Those of us who believe in preserving world arts and cultures must do everything we can to sustain and grow the museum," Jay said. "Deborah and I hope that our gift will inspire other donors to give to this cultural gem in Los Angeles."

And what about Jay Last? Trained as a physicist with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Last is one of the eight founders, known as the "fathers of Silicon Valley," of Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation.

What's more, Last doesn't fit your traditional techie psychographic profile. He's a kind of Rennaissance Man, blending the ones and zeros world of information technology with more cerebral artistic pursuits. As recently as 2015, Last published "African Art and Silicon Chips: A Life in Science and Art," which illuminates the connections among his entrepreneurial, adventurous, and art-connoisseur interests.

We'll go out on a limb here and say that Silicon Valley could use more Jay Lasts, whose interdisciplinary interests make him a refreshing anachronism. After all, as we've repeatedly noted, the new breed of 20-something dot-com billionaires don't share Last's passion for the arts. (Since we're running up on time here, we won't go into the whys in this space—but if you want to go down that rabbit hole, you have many provocative opportunities.)

Of course, we understand why a 23-year-old future billionaire living in Mountain View may not have a passion for highly specialized, non-Western art. It's completely natural. They're just kids! But as these techies get older and quite possibly become interested in arts philanthropy, we'd humbly suggest Jay Last as a role model (or to use a more applicable Silicon Valley term, a "mentor").

To that end, the couple has supported the university for many years. They donated art, helped fund the construction of the Fowler's building, and endowed the museum's position of curator of African arts. Last has given more than 300 works from the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Fowler. Deborah Last, meanwhile, holds a bachelor’s degree in art history from UCLA and a master's in print journalism from USC.

Add it all up, and the museum looks to raise in excess of $28 million—$14 million from the Lasts and $14 million from donors whose gifts qualify for the match. The gift is part of the $4.2 billion UCLA Centennial Campaign, which is scheduled to conclude in December 2019 during UCLA’s 100th anniversary year.