The Art of the Deal

By Katherine Bowers | Boston Magazine |

Zhang Huan stands naked outside the West Wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Slowly, Huan climbs a 9-foot pyramid of books, tears a page out of one, and eats it.

 

A few hours later, at the Brookline manse of MFA trustee Fred Sharf, New York multimillionaire glass collectors Doug and Dale Anderson toast both the artist’s performance piece, which Huan calls “My Boston,” and the MFA, which staged it. Over filet mignon, they celebrate their bequest of Huan photographs to the museum.

 

This kind of behind-closed-doors wooing of heavyweight financial donors has been going on all over town as Boston’s big-three art museums compete in a high-stakes race to shake some serious change out of the pockets of a limited pool of superrich contributors. The MFA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art are vying for both bluebloods and their greenbacks to pay for an arts renaissance of a magnitude not seen here since the 19th century, lining up opposing groups of well-connected trustees with rich friends and their own robust portfolios. Together the museums need $660 million. It’s a cultural Big Dig.

 

More than half the money has already been raised, one check at a time, helped along by the dim light, soft music, and lubricating alcohol of countless cocktail parties and fancy dinners. But it’s a lot harder than it used to be to raise the rest. These days, big donors expect more for their benevolence than warm feelings and the occasional canapĂ©. They want (and get) VIP trips to international cultural destinations, personal introductions to important gallery owners, advice from curators about their private art collections, exclusive showings of museum works not on public display—even dinner parties in the usually off-limits apartment where Isabella Stewart Gardner herself once entertained. All out of view of less moneyed patrons.

 

The museums are happy to oblige if it will channel donations to them and not their rivals. From the screening committees that initially vet prospects (“We’ll ask people to look at a series of names and to put down what they think somebody could give and the level of interest for that person in the museum,” explains Patricia Jacoby, the MFA’s deputy director of external relations and head of its fundraising campaign) to the opulent perks doled out to lock up the big checks, the museums perform a delicate dance with their high-rolling benefactors. And they are absolutely keeping track. Sharf, the MFA trustee who wined and dined the Andersons, refers to the names of donors chiseled on the wall of the lobby as “the scoreboard.”

 

Of course, the sheer volume of dollars being sought creates the potential for messy overlap. “There is always concern about ‘Will there be enough to go around?’” says a consultant who has been involved in fundraising campaigns in Boston and New York. “Philanthropy is finite.”

 

To that, MFA director Malcolm Rogers answers, “Can I tell you who the people are who say all these campaigns are a problem—the people who say, ‘If I give to you, who will give to the hospitals?’ They are the people who don’t give at all.” Rogers says: “There is plenty of money to go around.”

 

 

The money being raised right now is set to fuel a flurry of construction that will help this city’s art scene renew its world-class stature for perhaps the next 100 years.

 

The MFA has already collected $316 million toward the half-billion dollars it needs for a new wing designed by the architectural firm Foster and Partners, famed for the British Museum’s glass courtyard. As one of the largest privately funded museums in the world, the MFA knows donations are its lifeblood. Yet so confident is it in its fundraising that the museum began work on the new wing in November, after a groundbreaking at which donors hobnobbed with Congressman Michael Capuano. Not to be outdone, the Gardner has hired minimalist Italian architect Renzo Piano to design a home for the offices, coat check, and cafĂ© that now cramp Isabella’s Venetian palace. The Gardner is mum about the cost of this addition; published reports have put the price at between $60 million and $100 million.

 

But the project that has catalyzed the arts community with its sheer chutzpah is the ICA’s new $62 million Diller Scofidio + Renfro�designed glass box now rising on the South Boston waterfront. Some see the gravity-defying building, set to open in September, as doing nothing less than anchoring a new Boston skyline.

 

All of these projects are gigantic gambles. Other cultural centers have wagered on the capital expansion game, and they’ve sometimes lost. Last year the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., shelved plans for a Frank Gehry�designed wing after donations dried up.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that fundraising in Boston has been elevated to the level of competitive sport, with each museum jostling for an advantage over the others. The MFA is too flashy, sniff Gardner loyalists. The Gardner is too old-fashioned, carp the hipster trustees at the ICA.

 

“There is a great deal of competition in the Boston kind of way, where everybody keeps their game face on,” says Geri Denterlein, owner of Denterlein Worldwide Public Affairs, who represents several wealthy Boston property developers. “Our clients, because of their high visibility, are getting hit on all the time.”

 

Every year at his Brookline home, Malcolm Rogers hosts a holiday get-together for his biggest donors, who are in what the museum calls the Director’s Circle. No detail is overlooked. Dinner music is provided by the Harvard Krokodiloes a cappella group. A buffet supper is served under 17th-century portraits. And, of course, the seating plan is divided into carefully tiered levels of status. Dinner tables are dispersed throughout the house, and multimillionaires have been known to jockey for the ultimate prize: a seat at the table set up in Rogers’s bedroom.

 

The ICA flew platinum-card supporters to Art Basel Miami Beach, a very chic, very expensive art fair. At the Gardner, big givers are invited to intimate evenings in Isabella’s fourth-floor apartment, which the visiting public, tramping about the lower floors, rarely sees. They dine in the drawing room under a 19th-century bronze chandelier. Flowers picked from the greenhouse perfume the air.

 

Five-star travel using curators’ connections is another perk. “It’s big to have [ICA curator] Nicholas Baume walk you through the Venice Biennale,” says one former trustee of the museum, referring to the prestigious avant-garde exposition. When MFA Egyptologist Rita Freed took a group to Cairo, the Egyptian government itself provided security as donors circumvented tourist protocol and scrambled down a 30-foot ladder for a private visit to a cavern underneath one of the pyramids. The Gardner’s board of trustees has been trailing around in Isabella’s footsteps, visiting Venice last fall and plotting a sumptuous trip to Istanbul in the spring.

 

But the real benefit is access—mainly, access to art by way of studio invitations, personal introductions to powerful gallery owners, advice from curators on acquisitions, and tours of private collectors’ treasure-troves.

 

The ICA arranged for Mario Russo, a trustee whose fashionable hair salon is a breeding ground for donors, to be invited to the home of Art Institute of Chicago trustee Lewis Manilow, where Russo lingered over contemporary masterpieces. He’s also gotten to hang out in the Manhattan apartment of Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, admiring works by Carroll Dunham and Richard Tuttle.

 

In return, Russo helps recruit new givers for the ICA. “I just had a new client who’d moved here from Houston. I could see right away that she is someone with a sense of style and interest in design, and by the end of the conversation she said, ‘Yes, please send me some information.’”

 

 

Over lunch at Bravo, the MFA restaurant that acts as a cafeteria for the trustee set, Fred Sharf scans the room for high-ranking numbers. “Giving away money is fun,” says the blunt-spoken 71-year-old, who made his millions running a company that manages the business affairs of professional athletes. “I’m not embarrassed to ask for money, either.”

 

Sharf’s relationship with the MFA began when he paid for a buying spree that helped the museum plug a gap in its 20th-century American sculpture collection. Over 20 years, he’s given millions and donated art. A new information center at the museum will bear his name. In the ’90s, he plunged headlong into a campaign that raised $137 million.

 

“I remember how hard it was to get to $100 million,” he says. “In those days we’d call on someone just if we saw them sitting in the dining room.”

 

Things are easier this time, thanks to carefully laid groundwork. Sharf and his wife, Jean, a slender woman who sits on the board of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and has a discerning eye for vintage Chanel, have organized dinners for confirmed donors and larger affairs for prospective ones. They and their Palm Beach neighbors the Andersons—the Manhattan glass collectors—opened their Florida homes for an MFA cocktail party. The Andersons, in turn, helped inspire a San Francisco couple, former Bostonians, to give a reported $2.5 million.

 

“We’re not kissing a whole bunch of bums,” says Sharf. “We’re targeting people with the ability to give seven figures. And we’re doing fantastically well.”

 

That’s no exaggeration. As of September, the MFA had collected seven figures from each of 76 donors.

 

Sunlight bounces off the protuberant buttocks of an obese gladiator sculpted by Fernando Botero, and off the flanks of trustees’ luxury cars crowding the MFA parking lot. Inside, a worker rolls gilded chairs into the service elevator for a private dinner hosted by William Koch, the billionaire yachtsman and owner of the Botero sculptures temporarily housed at the MFA. Koch is, in MFA parlance, a Distinguished Benefactor ($1 million to $2.5 million). Malcolm Rogers himself is a Major Benefactor, which means he has given at least $500,000 to the museum. Which pays him $567,000 a year.

 

Jacoby, the MFA’s campaign head, calls Rogers “a development director’s dream.” Responsible for ferrying the ball to the half-billion-dollar goal line, Jacoby could reel off the names of donors’ spouses, children, children’s colleges, and pets, and their summer home locations and net worth. But she won’t. The whole gig runs on discretion.

 

This can cause hiccups. For example, three of the museum’s top donors want to remain anonymous, but names are leverage in this business. “People sometimes wonder, ‘Why should I give if so-and-so hasn’t given?’” Jacoby says. MFA campaign counsel John Brown, president of a company that advises charitable organizations, helped the museum put together a questionnaire that asked potential donors how much money they’d feel comfortable giving.

 

“You are always working on the people who can afford to give the very most,” says Jacoby. “And you hope some of those people will turn around and say, ‘I’ve given $1 million and I believe you could as well.’”

 

The goal is to work through affinity groups—business associates, sailing buddies, fellow collectors of Huguenot silver or expensive glass. MFA trustee and campaign cochair Barbara Alfond, wife of the heir to the Dexter Shoe fortune and herself a $2.5 million-plus donor, hit upon the idea of geography as (literal) common ground. The dinner she threw for fellow Weston residents in the MFA’s Garden Court last spring was a huge success.

 

“The MFA is a tightly run ship,” says Denterlein. “They never lose a list, and they never lose a generation [of donors].”

 

In the spirit of its Yankee benefactor, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has come late and with some hesitation to holding out its cup for charity. Its fundraising campaign in the late ’90s was a relatively modest $28 million effort that brought climate control, air filtration, and increased security to the ailing early-1900s palace. That was the first time the Gardner even tried to raise money, and the prospect so unsettled some board members that they quit. “I don’t think it’s ever fun to solicit money, but you realize you have an obligation,” says trustee William Poorvu, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School who has sat on the Gardner’s board for the better part of two decades.

 

But Poorvu says the stereotypes of the Gardner—old, insular—no longer fit. Under the leadership of director Anne Hawley, it has been reimagined as a 21st-century salon peopled by scholars, artists, and musicians. Hawley jokes about the “two kinds of blue-hairs”—elderly and punk—who attend concerts there.

 

It’s both versions that the museum is trying to attract. “Hopefully the Gardner is less threatening than the MFA for those who want to become part of the Boston art scene,” Poorvu says.

 

Hawley says the Gardner has yet to start raising money for its new addition, but several people interviewed say the museum has been quietly testing the waters. When the campaign gets rolling, it will be holding an ace in the form of board president Barbara Hostetter, wife of billionaire Continental Cablevision cofounder Amos Hostetter, whose Barr Foundation is the city’s largest, with more than $800 million in assets.

 

Even in this new gilded age, that can buy a lot of minimalist architecture.

 

If the Gardner is prying itself out of the past, the ICA is banking on a newer, younger donor who, by extension, isn’t quite so flush with money.

 

“We’ve always had to run faster and jump higher than everybody else,” says ICA director Jill Medvedow. Her museum is the underdog in Boston’s culture kennel. It doesn’t own a permanent collection, while its current site, a Victorian-era former police station, has the shabby look of a community theater. The new home now rising on the waterfront will reinvent the institute, as will its decision to finally build its own collection. Both will cost millions.

 

Those millions will come from donors like Barbara Lee, who got a reported
$200 million in her divorce from financier Thomas Lee. A petite, elegant blonde, Barbara Lee met Medvedow when they were board member and curator, respectively, at the Gardner. Lee also sat on the ICA’s board, but felt the institution needed a jump-start. So when Medvedow moved to the ICA in 1998, Lee quit the Gardner and went with her. She also primed the pump with a $5 million contribution.

 

“Boston is steeped in its history, and the ICA is about the future,” Lee says. “What we need for Boston is to become a 21st-century city that is making history.”

 

For sheer momentum, the ICA has its larger counterparts whipped. Since it tends to draw dollars from “the transplants wishing they still lived in New York,” as one insider puts it, its crowd is treated to “friend-raising” parties, to which thirtysomething hipsters are encouraged to bring their equally style conscious and moneyed friends.

 

On a misty evening at the Boston Design Center, the ICA’s New Group open house is in full swing. There’s a salsa band, lots of beer, and food donated by trendy restaurants. It’s parties like these—a far cry from the MFA’s Brookline dinners—that draw the design elite, the venture capitalists, and the biotechies who make up Boston’s new generation of moguls. The group aspires to discover and buy art. Last spring a collectors’ panel featuring venture capitalist Jonathan Seelig, cofounder of Akamai Technologies and now a managing director at Globespan Capital Partners—and at 33, the ICA’s youngest board member—drew a standing-room-only audience.

 

As the new ICA nears completion, Mario Russo sometimes takes a moment to put on a hardhat and walk through the steel shell. This is the tangible result of all the cocktails, the traded phone numbers, the significant handshakes. And it’s going to be beautiful. “People in this community,” Russo says, “are going to be blown away by this.”

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