Attracting donors and collectors: the case of the Portland Museum of Art

We recently welcomed Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, to speak in the seminar on collecting and sponsorship organized by the museum and the Fundación Godia. We felt that his experience in fund raising, although belonging to a very different cultural and economic environment, was not only enlightening but it also provided us with helpful tips as to how to understand the relationship between donors and institutions, so we asked him to let us publish it in our blog.

Artists founded the Portland Society of Art in 1882. While most American museums were founded by industrialists aspiring to gain European sophistication and to bring cultural education to Americans, we were founded by people who wanted to make art and display it for their community.

First building of the Portland Society

First building of the Portland Society of Art

In 1980, Charles Shipman Payson donated a collection of Winslow Homer paintings to the Society.  Today, Winslow Homer is the most famous and loved American artist of all time. The Portland Society of Art leveraged that gift into the building of the Payson wing in 1983. When the Payson wing opened, the Society became the Portland Museum of Art.  If Mr. Payson had not given his collection of Homers, the Society would not have become the Portland Museum of Art.

Winslow Homer, Weatherbeaten, 1894, oil on canvas

Winslow Homer, Weatherbeaten, 1894, oil on canvas

Charles Shipman Payson Building

Charles Shipman Payson Building

Following this gift, and the creation of the Portland Museum of Art as it is now known, many families and collectors have given their collections to the Museum: Isabelle and Scott Black, David and Eva Bradford, Hamilton Easter Field, Elizabeth B. Noyce, and Joan Whitney Payson, among others.

To house these collections, we began to collect property to pace our growth and attract collectors. To support our great Winslow Homer collection, we recently acquired his Studio (15 minutes from the Museum on the Atlantic Ocean) and restored it back to its 1900 condition. The “Winslow Homer Studio Campaign” had a goal of $11 million.  With his studio and our Homer Collection we have become “the” museum to better understand the artist himself.

To make the Homer Studio Campaign happen, we needed to create favorable conditions to attract private donors and foundations. We needed a balanced and diversified budget, a strong endowment, and a commitment to scholarship and education.  We also committed to raise nearly half of the funds from outside our geographic area so that the Campaign would result in an expanded donor base.

Highlights of Winslow Homer campaign: $ 11 million
57% donors from the state of Maine; 43% from other states
$3 million from foundations
$4.5 million from individuals
$1 million from Museum members
$2.5 million from Board of Trustees (100% participation from the Board)
Only $20,000 from government sources.

Of the total raised, we set aside $3 million for endowment.

The studio, as purchased in 2005The studio, after its extensive restoration

The Homer studio, as purchased in 2005 | The Homer studio, after its extensive restoration

Interior view of the studio

Interior view of the Homer studio

Now that we have spent five years growing and preparing for the future, we are embarking on a three year collection initiative to digitize our collection, reinstall the entire museum, and create a new collection plan, with the objective of seeking out private collections.

To make this happen, we needed to create favorable conditions, just as with our Homer Studio Campaign. We have discovered that besides the quality of a museum’s collection, collectors today are interested in the following criteria when they consider a gift:

  1. strategic plan for the future
  2. strong endowment
  3. active board of trustees
  4. scholarship and education
  5. commitment to displaying artwork
  6. and very importantly, a balanced, diversified budget; fiscal responsibility is vital for building a collection.

Mission and Vision: Artistic Vision, Winslow Hommer, Governance & Board Development, Financial Future, Developement & External Affairs

It is a very competitive market, as museums simply do not have the funds it takes to build collections. We are increasingly dependent on collectors to build collections. In the current climate, fiscal responsibility is a key factor to collectors as they assess the quality of a museum for their collections.

Mark H. C. Bessire
Director, Portland Museum of Art

Related links
Art and patronage: from the private collection to public heritage, and the legal aspects that make it possible

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