The atmosphere at the Yale University Art Gallery last December was one of celebration.
Following a 14-year construction process, the art museum opened its expanded and renovated spaces to an eager and impressed public. The YUAG’s revitalized design was lauded by art critics, architects and educators alike as a paragon of both architectural and curatorial excellence. What most visitors on the YUAG’s reopening day did not know, however, was that the project had once been a hair away from coming to a halt completely.
In December 2008, a throng of workers in hard hats was preparing to begin construction on the gallery. Ten days before they were set to break ground, University President Richard Levin announced a policy change that stopped the shovels.
In a memo to the entire University, Levin explained that due to the recession, all construction projects from that point on needed to meet 100 percent of their funding needs before they could begin. At the time, the YUAG had only raised 50 percent, the original requirement for the project. YUAG Director Jock Reynolds said that when he received the news, he had been preparing to take his first sabbatical since being hired in 1998. Instead, he held an emergency meeting with his management team.
“It was important for us to keep going because otherwise we would have lost a tremendous amount of momentum,” Reynolds said, recalling the pressure to remain on track despite the new financial expectations. “People were ready to start working, and we couldn’t break up our team.”
Although construction projects University-wide are still stalled due to the recession, the YUAG’s fundraising team raised the remaining 50 percent in just nine months following Levin’s announcement, and Yale’s two art galleries — the YUAG and the Yale Center for British Art — emerged from the recession relatively unscathed.
The art museums are now undertaking new, costly endeavors. As the YUAG grapples with the increased costs of maintaining a space nearly double its original size, the YCBA is gearing up for its own fundraising initiative. As a museum that has relied on the donation of its founder Paul Mellon ’29 since its opening 36 years ago, it will face new challenges in raising money beyond the Mellon endowment to meet its increased space and conservation needs. YCBA Director Amy Meyers said the center’s new direction involves both acquiring more modern and contemporary works and constructing an additional building to house the new collections, in addition to a refurbishment project beginning this summer.
And while art museums across the country see rising entry fees, both University art galleries remain committed to free entry.
As the University galleries’ growth demands higher spending, the sustainability of their philosophies of open access will be put to the test.
FUNDS TO BE FREE
The first New York Times article on the YUAG’s reopening was not about its art collection or architectural remodeling, but rather about Reynolds’ financial savvy. In a Dec. 6 piece titled “A King of Art With the Midas Touch,” reporter Charles McGrath ’68 credited the director for spearheading the fundraising efforts, noting that the project’s $135 million price tag was “an immense sum in this economy.” But while five YUAG employees and donors interviewed agreed that Reynolds’ charm has helped him sell his vision for the gallery, the process was not as “effortless” as the Times suggested.
Many of the construction projects championed by the Yale Tomorrow capital campaign, the University-wide fundraising initiative from 2006 to 2011 that included the YUAG, were delayed due to the recession. Some of these initiatives, such as the new residential colleges and Yale Biology Building, have yet to be completed.
“It was an aggressive fundraising effort by Jock Reynolds that made the difference,” said Eugenie Gentry, the University’s associate vice president for development.
After the recession, Reynolds said he first aimed to determine whether the donors who had made major pledges would be able to fulfill their promises. But the gallery’s major contributors were not overwhelmingly affected by the recession, recalled Jill Westgard, the YUAG’s deputy director of museum resources and stewardship.
Reynolds then reached out to past donors and rallied their support — a task he took on with fervor, Westgard said. As the Times wrote, “[Reynolds] has mastered a rare and difficult form of performance art: raising money.”
Reynolds, who was himself “leery” about the glowing profile, described the moment the museum reached its fundraising goal as “an enormous relief.” But while it is clear that Reynolds is talented at raising money, those who have worked with him are hesitant to call him a salesman.
“This may sound strange, but I never felt like he was selling me the idea,” said David McCullough ’55, a historian and contributor to the campaign. “I felt that I wanted in on it — I wanted to be a part of this exciting project.”
Westgard said Reynolds did not use a “sales pitch” to attract prospective donors to the gallery. Instead, she said he was especially gifted at matching the interests of donors to the YUAG’s own philosophies, using his “infectious sense of enthusiasm” to get people excited about the gallery’s potential.
A large part of that philosophy is the YUAG’s free-education, open-access policy. Since its early years, the YUAG has not charged for entrance to either its permanent collections or temporary exhibitions. This rare history sets Yale’s galleries apart from many of the country’s largest art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.
During a press conference leading up to the YUAG’s reopening in December, Chief Curator Laurence Kanter addressed — and readily dismissed — the question of entry fees. While he iterated the museum’s commitment to remaining free and open to the public, he did not explain how it would adapt to the increased costs of maintaining enlarged spaces. Westgard explained that the gallery does not factor potential ticket fee revenue into its budget calculations because free entrance has been such a long-held tradition.
When The Art Newspaper conducted a 2011 survey asking 30 of the nation’s leading museums about their entry fees, the publication discovered that institutions were divided on whether they should focus on revenue generation or community access. The study found that most major museums charged at least for special exhibitions and that regional cities with “fewer tourists to exploit” were more likely to be altruistically minded. Galleries such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York cited financial necessity as the reason behind their recommended fees, The Art Newspaper reported.
The Met came under fire last month for these fees — $25 for adults. The information board that greets visitors upon arrival states that the ticket prices are merely recommended donations, but many people do not notice this fine print. A class-action lawsuit accused the museum of “misleading and defrauding the public” by not clarifying that the fee is recommended rather than mandatory. According to the suit, the museum’s entrance staff behaves under the assumption that everyone will pay the “recommended” amount, directing them to cashier lines and issuing “admission” buttons only to those who have paid.
The suit claims that the entrance fee, which is higher than the cost of entry to Paris’s Louvre Museum, is turning the museum “into an expensive, fee-for-viewing, elite tourist attraction.”
In a letter to the public, Met Director Thomas Campbell defended the museum’s recommended pay system, which has been in place since 1970.
“[Relative to 1970], the Met is now twice the size and must fund the maintenance of far more expansive galleries and a significantly larger collection, visited by three or four times as many people,” Campbell wrote. “Our costs — everything from guards to insurance to publications — have increased commensurately with this growth.”
The parallels between the Met’s history and the YUAG’s recent, dramatic growth are difficult to ignore. The renovations to the YUAG increased its exhibition space by more than 70 percent to create a total area of nearly 70,000 square feet. Of the 4,000 holdings currently on view, 1,000 were pieces acquired during the expansion process, and a slew of new staff has been hired to accommodate both the enlarged facilities and collections. These enhancements have also increased the YUAG’s visitor traffic dramatically: Last year, the gallery welcomed around 98,000 visitors, and by the end of this week, this year’s total will have already surpassed this amount.
With the YUAG’s commitment to free entry, Reynolds acknowledged that the costs associated with such rapid development will present a challenge in the coming years.
“We’re taking a fabric that’s been torn, stretched and a little bit abused in the past and trying to make it very healthy,” Reynolds said. “We just need a little more financial stability.”
A DISCREET LEGACY
In most museums, including the YUAG, donors are recognized with galleries in their honor. But at the YCBA, only one person’s name is immortalized within the museum’s walls. Even then, the inscription is a nondescript one. Situated to the left of the front door, letters that meld into the wall’s gray lining recognize Paul Mellon for founding the museum.
Born to billionaire American banker Andrew W. Mellon — whose donation established the National Gallery of Art — Mellon devoted his life to two great passions: horse racing and art. Known for his heavy involvement in both fields, Mellon is remembered by members of the YCBA as a man of humility and discretion. Despite his massive fortune, six sources said Mellon was more interested in sharing his resources with others than living in largesse himself.
“He genuinely loved giving his money away,” said Elisabeth Fairman, senior curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at the YCBA. “He thought that was his job on this Earth.”
Mellon’s generosity remains the bedrock of the YCBA to this day, nearly five decades since his initial gift of $164 million for the center’s founding, and 14 years since his death in 1999, prior to which he was an avid participant in the institution’s programming. Along with his substantial financial contribution — which was, at the time, an unprecedented donation for a university gallery — Mellon also bequeathed to Yale his entire collection of British art, rare books and related artifacts. Before this gift, the YUAG served as one museum for all of Yale’s art collections.
Mellon outlined a few conditions for his donation, foremost among them that the gallery should not be named in honor of him. This philosophy of “quiet giving,” as Meyers called it, has always been reflected in the center’s fundraising approach and has as much to do with the character of the man himself as with the nature of his giving. Questions about the museum’s finances would likely have made him uncomfortable, said Beth Miller SOM ’90, the museum’s associate director of advancement and external affairs.
Meyers explained that while the YCBA is currently embarking on a fundraising push, she is hesitant to call the initiative a “campaign.” She explained that the center generally fundraises privately with donors who have previously expressed interest in the museum. At the YUAG, on the other hand, outreach to past contributors was supplemented by brochures, a website and other publicity materials related to the Yale Tomorrow campaign.
“To respect the nature and enormity of Paul Mellon’s gift, we choose to handle our fundraising more discreetly [than other museums],” Meyers said. “He left us such an unassessable, massive gift that we would never want to posit ourselves as an institution that was in need.”
Representatives from the YCBA said they could not divulge the current value of the museum’s endowment — which is comprised largely of the Mellon endowment in addition to other funds — but Meyers said the amount is enough to sustain the institution without the help of an entry fee. She added that Mellon mandated the museum never charge its visitors, in part because his fortunate upbringing made him more aware of those in need.
Becky Sender, YCBA deputy director for finance and administration, said that according to the Association of Art Museum Directors, the center ranks seventh among all museums in the United States in endowment size.
While it is clear that Mellon’s legacy is still deeply important to the center, his influence is felt equally by the donors who are inspired by his memory. Many of these contributors are members of the Friends of British Art, a group of individuals who each pay the gallery at least $1,100 annually for privileged access to tours and private collections. Some of the most substantial gifts to the YCBA have come from members of the group, Meyers said.
Despite the museum’s emphasis on quiet fundraising, there is a sense in which its policy of discretion is also a public demonstration to its donors.
“Future donors need to know that we respect their interests,” Meyers said. “We need to prove that we respect the nature of Mellon’s gift, as well as the spirit in which it was given, in order to show [other] donors that we will treat their gifts the same way.”
Henry Hacker ’65, a long-time contributor of art, said he views his donations to the YCBA as a way of paying “homage to a great collector and benefactor.” Referring to Leonard Lauder’s recent billion dollar donation to the Met, Hacker said, “That’s the kind of collector Paul Mellon was — if not greater.”
MODERNIZING AFTER MELLON
The YCBA’s Rare Books & Manuscripts library is located beside the museum’s regal Library Court on the second floor, where high ceilings and the paintings of George Stubbs make it an area commonly used for receptions. Meanwhile, the library itself is a quiet space: Generously illuminated by almost constant natural lighting, it is where researchers and students knowledgeable about the museum go to do their work.
It is also where Fairman, the department’s senior curator, has her office — and alongside it, an extensive, eclectic collection of pieces, both old and new, that she has acquired for the YCBA over the years.
“We aim to have material that will speak to the things that we already have,” Fairman said, calling Mellon’s original collection a “ballast” that has anchored new acquisitions to a common theme or idea.
Like many of her colleagues at the YCBA, Fairman recalled Mellon’s frequent visits to the center, during which he would examine the art on display and provide his input on exhibitions in progress. He had always been interested in ensuring that new acquisitions connected to the YCBA’s founding principles, she said.
But with the museum’s founding principles, as outlined in the Mellon endowment letters and through his frequent conversations with museum administrators, came restrictions. The paperwork states explicitly that Mellon’s contributions can be used only for acquisitions of art dated no later than the year 1850 and acquisitions of prints and drawings from no later than 1900. The center’s current fundraising project, which remains in its early stages, aims to meet resource needs that do not fall under the purview of the Mellon endowment.
Meyers said the center is now considering expansion into modern and contemporary art. Museum administrators will need to reach out to a community of donors open to supporting these new interests.
“The collection as a whole is encyclopedic in aspiration, but it would be fair to say that the 21st and 20th centuries are underrepresented,” YCBA Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture Angus Trumble said.
Meyers explained that because Mellon funded the construction of the Kahn building that currently houses the YCBA, museum administrators have deemed it inappropriate to establish too large of a modern presence there. To accommodate the YCBA’s vision for a more complete modern and contemporary art collection, Meyers continued, the center hopes to ultimately construct an additional building near the Kahn building — continuous with the architect’s design — in which to display these works.
“A new building would be a wonderful complement to the core collections,” Sender said. “It would enable other kinds of dialogue to take place.”
Gesturing toward a row of old books and prints laid out on the table before her, Fairman explained that a large part of her job is making connections between seemingly disparate and often historically distant works of art. She pointed to a collection of rare books that she is compiling for an exhibit on illustrations of flora and fauna from as early as the 1500s and as late as 1996. The display, which will unite selections not around a specific time period but rather a single subject matter, will use new acquisitions as a way of illuminating the old.
Other stipulations in the Mellon endowment letters are tacit understandings, such as the YCBA’s acknowledgement that Mellon funds should not be used to fund conservation efforts for the newer acquisitions.
Currently, most conservation efforts take place within the center’s walls, where space limitations make dealing with larger pieces and newer works difficult. Mark Aronson, the museum’s chief conservator, said the sheer magnitude of the collection as a whole presents a financial challenge for conservation efforts, which would ideally be handled by a larger staff. He added that as technologies evolve and old machines become obsolete, the museum will have to continually adapt to new devices.
“In the old days, you could buy a film camera and it would be good for a few decades,” Aronson said. “But now a camera won’t last three years. It’s a question of how to stay up to date.”
Meanwhile, the YCBA is slated to begin its first refurbishment of the Prints & Drawings and Rare Books & Manuscripts departments this summer, which will require funding out of Mellon’s endowment.
Despite the museum’s heightened demand for funding, its discreet fundraising philosophy will largely remain the same. Meyers said that first and foremost, the YCBA’s new direction will not compromise its policy of free entry. She added that she does not foresee a need for public campaigning in the future.
But Meyers did not rule out the possibility of having named galleries within the proposed modern and contemporary facility. It is principally the Kahn building — “Mellon’s building” — that must be protected, she said.
AN INSTITUTIONAL ADVANTAGE
While both University art galleries will require increased funding in coming years, they have the advantage of alumni support on their side.
When McCullough, the historian and YUAG contributor, was an undergraduate history major at Yale more than five decades ago, the gallery still shared its facilities with the art school, and the YCBA had yet to be established. Even so, McCullough found a home among Yale’s arts resources — from the myriad history of art courses to the teachers he met at the Art School, who all fostered in him a “lifelong interest in and admiration for art.”
“My affection for and respect for the importance of the art gallery goes back 67 years,” McCullough said. “What you have going on right in that corner of the town is enough to perk you up in all kinds of ways.”
Similarly, Hacker said the galleries’ connection to the school has been one of the key factors behind his attraction to the YCBA. Like McCullough, he said the exposure to art history and aesthetics that he received as a Yale undergraduate has remained with him, motivating him to get involved with the YCBA as a donor. Hacker said contributing to the museum has allowed him to join a community of artists and art historians, and he often attends the museum’s lectures or purchases its publications.
“The happiest people are those people who give strategically,” Hacker said.
Despite the two galleries’ different fundraising philosophies, they are driven by a common goal: making art educational, free and accessible for the widest audience possible. Thanks to a University policy stating that the digital image of any work not subject to copyright must be available to the public for free, both galleries are now working to create online databases of their collections. Three donors interviewed said the art museums’ connection to the University, and the educational emphasis of that relationship, is vital to contributors’ perceptions of these institutions.
One of the YCBA’s major contributors is the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by a late Yale Law School alumnus and art collector. The foundation’s current president and CEO, John Rowe, said Joseph McCrindle LAW ’48 took the center’s association with an educational institution into major consideration, adding that the YCBA’s connection with an elite university assures the foundation’s board that its donations will be kept safe for many years to come.
“A big factor is the teaching,” Rowe said. “Promoting interesting art at a younger age will motivate people to be museumgoers, supporters and donors in the future.”
This emphasis on teaching extends to the YUAG’s collaborations with the School of Art, whose graduates often show work in the gallery. Cathleen Chaffee, the YUAG’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, said six out of 18 pieces in the recent “Once Removed” exhibit at the gallery were created by School of Art alumni. She added that the YUAG has also put aside acquisition funds specifically for the purchase of alumni-created art.
To both Reynolds and Meyers, the public support their galleries have received is due in large part to the museums’ commitment to education. And for supporters of the YUAG and the YCBA, the galleries’ philosophy of free entry is intrinsic to their identity.
“It would be naive to subscribe to the philosophy that all museums should be free,” Meyers said. “But when you behave generously and make it clear with the public that you want to be generous in this way, sometimes you have constituencies that appreciate this and want to give more.”