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
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
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