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Whitney Museum to Receive $131 Million Gift

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Leonard A. Lauder, the cosmetics executive and chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said on Tuesday that his art foundation would give the museum $131 million, the biggest donation in the Whitney's 77-year history.

The bulk of the money — $125 million — will go toward the Whitney's endowment, boosting it to $195 million from $70 million, Mr. Lauder said in a telephone interview.

The Whitney called the gift one of the largest donations ever to a New York museum's endowment. Mr. Lauder said that the money required the museum not to sell its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street for an extended period, although he declined to specify how long.

The Whitney announced last year that it planned to open a satellite museum downtown in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, which stirred speculation that it might sell its Breuer building.

But Mr. Lauder said he was determined that the Whitney keep its hulking 1966 building. "Like so many architecture lovers, I believe the Whitney and the Breuer building are one," he said.

Given the precarious state of the economy, Mr. Lauder, who turns 75 on Wednesday, emphasized that he could be depended on for the donation, which he said he had long planned.

"Being old enough to have lived through several recessions, when I made the decision years ago, I asked my financial advisers to move the money into T-bills," he said. "So it is sitting there and is very secure."

Mr. Lauder is chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies and, according to Forbes magazine, had a net worth of $3.2 billion in 2007.

The gift includes $6 million to cover expenses until the donation is complete, which is expected to be by June 30, 2009. The money is a major infusion for the Whitney, which has been historically under-endowed. Its new endowment total of $195 million will still pale in comparison with those of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, with an $850 million endowment. (Ronald S. Lauder, Leonard Lauder's brother, is a trustee and former board chairman at MoMA.)

Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney's director, said the gift would help the Whitney sustain its "risk-taking" tradition. "It will now be the first time our endowment will be large enough so that the Whitney can maintain its commitment to living artists and to adventurous programming," he said.

Although Mr. Lauder's donation is likely to quiet rumors that the Whitney might decamp from the Breuer building, the museum's plans remain an open question. Since the Whitney set its sights on the meatpacking district, the city's arts world has fretted that the institution might not be able to afford two locations.

The gift was timed to encourage other Whitney trustees to donate generously to the downtown project. "It has already generated tremendous support on the part of the trustees," Mr. Weinberg said.

Although he declined to say how much money had been raised for the new building or how much the Whitney still needed, he said that the initial, or so-called silent, phase of the capital campaign was "going forward."

In November the Whitney announced that it had reached a conditional agreement with the city's Economic Development Corporation to buy a city-owned site at Washington and West Streets, the same place where the Dia Art Foundation had planned to build a museum. (In October 2006 Dia said it had scrapped that idea and would seek a different site in the city.) The Whitney satellite is to be designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Mr. Piano was also the architect for a proposed nine-story addition to the Breuer building that was abandoned in 2006.

The Piano scheme was the third time in more than a decade that the museum had commissioned a celebrity architect to design a major expansion, only to pull out.

To realize its new project in the meatpacking district, the museum needs to go through the zoning process, conclude the land purchase and determine the cost of designing and building the satellite and operating museums both uptown and downtown, Mr. Weinberg said.

"We are studying the idea of a comprehensive Whitney, trying to see how the two programs would work," he said.

In the world of museum fund-raising, endowment money is always the most difficult to solicit. Unlike donations for building projects, an endowment gift does not give a donor the opportunity to finance a namesake building, a promise extended to the Wall Street financier Stephen A. Schwarzman last week when he gave the New York Public Library $100 million to jump-start its $1 billion expansion. In return, the library's main branch on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street is being renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

Mr. Lauder's gift surpasses that of Mr. Schwarzman as well as a $100 million endowment gift pledged to MoMA by David Rockefeller, a chairman emeritus of the Modern, in 2005. But unlike Mr. Lauder's gift, Mr. Rockefeller's donation will not be completed until after his death. In the meantime Mr. Rockefeller is giving $5 million a year, as if the money were already invested in the endowment.

Mr. Lauder's gift is not the first major donation he has made to the Whitney. Since becoming its chairman in 1994, he has led the campaign for the new fifth-floor galleries in the Breuer building, which are devoted entirely to the permanent collection.

Six years ago he led a three-year initiative to acquire about $200 million worth of art by masters like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock.

Mr. Lauder's American Contemporary Art Foundation was responsible for the largest single group of art in that gift, including major works by Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Warhol and Pollock.

By Carol Vogel
For The New York Times

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