Arts behemoths aren’t getting fat on donations, study shows


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The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its ranking of the nation’s top 400 charities this week, and 14 museums and performing arts groups made the list, taking in $1.2 billion combined. But none of them were from Southern California.

That’s a modest rebound from the dismal days of 2008-09, when 13 arts groups made the top 400, combining for $986.2 million. In the two fiscal years before the September 2008 financial meltdown that triggered the world’s ongoing economic woes, the arts/museums sector placed 18 or 19 organizations on the list and averaged $1.67 billion in annual donations — a third more than the arts groups that made the latest “Philanthropy 400.”


The Smithsonian Institution ($170.4 million; pictured above), Metropolitan Museum of Art ($130.99 million) and Metropolitan Opera ($126.7 million) were the arts organizations raising nine-figure sums.

(Note: The Chronicle, which bases its list mainly on figures from charities’ nonprofit tax returns, divides what Culture Monster defines as the arts into two categories — “arts and culture” and “museums and libraries.” We’ve omitted the New York Public Library, a Philanthropy 400 perennial, from our computations; we also didn’t count the New York Botanical Garden and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which each made the Chronicle’s ‘museums and libraries’ list twice before the financial meltdown.)

There are no perennial arts fundraising juggernauts on the West Coast. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art made it two years running before the meltdown, which put a damper on its unfinished $450-million expansion and renovation campaign; the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens also had a successful capital campaign before the meltdown that brought it two consecutive rankings in the Philanthropy 400. The Huntington is a lock to make next year’s list, which will reflect donations received in fiscal 2010-11, thanks to Frances Brody’s posthumous gift of $110 million. So is the Petersen Automotive Museum, which this year received co-founder Margie Petersen’s gift of $100 million in buildings, land, cash and cars.

The Smithsonian, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and New York’s big three museums — the Met, Museum of Modern Art and American Museum of Natural History — all have made the Philanthropy 400 for the past five years running; the Philadelphia Museum of Art made the list in four of five years. In the performing arts, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera and the Kennedy Center made each of the past five lists.

Overall, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports a slight uptick in aggregate donations to America’s top 400 charities, from $69 billion to $70.3 billion. It cautions, however, that “most of the gains were made by groups that receive the bulk of their contributions in the form of donated products, such as international charities or antihunger organizations.” Excluding them, giving was flat. Adjusting for inflation, the Chronicle says that gifts to the nation’s top 400 charities remained 8% less than before the recession.

As usual, life is tougher lower on the philanthropic food chain. The Chronicle cited a recent survey by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, which found that 30% of charities with budgets under $3 million saw drops in donations during the first half of 2011, while an additional 25% stayed even (according to the same survey, 31% of the arts, culture and humanities groups of all sizes reported declines, and 23% said donations had held steady).

In the arts, the donations reported in tax returns typically are cash, stocks and property. Museums that receive donated artworks and artifacts don’t put the market value of those gifts on their books, presumably because they don’t plan to sell them to pay their bills. Museum-world ethics specify that money earned from selling collection items should be plowed back into the collection via fresh purchases; when collections are given a value, it’s usually only for insurance purposes.


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— Mike Boehm