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Philadelphia Museum of Art’s record-breaking fund-raising campaign passes $455 million

The museum's ambitious fund-raising campaign is ahead of schedule and has reached nearly 87 percent of its goal.

Visitors stream past Jacques Lipchitz's "Prometheus Strangling the Vulture" on their way into he Philadelphia Museum of Art on Wednesday morning.
Visitors stream past Jacques Lipchitz's "Prometheus Strangling the Vulture" on their way into he Philadelphia Museum of Art on Wednesday morning.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the midst of the most visible transformation since it opened at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 1928, has raised more than $455 million to pay for the physical and program changes currently underway — nearly 87% of the record $525 million goal publicly announced two years ago, officials said.

The milestone came ahead of schedule for the largest capital campaign in the museum’s history and the largest such campaign ever undertaken by a cultural institution in Philadelphia.

Only the University of Pennsylvania, in the midst of a $4.1 billion campaign, exceeds the ambition of the Art Museum, and Penn’s comprehensive effort is aimed to benefit its entire web of 12 schools and six centers, including Penn Medicine.

“Over the next two years, we need to add another $70 [million],” said museum director and chief executive Timothy Rub, adding that the final fund-raising stretch to $525 million “will be the real test.”

“Every once in a while I turn around and say, ‘Wow!’ That’s an amazing number,'” he said.

The Art Museum’s progress comes at a time when comparable fund-raising campaigns in New York and Los Angeles have sputtered, if not stalled.

Three donors have contributed in excess of $25 million each, officials said. An additional six donors have chipped in between $10 million and $25 million, and 397 donors have given $50,000 or more.

Marguerite and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest have contributed more than $33 million to the campaign. Gerry Lenfest, former owner of The Inquirer who died in 2018, was chair of the museum’s board of trustees from 2001 through 2010 and oversaw a major portion of the planning that preceded the current construction and fund-raising. While the bulk of the Lenfest donations to building construction and endowment were designated prior to his death, Marguerite Lenfest continues to contribute.

Constance and Sankey Williams contributed $27 million. Constance Williams, museum board chair from 2010 to 2016, and her husband also offered a $25 million challenge grant toward a new museum auditorium, and endowed a curatorial position for education and teacher programs.

Williams said one of the key parts of the current campaign is to enhance the museum’s educational programming and to ensure its stability and growth.

“I am particularly proud of our ongoing work expanding educational programming so that the museum can better serve the youth of Philadelphia and expose more young people to the transformative power of art," Williams said. "This campaign matters.”

A third megadonor, Robert L. McNeil Jr., who died in 2010, contributed $25 million, which museum officials said will be used for renovation and expansion of the museum’s American galleries, a key element of the current building project. McNeil contributed the funds for such a purpose prior to his death, knowing that the work was on the drawing boards. The museum was not able to use his contribution until the current construction phase.

Officials hope that the $525 million campaign can be brought to a conclusion within the next two years.

Here’s where the money goes

Of that $525 million, $150 million is earmarked for the museum’s endowment, which stands at about $480 million, below most of its peer institutions. (The endowment of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, for instance, stood at nearly $615 million at the end of the last fiscal year).

An additional $142 million is slated for educational and technological efforts, as well as community engagement, access, and other public initiatives.

The campaign seeks $233 million for capital improvements, particularly for the ongoing construction, dubbed the “Core Project,” a dramatic central chapter in the museum’s long-range transformation saga.

The $228 million Core Project, brainchild of Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, is primarily focused on opening up the museum interior, creating substantial amounts of new exhibition space, overhauling museum utilities and infrastructure, and ultimately making visitors feel more confident about where they are when they are within the museum’s sometimes mysterious interior.

A significant milestone will come Sept. 18 when the museum’s north entrance facing Kelly Drive — leading to a spectacular vaulted walkway running the width of the museum — will be reopened for the first time to the public in nearly half a century. The west entrance will close for refurbishment at that time and intensive work creating about 23,000 square feet of new gallery space and construction of a soaring space at the center of the museum will begin in earnest.

The museum will remain open throughout construction, which is expected to last another year.

The ongoing capital campaign that makes this work possible is among the largest such campaigns underway in the U.S. museum world. Not all have moved smoothly.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has suspended a $600 million campaign that failed to ignite much donor enthusiasm. In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s $650 million campaign to fund expansion has been stuck about $90 million short of its goal.

In Philadelphia, fund-raising has been "slow and steady and constant over time,” Rub said.

Leslie Anne Miller, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said the success of the campaign, officially labeled “It Starts Here," is the result of “a team effort.” But even more than that, she said, it has been “successful because of the museum itself, for what it represents for the city, the region, and beyond.”

A wider donor base

Rub noted that the average age of museum visitors has now dropped below 40, and the number of first-time visitors is on the rise. Compared with past fund-raising drives, he said, the donor base appears to represent wider community interest and an influx of non-billionaire donors.

Lisa Getzfrid, a health-care and insurance executive who has given small amounts to the museum in the past, was moved to make a bigger commitment to the current campaign.

She is not a megadonor, but her gift — one of the $50,000-plus contributions — is aimed right at support for the museum’s educational efforts, which she sees as increasingly important for the city’s children and young people. (Specifically, she is contributing to the museum and schools education endowment and will establish the Getzfrid Family Fund, an endowed fund supporting K-12 programs at the museum in perpetuity.)

Speaking with museum staff helped her clarify what it is she wanted to do. “They work with individual contributors,” she said, “asking, ‘What is meaningful for you?’ I’m not a Rockefeller. I don’t have a lot of experience with this.”

The six donors that have contributed between $10 million and $25 million to the “It Starts Here” campaign are the Daniel W. Dietrich II Foundation; Katherine Sachs, cochair of the campaign, and the late Keith L. Sachs, a longtime trustee; campaign cochair David Haas; and board chair Miller and her husband, Richard Worley.

The city and the state are also major contributors to capital efforts. Museum officials said the state is in for $8 million and the city, which actually owns the Art Museum buildings, has committed $32.5 million over six years.