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Meet the donors

They're young, they're connected, and they're coveted by Boston's museums

The men and women pictured above are members of the MFA's Museum Council. From left: Kimberlea Tracey, Bill Pirl, Mark Dolny, David Anderson, Heather Gebbia, Anne Clark, Mark Tracy, Stephen Sheffield, Susan Kaplan, and Francesca Piper.
The men and women pictured above are members of the MFA's Museum Council. From left: Kimberlea Tracey, Bill Pirl, Mark Dolny, David Anderson, Heather Gebbia, Anne Clark, Mark Tracy, Stephen Sheffield, Susan Kaplan, and Francesca Piper. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)

Third in an occasional serieson Boston's cultural expansion

As the guests start on the cilantro shrimp and curried duck, Maggie Gold Seelig notices all is not right. She helped plan the Institute of Contemporary Art's annual gala. Now she wants to make sure it raises enough money.

The key will be the ICA's auction, a tradition that starts a half-hour into dinner. Within minutes, Seelig realizes that members of the museum's staff, who are there to spot raised hands for the auctioneer, are struggling to reach every potential bidder in the sprawling Cyclorama. Jonathan Seelig, her husband and, at 33, the ICA's youngest board member, remains at his table, mingling with guests. He's a quiet guy who prefers to hang back. Not Maggie, 31. She not only helps identify bidders, she grabs a microphone and darts through the hall, pushing a $5,000 Armani gift certificate, a London getaway, a cooking lesson with No. 9 Park chef Barbara Lynch.

At one point, she even climbs onto a rickshaw to ride, gladiator-style, through the room with the ''Fab Five" -- local style setters, including party planner Bryan Rafanelli and salon owner Mario Russo, whose services are being sold to the highest bidder.

Even when the auction is over and the tables are being cleared, Seelig doesn't relax. To keep the party going, she heads to the front of the room and sings with the R&B cover band. She's the first one on the dance floor, and will be one of the last ones off. The result: By night's end, Seelig has helped the ICA raise $850,000, its highest gala total ever.

''I've never seen anything like that," said Russo, a longtime supporter who has attended more than a half dozen ICA galas. ''But that's just Maggie. She's young, she's attractive, she's intelligent, and all of her personality went into it. She's part of a real changing of the guard in Boston."

This next generation of arts donors isn't making million-dollar gifts -- at least not yet. But museum fund-raisers know the group offers something Boston's best-known philanthropists can't always provide -- potential for the future. With cultural leaders looking to raise about $1 billion by 2012, they're going to need to find new money. And, fund-raisers say, that starts with small contributions now.

''It's an investment with a long time horizon," says Fred Schroeder, the New York-based consultant whose clients have included the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. ''It's very similar to what colleges and universities do. Get your alumni to give small amounts in their 20s and 30s. And as these individuals get greater resources, as their careers and lives progress, you've created a pattern of giving."

First steps
It starts by making them feel special. At the MFA, $500 turns a casual art lover into a member of the museum family. This sum (a regular membership ranges from $70 to $95) guarantees a place on the Museum Council, a group for supporters 45 and under that has grown since 1998 from 320 to almost 500 members. They are invited to travel to art fairs with museum buyers and are given private exhibition tours with curators.

''They feel like they're insiders, and they feel like they're in a community of likeminded people they want to associate with," says Timothy Seiler, director of the Fund Raising School at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Such access encouraged Heather Gebbia to get closer to the MFA.

She's 34, studied art history in college, and had a particular interest in Gauguin, an artist well represented at the museum. In the end, Gebbia went to law school, but as her career developed, she found herself spending more and more of her free time at the MFA. Eventually, Gebbia joined the Museum Council. Its private tour of the MFA's cramped music department -- which is open only during limited hours -- helped convince her of the need for the MFA's planned expansion, which will be covered by a fund-raising campaign that exceeds $425 million.

As she mingled with other young art enthusiasts, Gebbia realized that even she, a rookie donor, could make a difference.

''If you've been around the museum and you see people with a similar cash flow, and they make a donation, you're more apt to make a donation," said Gebbia, who served as cochair for the Museum Council's recent summer party.

Which is not to say the MFA's younger crowd can compete with the museum's big donors. Only about $220,000 of the $265 million raised so far for the MFA's expansion -- set to open in 2009 -- has come from the Museum Council.

''It's a tough group to raise money from," acknowledges Mark Dolny, an architect and a volunteer fund-raising leader of the Museum Council. ''We're all being stretched. You've got the ICA, the Fogg, the Salvation Army, they're all looking for our money. It's hard at the same time we're thinking about our mortgages, our kids, and college."

But fund-raising experts say the MFA isn't alone. According to Indiana University's Center of Philanthropy, recent figures show that while 12 percent of the pre-World War II generation and 9 percent of baby boomers give to arts and cultural groups, just 4 percent of generation Xers (defined by the center as those born from 1965 to 1978) give.

Knowing this, museum fund-raisers care more about getting some gift, any gift, than squeezing a young donor for everything he or she can afford. If they can do this, the thinking goes, getting larger gifts is just a matter of time.

Tailoring the appeal
Each project has its selling points.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and MFA play up their respective histories, and the expectation that involvement can offer instant entree into Boston's cultural elite. Dolny, the 40-year-old architect who has been raising money through the Museum Council, doesn't pull punches during a conversation at the recent MFA summer party.

When he talks about the MFA, Dolny uses words like ''legacy" and ''stature." He calls the ICA's project a ''very localized attempt."

''I think what the ICA is doing is fantastic," he says. He stretches his arms upward to direct attention to the John Singer Sargent murals above. ''But look at what you've got here."

While the ICA leaders know their $62 million fund-raising campaign is just a fraction of the MFA's, they have something to offer that the MFA can't compete with. When the ICA opens on Fan Pier in 2006, it will be Boston's first new art museum since 1909.

So far, the ICA's 45-and-under crowd has pledged $4.1 million, far more than the MFA's.

''I'm a start-up kind of guy," says Jonathan Seelig, a venture capitalist who helped found Akamai Technologies Inc. He and his wife are contemporary art collectors and have given at least $180,000 to the ICA so far.

''If someone is really passionate about Sargent murals, that's fantastic," Seelig says. ''We just believe that the greatest things aren't things that have been living in a vault for 300 years. I don't know if there's ever been a painter as great as Renoir since his death, but damn it, we're going to keep looking."

Spreading the word
Young art lovers, particularly those with financial means, don't just stumble into leadership positions. First, they show an interest. The modern museum, always looking to recruit new leaders, then targets them to move up the philanthropic ladder.

The recruiting can be as soft of a sell as the stack of ICA passes the Seeligs keep at home. They send them out to the uninitiated, to anybody they suspect might be interested in the next show. The Seeligs also work on a different level. They invited two of their friends, developer Paul Palandjian and his wife, Dionne, to dinners and art-buying trips with ICA types.

The encouragement paid off. For the gala this year, the Palandjians -- who had not made significant charitable contributions in the arts world -- cochaired with the Seeligs. They helped plan the party and made calls to sell tables.

Susan Kaplan, an MFA trustee who has taken particular care to nurture younger museum donors, says that new support doesn't get developed by accident.

''People might not have the dollars in the beginning, but they need to be trained early on and exposed to what philanthropy is," says Kaplan, 54.

That's exactly what she did with Jill Avery, a museum supporter 17 years her junior. In 1993, Avery, at 25, became one of 50,000 dues-paying members at the MFA, her in-laws picking up the then-$60 cost of a family membership as a gift. Five years later, she paid $500 to join the more prestigious Museum Council.

Two years ago, Kaplan decided it was time for Avery to take the next step. Avery was 35, a dedicated volunteer, and married to a Fidelity Investments portfolio manager. As her ''mentor," Kaplan asked Avery out for hot chocolate. Sitting at Burdick's in Harvard Square, the storefront window steamy with condensation, Kaplan talked about the MFA's ambitious new expansion project. The changes, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, would include added gallery space, a dramatic ''crystal" spine through the building, and a covered courtyard.

And, Kaplan added with a soft touch, she'd be grateful if Avery and her husband, John, would consider a gift.

Two weeks later, the Averys made their first contribution to a cultural institution. Soon after, she became an overseer, a position of higher standing.

How much did they give?

Avery, leaning on a railing in the upper rotunda during the summer party, pauses. Clearly, she's learned one of the first rules of giving in Boston.

''I'd rather not say," she says.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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