Despite its comparatively short history, the United States has become one of the most artistically and culturally rich societies in the world. It is largely private philanthropy that has done this. And unlike in some other nations, it continues to be philanthropy and audience support (rather than state funding) that creates and sustains most artistic activity today. 

Consider symphony orchestras. Fully half of their income currently comes from donations (33 percent from annual gifts, 16 percent from revenue off of endowments given previously). Paid concert revenue comes to 42 percent of their total income. Only 6 percent of symphony funds come from local, state, or federal governments. 

The story is about the same for other creative fields. Nonprofit arts institutions in the U.S. as a whole currently get 45 percent of their budgets from donors. Eliminate philanthropy and our lives immediately become duller, flatter, darker, more silent. 

Arrayed by year below you will find examples of some of philanthropy’s significant contributions to our national artistic life, museums, musical performance and creation, architecture, historical preservation, arts education, the book arts and libraries, living history, poetry, TV and film, dance and theater, and more. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister, Brian Brown, and Jarom McDonald

Perhaps the largest private urban redevelopment in the U.S. is taking place today in New York City, where about 40 blocks of previously unavailable Manhattan real estate are being turned into homes, offices, retail, and entertainment facilities—by decking over and building on top of the Hudson Yards parking and maintenance area for rail cars. This new neighborhood will include an arts facility, known as The Shed, created via a $500 million fundraising campaign. The building has been designed to flexibly accommodate everything from theater plays for 500 people, to museum shows, to outdoor concerts with audiences in the tens of thousands. The largest gift, among the many donors, was $75 million from Michael Bloomberg.

George Lucas made billions of dollars exploring the public appetite for popular morality tales—stories of good and evil, youth versus age, the joy of friendship, the pleasures of ordinary life, and the power of religious faith. Lucas understood that good art doesn’t have to hold itself apart from, and above, the everyday masses of people. In fact, some of the very greatest art is great precisely because it strikes universal chords via broadly accessible images and language.

So when he wasn’t creating his own works like the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and American Graffiti films, Lucas was collecting potent popular art such as the paintings and drawings of Norman Rockwell, N. C. Wyeth, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Maxfield Parrish, and Alberto Vargas. He also accumulated thousands of pieces of film memorabilia; posters; magazine illustrations; landmark animations, cartoons, and comics; and other artifacts of mass storytelling.

Lucas is unabashed in his defense of art that meets and speaks to the public. "You know, so many artists have a tendency to paint without emotion, without any connection to the audience,” he once told CBS News. “Both Steve [Spielberg] and I are diehard emotionalists. We love to connect with the audience. Rockwell loved to connect with the audience."

To crystallize and share his attachment to storytelling artistry, Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson announced a gift totaling more than a billion dollars to create a Museum of Narrative Art. The donation will include all costs of a spectacular 275,000-square-foot building (the latest plans look a bit like a hovering space vessel), a cash endowment of a least $400 million to operate the museum, and more than 10,000 pieces of art that Lucas has collected over decades, including his important Rockwell stash. After abortive wrangles with regulators in San Francisco and Chicago, it was decided that the museum will be built in Los Angeles, at a site near 100 public schools, the University of Southern California, the Coliseum, and three other major museums, to encourage public access. The founding president will be Don Bacigalupi, who helped Alice Walton launch her similarly ambitious (and similarly non-snobby) grand museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. (See 2011 Crystal Bridges entry in this same section.)

Jack Benaroya was a child of Lebanese immigrants who became one of the real-estate developers who built Seattle and the Pacific Northwest into an economic power. He and his wife Becky became active philanthropists starting in the 1990s. In 1993 they made the largest gift ever to a Seattle nonprofit to help the local symphony build a concert hall. The couple also supported medical research, education, and Jewish causes until Jack’s death in 2012. In 2016, Becky announced that she was leaving the family art collection, along with $14 million to construct a special gallery and endow curation and care, to the Tacoma Art Museum. The collection is focused on art glass (which is taught regionally at the Pilchuck Glass School founded by Dale Chihuly, where the Benaroyas had long served as trustees and donors) and will bring total holdings of art glass at the TAM to nearly 1,000 pieces, making it one of the national centers for that craft.

A decade and a half after the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center, the site had rebounded remarkably. Dramatic new office towers had occupants, a much-improved transportation hub was operating, an affecting museum was in place, and the streetscape of the neighborhood was more efficient and attractive than ever before. Only one piece was still missing:  a proposed performing-arts center. A major theater had been included in the 2003 master plan for bringing the dead neighborhood back to life, but that got delayed amidst the many other demands of the massive project.

Then in 2016, businessman Ronald Perelman ponied up $75 million to jumpstart the project. Soon plans were in place for a technologically advanced structure that could seat an audience of 1,200—or be easily subdivided into three smaller theaters. Music, dance, drama, and an annual film festival will animate the space throughout the year. Perelman, who is known as a hands-on, high-energy donor, was reported at the time of his donation to be taking a particular interest in making sure the theater has advanced media capabilities so its performances can be shared around the world via Internet streaming.

The latest in the ever-expanding empire of federal museums on the Washington, D.C., mall—the National Museum of African American History and Culture—opened in 2016. And the majority of the funds that went into creating this latest Smithsonian branch came from private donors. Of the $500 million building cost, $265 million came from charitable contributors. Large givers included the Lilly Endowment, Oprah Winfrey, investor Robert F. Smith, Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies, Carlyle co-founder David Rubenstein, Colin Powell, the Rhimes family, and the Gates, Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon foundations. Among the individuals who gave $1 million or more, three quarters were African Americans.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch believed “it was important to show average people owned this project,” so to complement these large gifts the museum carried out a broad grassroots fundraising campaign. Months before the museum even opened, more than 100,000 people had already pledged $25 a year to become members. This is the largest member base of the Smithsonian museums. 

Individuals also donated many of the artifacts that are featured in the collection. Shirley Burke offered her enslaved great-grandfather’s violin. T. B. Boyd gave the printing press his grandfather used to support himself after slavery. Robert Hicks provided a white shirt he wore when he became the first black supervisor at a factory in his town. David Rubenstein loaned two documents signed by Abraham Lincoln: a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a copy of the 13th Amendment ending slavery.

The Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, is one of America’s superb art museums, with a particular strength in 7,000 modern works. But it has been desperately short of space in which to exhibit its deep collection. Until a prominent bond trader solved that problem in very short order with an innovative matching-grant donation. Jeffrey Gundlach used a $43 million donation to inspire $41 million of other private gifts. And he made this happen at breakneck speed.

The museum announced in June that it had selected the architect for a major building expansion, and intended in September to gradually roll out a multi-year capital campaign to raise the necessary money. Instead, Gundlach made his $43 million offer right away and pushed the institution to wrap up the fundraising “by Labor Day, because these things lose momentum.” He asked that museum leaders raise a match to his money, beginning with a blitz of the board members—who quickly kicked in $21 million. Within an astonishing 12 weeks of starting from nothing, Albright-Knox had raised $103 million—“probably the fastest capital campaign in U.S. history,” in the words of gallery director Janne Sirén. (At that point the museum expanded its fundraising goal from the original $80 to $125 million, which will allow its endowment to be doubled at the same time the new campus is created.)

“When I was young, I was dragged there,” explained Gundlach, who grew up in Buffalo and now lives in Los Angeles, so “I’ve always had a belief in and fondness for the Albright-Knox.” In addition to loyalty, his decision to give to his hometown was based on a desire for effect. “I tend to do things not with teaspoons, but to try to make a difference.” If he had donated $43 million to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gundlach suggested, “you wouldn’t be able to find it with a microscope.” Instead, this donor allowed a grand expansion of a great museum to be fully funded before its managers even expected to start their fundraising.

The Eiteljorg Museum was founded in 1989 by Indianapolis philanthropist and businessman Harrison Eiteljorg, and has quickly grown into one of the country’s top repositories of high-quality Native American art and artifacts and Western paintings and sculpture. A 2002 gift by the family of George Gund added a new gallery stocked with 57 pieces of traditional Western art including paintings and bronzes by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.

In 2015, the museum received as a bequest from Bud Adams—former NFL team owner and one of the country’s highest profile businessmen of Native American heritage—a collection of more than 300 Indian cultural artifacts like beadwork, weavings, and pottery, plus almost 100 prominent paintings of the West by Remington, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Charles Russell, N. C. Wyeth, and others. The gift solidified the museum’s position as one of the great collections of art from and about the early American West.

William Scheide made a gusher of money in Western Pennsylvania’s early oil industry. After he retired he pursued a passionate interest in book collecting. At his death, his son continued to build the collection, as did his grandson. The family eye was good, and the library came to include copies of each of the first six printed editions of the Bible (starting with the 1455 Gutenberg); many early Shakespeare folios; autographed scores and musical sketchbooks by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner; original letters and speeches from Lincoln, Grant, and others during the Civil War; a manuscript of the Magna Carta; even Emily Dickinson’s recipe for chocolate pudding (and you thought she was an ascetic!).

With the passing of the third generation of bookish Scheides, the library became the property of Princeton University, on whose campus the family even replicated the original Titusville room where the books were housed. Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber described the gift as “one of the greatest collections of rare books and manuscripts in the world today.” The monetary value of the donation was placed at $300 million, the largest gift in Princeton’s history.

Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is a complex of multiple buildings, quite disparate, strewn across 14 acres: an original neoclassical structure, two Mies van der Rohe additions erected in the ’50s and ’70s, a 1986 sculpture garden, and a windowless tomb built in 2000. To link and unify all of this, the museum announced in 2015 that it would erect two connective buildings. These will accommodate the near doubling in two decades of objects owned by the museum, improve patron services, put parking underground, and rationalize the campus. The effort will cost $350 million, and an additional $100 million will be raised for an endowment to support the new facilities. Museum board chairman Rich Kinder and his wife, Nancy, donated $50 million to the effort, Kinder’s investment partner Fayez Sarofim put up $70 million, 11 other donors provided $10 million gifts, and there were 40 additional gifts of at least a million dollars—all of this before the fundraising campaign was even complete.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the most popular art museum in the western U.S., with more than one million visitors annually. Local leaders consider it important to their economy as well as to regional culture. In 2014, county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky described the arts as “an economic engine” for Los Angeles, elaborating that the sector “employs more people than the defense industry does, something we could not say 25 years ago.”

In 2014, Angeleno Jerry Perenchio—whose career in the entertainment business ranged from putting up the prizes for the first Ali-Frazier fight to building the Univision TV network—announced that upon his death he would be injecting some rocket fuel into L.A.’s economic engine. He pledged to donate 47 great works of European art to LACMA. Painstakingly collected over 50 years, these works by Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Picasso, and others are collectively valued at half a billion dollars, representing one of the largest art gifts ever made in the U.S.

When Robert E. Lee sided with his state instead of his nation and took command of the Confederate army, the U.S. seized his family estate located on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital from the south bank of the Potomac. Lee’s home—Arlington House, which was built as a tribute to his relative George Washington and modeled on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens—was turned into a military headquarters. The grounds became the residence of several thousand liberated slaves, and then, in the third year of the war, a cemetery for men killed in the fight to preserve the Union.

In 1925, Arlington House was designated a memorial to Robert E. Lee. By 2014 it was a tattered property operated by the National Park Service. To improve the experience for the 650,000 people who visit each year, Washington-area philanthropist David Rubenstein pledged $12.4 million to the National Park Foundation for restoration of the house and museum, the landscape, and the historic slave quarters.

Rubenstein has a passion for U.S. history and has focused his philanthropy in the national capital region. He said at the announcement of his gift that “the goal is to remind people of American history.... People know so little about our history.... That’s really why I try to do this.”

The Denver Art Museum has been admired for its contemporary, Native American, and Western art. In 2006 the building gained a major Daniel Libeskind-designed expansion, thanks to a $20 million gift from longtime trustee Frederic Hamilton, who made his fortune in the oil business. “However, our museum is derelict in one significant area, and that is Impressionism,” states Hamilton. In early 2014, however, the benefactor filled that hole by promising to the museum his personal collection of 22 great Impressionist paintings, by the like of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet, van Gogh, and Cézanne. These were described by Rusty Powell of the National Gallery of Art in Washington as “an extraordinary grouping of works by the greatest artists of France. It would be a big deal for any museum to get.” Valued at approximately $100 million, they will give Denver the biggest collection of Impressionist art in the Western U.S. when they transfer to the museum at Hamilton’s passing. The city got a taste of what is to come when Hamilton lent the collection for a temporary exhibit in early 2014. The crowds that thronged to see the masterworks finalized Hamilton’s decision to will them to the public institution instead of passing them on to his heirs, as he had originally intended.

When philanthropist Paul Mellon died in 1999, he bequeathed 110 major works of art to the National Gallery, the last in a very long string of art gifts from the Mellon family (see 1937 entry on Andrew Mellon). The donated pictures were to remain in the care of Paul Mellon’s wife during her lifetime. She released some, but continued to enjoy others in her home. The final 62 works became property of the people of the United States when Rachel Mellon died in 2014. These include exceptional paintings by Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and other masters. Because they were acquired for enjoyment in a family house, they are mostly intimate and cozy pieces. And they express collector appetites, eras, and viewpoints that may not be fashionable today. “These are not the works everyone else is acquiring and displaying,” said a curator at the National Gallery at the announcement of the gift. This is an example of the way philanthropy adds diversity to institutions, by preserving individual idiosyncrasies and capturing perspectives that lie outside mainline trends. Some of the paintings went on display quickly; a 2016 exhibition was scheduled to present them in toto.

In a development extraordinary in its intentions, its scope, and its emergency nature, 15 Michigan and national foundations announced that they would pool together $466 million of philanthropic funds to prevent works of art from the Detroit Institute of Arts from being sold off to cover pension shortfalls and other debts amid Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy. The Ford Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, and others pledged the funds to meet immediate demands from city retirees and shield the Detroit Institute so that it can be migrated from city ownership and control to an independent nonprofit trust, preventing the artworks accumulated at the museum over generations of giving from being liquidated and lost to the local viewing public. Donors also contributed to a separate $100 million the Detroit Institute of Arts committed to raise from private sources—including $10 million from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, $3 million from the J. Paul Getty Trust, and $26 million donated by the three Detroit automakers. In response to these private pledges, the state government offered to kick in $200 million. The philanthropic gifts came on top of existing heavy annual giving to the people of the greater Detroit area by most of the same foundations, for purposes ranging from education to policing to social uplift.



The Denver Art Museum has been admired for its contemporary, Native American, and Western art. In 2006 the building gained a major Daniel Libeskind-designed expansion, thanks to a $20 million gift from longtime trustee Frederic Hamilton, who made his fortune in the oil business. “However, our museum is derelict in one significant area, and that is Impressionism,” stated Hamilton. In early 2014, however, the benefactor filled that hole by promising to the museum his personal collection of 22 great Impressionist paintings, by the likes of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet, van Gogh, and Cézanne. These were described by Rusty Powell of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as “an extraordinary grouping of works by the greatest artists of France. It would be a big deal for any museum to get.” Valued at approximately $100 million, they will give Denver the biggest collection of Impressionist art in the Western U.S. when they transfer to the museum at Hamilton’s passing. The city got a taste of what is to come when Hamilton lent the collection for a temporary exhibit in early 2014. The crowds that thronged to see the masterworks finalized Hamilton’s decision to will them to the public institution instead of passing them on to his heirs, as he had originally intended.

The architecture school at the University of Notre Dame is known, along with the University of Miami, as the finest in the U.S. for the study of classical architecture and traditional urbanism. That’s why the Driehaus Prize (see 2003 entry) was based there. In 2013 Matthew Walsh, who runs his family construction company, the largest contractor in Chicago, announced that he and his wife, Joyce, would fund creation of a new School of Architecture building on the Notre Dame campus. They are simultaneously paying for the addition of two new programs—in historic preservation, and real-estate development—which will expand the program’s enrollment. This was one of the largest gifts in the university’s history, and aims to elevate the Notre Dame architecture school, which dates back to 1898, to the highest levels of the profession.

The John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., is the nation’s busiest single performing arts venue, hosting some 2,000 performances annually. For years it has been cramped by its lack of rehearsal space and classrooms. “We run the largest arts-education program in the country,” says president Michael Kaiser. “We work with 11 million children a year . . . but the building doesn’t have a classroom in it.” To address this, the Kennedy Center announced in 2013 an expansion that will add classrooms, rehearsal rooms, lecture space, some offices, gardens, and a stage floating on the Potomac River. The $100 million project will be entirely privately funded, centered on a $50 million gift (the largest in the Kennedy Center’s history) from Washington-based financier David Rubenstein.

Rubenstein had previously donated $75 million to the Kennedy Center. He expressed hope that his latest donation will draw other donors to engage in what he calls “patriotic philanthropy.” (See 2009 entry.) “The federal government today cannot afford to do many of the things it would have done before. I hope this will encourage other people to give to…organizations that have been helpful to our country.”

Leonard Lauder, for many years CEO of the cosmetics firm Estée Lauder that was founded by his parents, became a disciplined and tightly focused collector of art as his wealth swelled in his forties. Eschewing the temptation to buy flashy works across a range of popular styles, he started scooping up one kind of creation: early Cubist works. “I liked the aesthetic,” he told the New York Times, and during those years when Impressionism and post-Impressionism were much more fashionable, “a lot was still available, because nobody really wanted it.” Lauder notes that “early on I decided this should be formed as a museum collection.” He relied on expert guidance from Hunter College art historian Emily Braun, and “whenever I considered buying anything, I would step back and ask myself, does this make the cut?”

In 2013, the 80-year-old Lauder announced he was donating his melange of Cubist paintings, drawings, and sculptures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It totaled 78 works by just four artists, each represented in depth—Picasso, Braque, Léger, and Gris—and was valued at more than a billion dollars. Art experts characterized this as one of the most significant art donations ever, and described the group as single-handedly equaling or exceeding the very best collections of Cubism that major museums like New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, or Paris’s Pompidou Center had managed to accumulate over a century. “In one fell swoop this puts the Met at the forefront of early-twentieth-century art,” asserted Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell. “It is an unreproducible collection, something museum directors only dream about.”

When John Nau was eight years old, his family visited a Civil War battlefield in Kentucky. Walking the contested land created a yearning in the boy and a fascination with history that never faded. He grew up to become CEO of the nation’s largest Anheuser-Busch distributor, a major donor to the University of Virginia, a philanthropic leader in historic preservation, and one of the nation’s most active donors to the protection of Civil War battlefields. He and his wife funded, for instance, the transformation of 90 acres of the Vicksburg siege site—where there were 20,000 American casualties—back to what they looked like at the time of the clash, allowing visitors to re-live the heat of the climactic battle. As a donor and volunteer with the Civil War Trust, Federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, National Park Foundation, Texas State Historical Association, Gilder-Lehrman Institute, and other groups, Nau has donated and raised many millions of dollars to protect all sorts of hallowed grounds across the nation.

The federal government has never had a major role in arts funding in the U.S.—which is overwhelmingly supported by private patron spending and philanthropy. In 2014, total spending by all U.S. art nonprofits came to more than $60 billion. Sales of tickets and art works covered two thirds of those costs. Charitable giving covered another quarter (over $17 billion was donated to arts, culture, and humanities organizations in 2014). Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts granted out $117 million in 2014. For perspective on how small this federal role is, consider that the nascent “crowdfunding” website Kickstarter surpassed the NEA in 2012 in the amount it passes on to arts creators. By 2015, Kickstarter was distributing several times as much annual funding to artists as the NEA. Indicators of Kickstarter’s new role in providing venture capital for the arts include the fact that works funded by its donors now regularly win Grammy and Academy awards, get exhibited at museums like the MoMa and Smithsonian, and perform in top venues like the Kennedy Center and Sundance Film Festival.

Hedge-fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is sometimes refered to as “George Soros’s right-wing twin” due to his support of think tanks and public policy research on the conservative side of the spectrum. But he is also a devoted music lover. In the late 1960s, he left a Ph.D. program at Harvard, felled by writer’s block, and took up driving taxis, writing, working on political campaigns, and studying the harpsichord at the Juilliard School of Music. Though he is famously reticent about his motivations for any philanthropic work, his experience with Juilliard apparently made a mark on him, as he later became long-time chairman of the school’s board. He also became a board member and generous backer of others of the most significant arts organizations in the country, including Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At Juilliard, Kovner became one of the most generous donors in the history of the school. In 2006, he donated a priceless collection of manuscripts to the school (original sheet music by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and many others). In 2009, he began supporting the school’s Historical Performance Program, a graduate-level effort to study and encourage authentic presentations of music created from 1600 to the early 1800s. In 2012, Kovner donated $20 million to fully fund the program—providing full scholarships for all students.

For more than a century, a priceless collection of relics of the American Revolution has been slowly gathering, waiting for an appropriate home. Included are the tent George Washington slept in during his war campaigning (carefully preserved by generations of admirers), manuscripts, works of art, weapons, and historical objects. Inexplicably, our founding revolution—a central element of U.S. history and culture—had never been fully explored in U.S. museums. Finally, in 2012, a private donor campaign was kicked off to remedy that by erecting a Museum of the American Revolution.

Catalyzing this new institution was a crucial $60 million of giving from Philadelphia-area media mogul Gerry Lenfest. His donation was paired with about that much more money from other private contributors. Capping the creation was an inventive land deal engineered by Lenfest. He acquired 78 acres adjoining Valley Forge Park, then swapped them for a perfect museum site in the historic section of Philadelphia, just steps from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Together, these private efforts allowed the long-wished-for museum to become a reality.

The Museum of the American Revolution opened in 2017 in a $150 million building designed by architect Robert Stern, replacing the National Park Service’s failed Independence Park Visitor’s Center. Thousands of rare objects are displayed in 28,000 square feet of exhibit space. The tale of America’s birth is fleshed out with films, still images, and some inventive interpretive information that brings to life the fiery invention of our nation. Donors are now contributing to a $25 million operating endowment.

When Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium (longtime home to the Philharmonic and other Kansas City cultural organs) was erected, it was paid for entirely by the federal government with New Deal money. That building’s latest successor, opened in 2012, is the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It was financed 100 percent from private sources.

The new arts center, which cost $366 million, had 25 donors who gave at least a million dollars. The heaviest support came via philanthropy from the Kauffman family. The Muriel Kauffman Foundation gave $80 million, and another $26 million was provided by the Ewing Kauffman Foundation. (These are the separate foundations of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman, a married couple who made their fortune in pharmaceutical and baseball investments.) An additional $25 million was donated by their daughter Julia.

Today the dramatically styled Kauffman Center is home to the Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera, and the Kansas City Ballet, along with many smaller and touring performers. A New York Times reviewer characterized the new facility as “one of the most enjoyable, exhilarating arts centers I’ve been to.”

In 1998, an anonymous billionaire purchased a horribly preserved medieval prayer book at a Christie’s auction for $2 million. The reason for the gaudy price? The battered volume also contained the most important scientific manuscript ever sold at auction. The book was a palimpsest—a text written on top of an older text (because parchment was once so precious that books no longer appreciated often had their pages washed or scraped clean, and then recycled into new books). Underneath the thirteenth-century prayers were the erased contents of seven ancient works, nearly all of them previously lost to civilization, including two hitherto unknown essays by the third-century B.C. Greek mathematical genius Archimedes.

Portions of the previous text were visible as ghostly shadows, and had been translated in the early 1900s. But after the anonymous donor purchased the palimpsest he deposited it at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and donated additional funds, supplemented by gifts from the Selz and Stockman Family foundations, so that the manuscript could be studied, conserved, and then presented to the public. Curators proceeded to disassemble, clean, and analyze the work. Over a 12-year period, more than 80 experts contributed to this philanthropically funded effort, culminating in an X-ray scan at Stanford that detected residual iron atoms from the iron-based ink of the original texts. That allowed scholars to read large sections of previously hidden text.

In addition to previously unknown works of history, philosophy, and politics, there were two important treatises by Archimedes: The Method of Mechanical Theorems, which explores the concept of infinity and anticipates many of the techniques of calculus, and Stomachion, the earliest Western theorizing in mathematical combinations of a sort that are now central to modern computing.

The Stanford scan also discovered the name of the scribe who erased the Archimedes text and other ancient writings and transcribed the prayers on top: Johannes Myronas, who finished his work on April 14, 1229, in Jerusalem. The prayer book was apparently then used for centuries in the monastery at St. Sabbas in the Judean desert. All of this is fascinatingly documented in a layman’s book, Internet postings, and a multi-volume work from Cambridge University Press that presents actual images of the processed pages with transcriptions—thanks to the anonymous donor who started the whole investigation, and his insistence that all findings and images be shared directly with interested scholars and members of the public.

Only major centers like New York and Boston can support great museums. Such is the conventional wisdom, but Alice Walton didn’t buy it. She had a vision of creating a superb American art museum in the center of the country, and inviting citizens to enjoy and learn from it in comfortable ways. As a successful banker, she had the savvy to guide the project. And she had the means. Alice’s father Sam founded Walmart, and the family already owned an extensive American art collection deemed one of the finest in the country, including works by Durand, Sargent, Peale, and others—centuries of American masterpieces.

In 2011, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville, Arkansas (also the headquarters of Walmart). Named after a spring on the property, the museum boasts 120 acres, a library, a sculpture garden, an operating budget of $16 million, and an endowment of over $800 million. Defying the odds, Alice Walton’s project received enthusiastic critical reviews for both its architecture and its collection. And thanks to Walmart sponsorship, admission is free. In its first full year of operation (2012), the museum attracted more than 600,000 visitors. Walton remains chairman of the board.

Rick DeVos grew up in Grand Rapids as the grandson of the founder of Amway. He wanted to bring the arts to Grand Rapids in an unprecedented way. He initially explored the idea of a film festival, but concluded the city would have nothing unique to offer the crowded field. Instead, he settled on the idea of an art contest. Borrowing from science contents that offered large cash prizes for the best inventions, DeVos made the rules clear and simple. But he also added his own twist by turning the entire city into both the art gallery (as the art would be displayed across town) and the judge (as the winners would be determined by popular vote). DeVos’ goal wasn’t high art; it was to build a love for art within the city. By its second year, the contest cost $2.8 million dollars (mostly paid for by the DeVos foundation), attracted 1,700 artists and 400,000 “judges” from all over the world, drove from 50,000 to 250,000 apiece to Grand Rapids’ art museums, and in some cases produced art that defines the Grand Rapids landscape today.

It is little known that for fully a quarter of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln didn’t live in the White House. He and his family chose to reside at a cottage on the grounds of a home for retired soldiers in northern Washington, D.C. At that time this was a rural area, and amid the pressure of the Civil War, their sorrow over losing their 12-year-old son Willie, and the fact that the White House was a wide-open bedlam where the President could be besieged by public petitioners at any time of day or night, the Lincolns found the quiet green oasis a place of peace and comfort. They slept there just days after their first inauguration, and on the night before the President was killed. Lincoln made some of his most momentous decisions there, including formulating the Emancipation Proclamation, and he read the Bible, poetry, and Shakespeare on its breezy porch. One historian described the Soldiers’ Home cottage as “The only place we are certain Lincoln was happy during his Presidency.”

After being largely forgotten for generations, the cottage was preserved and opened to the public by a private nonprofit, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Funds were raised to restore the building and interpret it for visitors, with real-estate developer and philanthropist Robert Smith being the primary donor. United Technologies Corporation provided $1 million and technical expertise to help create the nearby visitor center. Matthew and Ellen Simmons, Save America’s Treasures, and many other foundations and individuals also contributed. Lincoln’s Cottage opened for fascinating public tours in 2008.

The State Theater of New York was one of the original buildings in Lincoln Center, completed in 1964 as part of the urban renewal of New York City’s Lincoln Square. Home of the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera, the building was showing its age by the turn of the millenium. Lincoln Center’s board launched a $200 million capital campaign to renovate in two phases.

David Koch, one of the wealthiest businessmen in America, and a major philanthropist, had been attending ballets and concerts at the theater since it was built. He was also known as an art lover, having given generously to the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the years. Koch was convinced that the sublime performances presented in the theater needed a modernized building to hold them. Inspired by financier Stephen Schwarzman’s recent $100 million donation to the New York Public Library, Koch agreed to donate $100 million through his foundation over 10 years to renovate and maintain the State Theater. The project was completed on schedule in 2009.

Washington-area financier David Rubenstein, who has a passion for U.S. history, has focused his philanthropy in the national capital region. The goal of many of his gifts, he has said, “is to remind people of American history…. People know so little about our history…. That’s really why I try to do this.”

Many of Rubenstein’s efforts involve rehabilitation of patriotic sites. Take Arlington House. When Robert E. Lee sided with his state instead of his nation and took command of the Confederate army, the U.S. seized his family estate. It was located on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital from the south bank of the Potomac. Lee’s residence—which was modeled on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens and built as a tribute to his relative George Washington—was turned into a military headquarters. The grounds became the home of several thousand liberated slaves. Then, in the third year of the war, the property was turned into a burying ground for men killed in the fight to preserve the Union. We now know it as Arlington Cemetery.

The residence, Arlington House, was designated a memorial to Robert E. Lee in 1925 and put under the protection of the National Park Service. But by 2014 it was tattered. To improve the experience of the 650,000 people who visit each year, David Rubenstein pledged $12.4 million to the National Park Foundation for restoration of the house and museum, the landscape, and the historic slave quarters.

A year later, Rubenstein made a $5.4 million donation to refurbish a more recent war memorial: the Iwo Jima sculpture which remembers the sacrifices of World War II marines. Then just days later came more spit and polish: a $10 million gift to the private foundation that maintains Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello residence for public visits. That donation will help restore outbuildings, roads, and landscaping to return the property to its appearance as Jefferson knew it. In 2016, Rubenstein donated $10 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and $19 million to restore the Lincoln Memorial.

Previously, Rubenstein provided $7.5 million to repair the Washington Monument after it was damaged in an earthquake, $10 million toward a new library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and a share of the $30 million pledged by a group of local philanthropists to expand the National Gallery of Art. Rubenstein is known for buying historic documents and lending them to educational institutions or museums. One of the 17 remaining copies of the 715-year-old Magna Carta, which he purchased, is now on display in the National Archives.

From 2006 to 2017, Rubenstein’s giving to landmarks and historic sites in the national capital region totaled $135 million.

Eli and Edythe Broad’s foundations have assets of some $2.4 billion. Lifelong philanthropists, one of their major areas of focus has been art, and specifically, increasing access to contemporary art. Their own two collections, obtained over four decades, include nearly 2,000 works; they have donated 8,000 more pieces to nearly 500 museums worldwide. Their home region, the Los Angeles area, has benefited most from their art philanthropy. In 2006, the couple made a $23 million gift to build an incubator for artists at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2008, the Broads offered a $30 million challenge grant to revitalize the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. That same year they gave $60 million to build the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. And in 2013 they are scheduled to open their definitive museum, simply called The Broad, in downtown Los Angeles. They have also funded concert halls, revitalizations of public spaces, and served on countless museum boards.

  • The Broad,
  • Marjorie Garber, Patronizing the Arts (Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 20

The San Francisco Symphony was the first orchestra to feature radio broadcasts—in 1926, funded by local philanthropists. Almost 80 years later, in 2005, another generation of philanthropists (Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr.) offered a $10 million grant to bring San Francisco’s classical music to the Internet, television, home video, and local schools, through a program called Keeping Score. The result of this long pattern of philanthropically supported audience cultivation far afield of their home area, argues Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, was “to turn the San Francisco Symphony into the most adventurous, audience-friendly orchestra in America.” By 2015, the symphony had won 11 Grammy awards, and was playing for 600,000 fans every year.

The San Francisco Opera has similarly benefited from popularizing technology funded by philanthropy. The Koret Foundation purchased equipment that allowed the opera to record productions for showing in movie theaters nationwide, to beam free live simulcasts to parks and public spaces, and to create DVDs for public schools. Living donors John and Cynthia Gunn made a record $40 million grant that allowed the commissioning of new operas. And Dede Wilsey offered $5 million to modernize the business office, saving the opera $1.5 million every year in administrative costs.

Together, gifts like these have put classical music on a much more solid footing in San Francisco than in most other places.

Rex Sinquefield steered himself from a Missouri orphanage to leadership of a major investment firm 30 years later, in the process developing some of the first index funds. Today his company, Dimensional Fund Advisers, oversees more than $100 billion in assets. Sinquefield remains intensely loyal to, and interested in, the fate of his home state, where he retired in 2005. Active in state politics, he also maintains a strong interest in philanthropy—shaped particularly by his wife Jeanne’s passion for art and music. A distinguished demographer and a musician (string bass), Jeanne believes firmly in the value of the arts to education. Together the pair founded the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation and in 2005 began funding the University of Missouri’s School of Music.

An annual $50,000 in Sinquefield funding launched the Creating Original Music Project, a statewide program of camps and competitions for a variety of ages to promote composition of new music. In 2009, an additional $1 million gift started a spinoff project, the Mizzou New Music Initiative—an incubator for composition and performance of new music that added funding for scholarships, a summer music festival, and more. In 2013, the Sinquefields donated an additional $1.4 million to expand these two initiatives.

The New Music Initiative aims, in its own words, to “position the University of Missouri School of Music as a leading center in the areas of composition and new music.” The Sinquefields had found, as attentive philanthropists are wont to do, an underserved niche, then applied encouragement to help new cultural entrepreneurs fill it.

Self-made Chicago financier Richard Driehaus argues that “Americans deserve better buildings… . Architecture should be of human scale, representational form, and individual expression that reflects a community’s architectural heritage.” He believes that relatively few contemporary buildings offer the “delight, proportion, and harmony” that good classical architecture provided in the past. So he created a major annual cash prize to encourage architects to do better.

Until then, the most prominent annual architecture award was the $100,000 Pritzker Prize, which generally went to ideological modernists, without much regard to how much fondness their buildings generated among the residents who had to live with them. Driehaus wanted to create incentives for architects to concentrate on traditional forms of architecture—which continue to be loved by ordinary citizens as much as they are neglected by many elites.

In 2003, Driehaus partnered with the University of Notre Dame’s architecture school (a hotbed of neoclassicism) to establish the $200,000 Driehaus prize. It is given each year to “a living architect whose work embodies the highest ideals of traditional and classical architecture in contemporary society, and creates a positive cultural, environmental, and artistic impact.” Its first recipient was Leon Krier, who designed the model town of Poundbury in England. Other winners have included neoclassicists like the husband-and-wife team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Allen Greenberg, England’s Quinlan Terry, and Egypt’s Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil. Postmodern architects Robert Stern and Michael Graves, who have demonstrated fluency in classical motifs, have also won the award.

“The prize thus represents a partial counterbalance to the rejection of classical forms by elite architecture that prevailed for much of the last century,” writes James Panero. In the process it has encouraged a fresh look at traditional modes of building and styling, and encouraged a whole new generation of designers to respect the forms created through centuries of urban evolution.

Ruth Lilly was a poet herself. She had grown up wealthy, but that wasn’t an advantage as she tried to express herself through verse. For years she sent samples to Poetry magazine using the pseudonym Guernsey Van Riper, but nobody was ever quite impressed enough to print what she wrote. That didn’t dampen her love for the medium, or her belief in the magazine that had printed most of the great American poets since its founding in 1912. Over time, the Indianapolis resident’s interest turned less toward her own poetry and more toward promoting poetry as such.

In 1986, she established the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $100,000 award to honor the lifetime accomplishments of living American poets. In 1989, she funded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships, $15,000 awards given to young up-and-coming poets to encourage their further study and writing of poetry. And in 2002, at age 87, she made her biggest splash, giving $100 million to Poetry magazine’s publisher, the Poetry Foundation. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, this transformed the organization “from the most highly regarded but also perennially penniless American poetry journal into the world’s largest foundation for verse.” The endowment allowed the foundation to expand the fellowships from one winner per year to five, to pay printed poets more than the paltry $2 per line it had been able to afford in the past, and to offer funding to deserving writers. This changed the landscape of American poetry, at least at the highest levels, offering a path in which success could actually pay. Lilly, who also gave $120 million to the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, died in 2009.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has been a groundbreaker in the growing field of direct philanthropic support to artists—ranging from open-ended gifts to commissioning of specific works. Founded in 1996 in large part to improve the quality of people’s lives through arts and culture, DDCF has already given more than $218 million to the arts, and has made two major investments in the lives of performing artists.

The first, in partnership with the Surdna Foundation, began in 2001. The idea was to pair budding performers with more experienced ones in a long-term mentorship program. After conducting research to establish the structure of the program, the Talented Students in the Arts Initiative invited applications from performing-arts schools that allowed aspiring artists to work with professionals. The applications required the institutions to demonstrate program excellence, matching funding, and a commitment to nurturing new artists.

In the first year, four arts high schools and five training institutions received grants totaling between $1 million and $1.6 million. All told, the program disbursed about $16 million in three- to five-year commitments, and strengthened programs like the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in New England and the Cleveland School for the Arts. (The latter, for example, was able to send 20 more students to camps and internships with established professionals each year.)

Ten years after the start of the Talented Students in the Arts Initiative, Duke Foundation president Ed Henry announced a second kind of investment in performing-arts talent. Over 10 years, $50 million would be allocated to provide multiyear fellowships of up to $275,000 to performing artists in jazz, theater, and contemporary dance. These grants represented the largest cash allocations to performing artists in history, and would allow the foundation to support up to 200 artists. The fellowships would be initiated by an anonymous peer-review panel—no applications would be accepted—and they would be an investment in the artist and his work, not a grant to create a specific project. The foundation collaborated on this project with the Creative Capital Foundation, which itself has been a pioneer in venture-philanthropy for artists since its founding in 1999. The first Doris Duke Artists were announced in 2012, the centennial of Duke’s birth.

Brigham Young University has developed a reputation within the entertainment industry for its ability to turn out well-trained graduates with technical and storytelling skills, middle-American values, and solid work habits—making them prized hires in fields like movie animation. (See 1999 item nearby.) The latest area of growth and achievement is in television.

BYUtv is a major enterprise at the university, with a budget of $40 million per year, some of it coming from institutional support or commercial sponsorship, but most of it philanthropically funded. Fully 350 students work half time in the production studios, which also have 100 full-time employees. The most valuable “output” of the operation is thus not actually its programming, but the fully trained students who leap from BYU’s Utah campus to Hollywood, Manhattan, Nashville, and other centers of entertainment production.

Thanks to donor support, the BYU studios now feature state-of-the-art digital equipment. With it, the department produces some 1,200 hours of television per year, which it distributes free all around the world via Internet streaming, cable distribution, and broadcast. And the organization has a special mission: to help people see the good in the world, via high-quality, wholesome, entertaining programing that entire families and people of all faiths and backgrounds can enjoy.

Both the “wholesome” and the “entertaining” parts of that equation are important. “You want your kids to eat broccoli, and they want to eat pizza,” analogizes Scott Swofford, the director of content at BYU Broadcasting. “We’re making broccoli pizza. The balance for us is if there’s too much broccoli and edifying and uplifting and faith-based content, then no one’s going to eat the pizza.”

So BYUtv has shows on American history, on the charitable spirit, on family life, on holidays—but all of it works hard to be amusing. As often as not, it succeeds. The sketch-comedy show “Studio C,” for instance, has drawn 40 million online views in just a few seasons. The Cold War drama “Granite Flats” is produced at a cost of $1 million per episode—about a third the cost of a typical network drama—yet is winning accolades. In recent years, BYUtv programs have won more than two dozen regional Emmy awards.

Ira Fulton’s mother taught him to give generously from the time he was a child in Arizona. Her hamburger stand never turned anyone away, even if customers couldn’t pay. “They’re hungry,” his mother explained simply.

Fulton didn’t have much money himself growing up, nor in his first years of marriage. What he did have was a tremendous work ethic and a lively imagination. Diligently working one job after another, he eventually struck out on his own. He started a computer company. He helped remake a dying clothing retailer into a big moneymaker. He got into homebuilding.

A Mormon and lifelong tither, Fulton put extra focus on helping others after he became wealthy. In 1999 he donated a supercomputer to Brigham Young University. A couple years later some students used the big machine to create an animated film that was good enough to win both a student Academy Award and a student Emmy. That was the first in a string of brilliant student-made animated films out of BYU that soon had collected 5 Oscars and 16 Emmys. An excited Ira Fulton started donating more supercomputers, BYU strung them together, and in short order the college had the big-league processing power to sustain Pixar and Disney levels of animation.

Before long, Fulton had helped BYU create the curriculum and facilities for a freestanding Center for Animation, and it was turning out star animators involved in films like I, Robot and Star Wars. One of the unique features of BYU’s curriculum is that it doesn’t just teach the students how to create the art, it trains them in the business environment of movie studios, and how to work selflessly in strong teams to create commercial films. BYU’s predominantly Mormon students also take the university’s core classes in literature and history and religion.

And soon, animation studios like Sony, Pixar, and Disney, as well as top computer-game makers like Blizzard, and television cartoon companies like Nickelodeon, were snatching up graduates. The BYU-trained students were prized equally for bringing creative talent, strong work ethics, and wholesome values to animated filmmaking, where themes of good and evil, and family-friendly approaches, are important.

Ira Fulton eventually donated close to $100 million to Brigham Young University. His generosity made it possible for this upstart in Utah to rise to the top of a super-competitive industry in less than 15 years. Today, BYU’s Center for Animation is considered one of the best programs of its sort in the world, and sends about 25 new practitioners per year into the heart of the digital animation business—which has become a powerful influence on culture in the U.S. and around the globe.

Rea Axline had southern California written all over him. He had graduated from Caltech in 1931, and then figured out how to coat metal alloys onto other metal objects—reaping a fortune when World War II turned that capability into a goldmine.

Rea’s wife, Lela, had an equally strong SoCal signature, except she was an artist rather than an inventor. She garnered critical acclaim for her abstract painting during the 1950s—and also loved teaching and helping other people appreciate what she did. When the Axlines turned to philanthropy, both of their occupations profited, as did their home city of San Diego, where they focused their giving. They supported hospitals, the local zoological society, Rea’s alma mater Caltech, and the local art museums.

It was after their deaths (Rea in 1992, Lela at the end of 1998) that their greatest contributions became known. One was a multimillion-dollar bequest to Caltech. The other was a pair of $30-million bequests: to the San Diego Museum of Art, and to San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In each case, the sum was the largest gift the museum had received. The Museum of Art’s endowment prior to the gift had been $47 million; the MCA’s, only $4 million. The MCA was consequently able to expand into two new buildings in 2007, and the Museum of Art undertook a major renovation of its art school.

Aaron Copland meant a lot to a lot of people. So it’s no surprise that when he died in 1990 the preservationists got to work. One of America’s most distinctive composers, Copland wrote ballets, symphonies, movie scores, and jazz. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, the Pulitzer Prize in composition in 1945, an Academy Award for musical score in 1950, and many other honors. His home in Cortlandt Manor, New York, was simple and unspectacular—a prairie-style house with unobtrusive rooms that echoed to the sounds of his piano for 30 years—but it reflected its historically significant resident artist.

When Copland died in 1990, there were plans to sell the house. But a group of local citizens banded together to preserve it as a museum. Incorporated in 1995, the group conducted an effective grassroots fundraising campaign, raising $150,000 to restore the home. Today, it is owned by the town of Cortlandt and leased (virtually for free) to the Copland Heritage Association. Unlike some preserved artist residences, Copland House is not just a shrine. The Aaron Copland Awards, established in 1998, provide fellowships for six to eight emerging composers to live and work in the building, drawing their inspiration from its chambers for months at a time. The house also has a resident repertory ensemble, called Music from Copland House, which has won national acclaim for its performances. Various education programs based at the home also keep community members and enthusiasts entertained and educated. And in 2009, the Copland House and Westchester County established a new creative center for American music, bringing more resident composers to the area to learn and create.

In 2008, the Copland House was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is the only classical-music-related landmark to receive the distinction.

  • Copland House,
  • Howard Pollack, Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (University of Illinois Press, 2000)

Creed Black was concerned. President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which conducts arts philanthropy in the 26 cities in which the Knight brothers owned newspapers, Black had noticed an increase in S.O.S. calls from struggling orchestras in its communities.

Recognizing that last-ditch cash infusions were rarely the way to save an orchestra, Black proposed a longer-term investment. With help from Oberlin College, he gathered a group of arts experts from Knight cities. Some of the experts thought there wasn’t a long-term problem at all. Others suggested the problem was that concert halls were too stuffy. In the end, they created a Magic of Music program that had the goal of reversing the decline in audiences, and strengthening the relationship between audience and orchestra.

This was executed in two five-year phases, beginning in 1994 and concluding in 2004. In phase one, $5.4 million of grants supported fresh multiyear projects from ten orchestras. In phase two, $7 million supported 13 orchestras, some of whom had been involved in phase one, some new. Based on what the program’s leadership learned in the first program, phase two introduced tighter goals, useful audience research, technical assistance, and better evaluation. Along the way, Knight commissioned two independent studies—one researched how Americans relate to classical music and local orchestras, the other analyzed the Magic of Music program itself.

By the end of these programs, orchestras and art philanthropists nationwide had far better knowledge about audience behavior (including the people who weren’t coming to performances). A host of long-held assumptions was debunked. A working consortium of orchestras shared information on grants, programs, publications, and more.

Thanks to the Magic of Music program, orchestras knew that classical music wasn’t dead, and they had long lists of what did and didn’t work to cultivate audiences. Meanwhile, music philanthropists learned that technical assistance and research could be as important as dollars. From 2004 onward, lovers of classical music knew much more about how to keep symphonies alive.

When philanthropist Patricia Kennedy invited rock artist Prince to join her at the Joffrey Ballet in 1991, she didn’t think the shy star would say yes.

Prince was renting a mansion from her at the time, and had a reputation as a recluse. He surprised her by agreeing, and after seeing his first ballet, went home in excitement to write dance music. The Joffrey had been founded in 1956, and moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1982, staggering under $1 million in debt and in danger of folding. Kennedy had long been one of its biggest supporters, and she gave extensively to keep the wolf from the door. Her introduction of a popular artist to formal art, however, may have been the biggest gift she ever gave the company.

As the Joffrey’s finances continued to spiral downward, Kennedy suggested that the company use Prince’s music in a ballet. A few months and a few conversations later, Prince had offered the company unprecedented access to his music, which allowed the Joffrey in 1993 to produce the first-ever rock ballet, entitled Billboard. In seemingly no time the work caught fire, winning a vast, new, younger audience that would fill its seats for a generation. By 1995 the company had made a permanent home in Chicago, and today bills itself as the “mavericks of American dance.”

Thanks in large part to the visibility generated by Kennedy’s tenant, the Joffrey is also known as America’s company of firsts: the first ballet troupe to perform at the White House, the first to appear on television, the first on the cover of Time magazine, the first to have a major movie based on it (The Company, 2003), and, of course, the first to perform a rock-and-roll ballet.

(Photo by the Joffrey Ballet School) 

Walter Annenberg spent his life building a media empire, launching Seventeen and TV Guide magazines, and starting or buying one television station or cable company after another. By the mid-twentieth century he was making sizable charitable donations, and by the 1980s he had turned almost full time to philanthropy. While his roughly $2 billion in cash for education, research, broadcasting, and other areas included many notable milestones, perhaps his most stunning single gift came in the arts realm.

Annenberg had already been influential in lobbying to get the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia’s suburbs opened to the public. He later tried unsuccessfully to start a center for art education through television. Then in 1991, he pledged his personal collection of 53 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection was valued at $1 billion at the time. When the gift was announced, the New York Times suggested that the “Annenberg collection …may be acclaimed in due time as the most important single gift to have been given to the Metropolitan Museum since 1929.”

Carnegie Hall is an American treasure—its history, its architecture, and its magnificent acoustics make it the gold standard for American music halls even a century and a quarter after its opening. It is also a masterpiece of philanthropy, having been created in 1891 for the enjoyment of the American public as a gift from Andrew Carnegie, who paid the entire bill for its creation and whose family owned the hall until 1925. Over the decades, thousands of concerts by the world’s greatest artists have taken place in the facility, and the New York Philharmonic was in residence from 1892 to 1962.

By the early 1980s, though, the hall was in serious disrepair. Having rarely turned a profit in 90 years of existence, the facility required an estimated $30 million in fixes, and was in danger of being demolished. Then James Wolfensohn, an investment banker with a passion for music, led an ambitious effort to not only raise the money for restoration but also revamp the hall’s business practices to ensure a long life. Wolfensohn overhauled the concert schedule and modernized the hall’s marketing. He donated a million dollars of his own and roped other prominent New Yorkers into joining the effort. They raised $80 million, broadened the base of annual contributors from under 800 to over 9,000, and set the hall on a secure financial footing for the first time in decades.

The very earliest effort to meld commerce and art to keep Carnegie Hall flush had been when Andrew Carnegie himself added towers to the original auditorium to provide practice studios that could be rented to musicians. This both addressed a shortage of practice space in the city and gave the hall some regular cash flow. In 2014, a major donor-funded renovation of these practice spaces was unveiled. Fully rebuilt, enlarged, and sound-proofed, the rooms have allowed the facility to greatly expand its teaching, student performances, children’s programming, master classes for artists, and chamber music activity, while making rehearsing more efficient for all sizes of ensembles.

During the construction, a roof garden was also added, the backstage areas of the hall were redone, all 450 windows were restored, and the exterior of the building was floodlit for the first time. The $230 million project made the hall more visible and useable, and the new spaces are also being rented, as planned, for receptions, weddings, and celebrations, adding another source of steady revenue to support the facility’s arts programming. This further solidification of the future of the musical capital of the nation was supported by major donors like Joan and Sanford Weill ($35 million), Judith and Burton Resnick ($10 million), Lily Safra ($6 million), and others.

Many of the performing-arts organizations based in New York City’s philanthropically supported Lincoln Center perform outside the metropolitan area during the summer. To help fill the gap in concerts, Lincoln Center managers launched a new program in 1987 to stage a series of jazz performances at the Center in the warm-weather months. By 1991, Jazz at Lincoln Center had become an official department devoted to year-round support and performance of America’s original music. Under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, a resident orchestra was assembled and sent on regular national tours. The program received generous support from a range of donors, foundations, and companies, including a $20 million gift from investor Robert Appel in 2014.

Donor support also allowed numerous jazz-education initiatives to be created. These include not only instruction for local school children, but also a remarkable national festival that supports jazz in high school bands around America. The “Essentially Ellington” program sends full sets of classic jazz music, specially selected for each year, to any interested high-school music program in the U.S. Additional training materials, recordings, workshops, and on-site coaching are also offered to teachers and students who delve into the music. Up to a dozen regional festivals are held around the country, giving local high-school ensembles access to expert critiques and instruction. Toward the end of the year, jazz bands that have prepared that year’s selected songs for concert are invited to send recordings to the “Essentially Ellington” staff, and the top entrants are invited to Lincoln Center. There they get additional workshops and mentoring from jazz masters, and then play in a climactic concert, along with Wynton Marsalis. Competition winners and runners-up are honored. Repeated every year since 1996, the “Essentially Ellington” festival has engrained the great jazz standards and techniques in a whole new generation of American youngsters.

On a trip to Europe, Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay fell in love with some paintings by seventeenth-century Flemish artist Clara Peeters. When they returned home, they were disappointed to find they couldn’t find Peeters in any of the major art textbooks.

Around this same time, in the early 1960s, the Holladays decided to focus their art collecting on women in the arts. After a couple of decades their collection had grown large enough that Wilhelmina started thinking about displaying it. Her initial idea was to donate it to some museum, but Nancy Hanks, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, convinced her to start a museum of her own with the Holladay collection as its core.

By 1981, Wilhelmina’s energies had gotten enough people on board for the National Museum of Women in the Arts to open in temporary offices, with most of the 500 pieces of art remaining at the Holladays’ home (open for tours). By 1983, Wilhelmina had completed a tenacious capital campaign and raised enough money to purchase and renovate an 80,000-square-foot building near the White House. All in all, $17 million was raised, and the museum opened in its new home in 1987. The museum’s unusually active membership spans all 50 states, and the collection now includes approximately 3,000 works dating back to the Renaissance. Wilhelmina received the 2006 National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush.

  • National Museum of Women in the Arts, History,
  • Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, A Museum of Their Own (Abbeville Books, 2008)

Moses Asch originally co-founded Folkways Records in 1948 in an ambitious attempt to record and document “the entire world of sound.” At the time, this meant everything from music of all sorts to poetry and historical recordings. His tiny staff recorded over 2,000 albums in 38 years, capturing some of the most important artists and writers of the day, including Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and W. E. B. DuBois.

The idea wasn’t to make money, and they didn’t stop offering something if it wasn’t selling. “Would you take the letter ‘q’ out of the dictionary because it was used less than the other letters?” Asch liked to ask. Near the end of his life, in the 1980s, Asch was looking for a way to preserve his recordings for future generations.

He found Ralph Rinzler at the Smithsonian, who was running the institution’s folk festival. Asch offered to donate the collection on one condition: that the Smithsonian uphold his commitment to keeping the sounds of American folk music alive. Asch died before the deal could be completed, but in 1987 it was finalized and a new nonprofit, Smithsonian Folkways, was launched. Smithsonian Folkways has subsequently added 375 more recordings, and in 2005 made much of the collection available online—with the help of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Jackson Pollock was one of the most significant painters of the twentieth-century, but his family’s legacy goes far beyond his paintings. By the early 1980s, with Pollock long dead and his wife, Lee Krasner, ailing, their wealth (largely consisting of both spouses’ works) was valued at approximately $20 million. Krasner opted in 1985 to donate those assets to create a foundation, not to promote her art or her husband’s, but to support “worthy and needy visual artists” around the world. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation became the first successful foundation established by an artist, for artists, and is known for its smart, personal, flexible, fast philanthropy. It has to work that way, because unlike most art-loving groups, it focuses on providing emergency financial assistance to artists.

The foundation has been known to pay rent, provide health care or mental help, and meet a variety of other needs for talented artists. It supports dozens of artists each year, with grants varying in size and purpose based on the artist’s skill and need. It funds only visual artists who work in the categories of painting, sculpture, and installation (e.g. no computer or video artists), but has no requirements in terms of style. The foundation also operates the Lee Krasner Awards, which are by nomination only and recognize an artist’s lifetime achievements. As of 2012, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation has made over 3,500 grants totaling $54 million to artists in 72 countries, and artists have credited its assistance for rescuing them from everything from poverty to creative blocks to suicide.

  • Waldemar Nielsen, Inside American Philanthropy (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996) p. 136-139
  • Pollock-Krasner Foundation,

The Statue of Liberty may be the best known monument in the world, and the adjoining Ellis Island immigration halls are among America’s most historic sites. Both venues have been restored and revamped for mass visitation entirely by private philanthropy. In 1982, as the centennial of the statue approached, President Ronald Reagan appointed Lee Iacocca, then chairman of Chrysler Corporation, to lead a private-sector effort to fund restoration and preservation; the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation was born. Almost 1,000 laborers soon went to work, and the internal structure of the statue was rebuilt, the deteriorated torch replaced, an elevator installed, and a public exhibit created in the pedestal base. The preserved monument reopened to the public on July Fourth weekend, 1986. The foundation then went to work saving the badly deteriorated Ellis Island structures where millions of American families first touched U.S. soil. Five buildings were saved and turned into informative exhibits, and the island opened to visitors in 1990, two years ahead of schedule. In 1993, the foundation created a permanent endowment to fund enhancements of the two sites for years to come; so far, more than 200 projects have been carried out with endowment proceeds. The American people have now contributed more than $600 million in voluntary contributions to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, allowing all this work to be done without any government funds. Since opening in 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum has welcomed 40 million visitors, and the Statue of Liberty hosts 4 million guests every year.

The founding of The New Criterion is a case study in how foundation philanthropy has changed. Two art critics, Hilton Kramer and Samuel Lipman, wanted to start a conservative journal that focused on intellectual criticism. As Kramer put it, they wanted a publication that would “identify and uphold a standard of quality, and speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the arts and the life of the mind in our society.”

Kramer was an intellectual heavyweight who eventually became the chief art critic at the New York Times, and Lipman was a pianist who served as the long-time music critic at Commentary. Both carried weight in critical circles, but the linchpin of their publication’s launch was Michael Joyce, executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation. Joyce was sold on the pair’s idea before he’d seen a single grant application, business plan, or funders list; he thought the strength of the editors would carry the project. He contacted Richard Larry at the Sarah Scaife Foundation and Leslie Lenkowsky of the Smith Richardson Foundation, and each of the three organizations agreed to commit $100,000 per year for the first three years.

Almost before they’d begun, Kramer and Lipman had the funding they needed to get started. In the years that followed, Joyce would hold up The New Criterion as a paragon for conservative philanthropy—relying on reputations and relationships, rather than red tape, to quickly translate a fresh idea into reality. The strength of the project idea, not the needs of the funders, had driven the project. The New Criterion remains a small but significant intellectual force today, influencing conservative and liberal intellectuals alike, leading the London Telegraph to tag it “America’s leading review of the arts and intellectual life.”

In 1981, the actor Robert Redford gathered a group of his friends and colleagues in the Utah mountains to think through ways of encouraging high-quality independent filmmaking in the U.S. Later that spring, ten younger filmmakers were invited to the first Filmmakers/Directors Lab sponsored by a new nonprofit calling itself the Sundance Institute. In the remote natural setting, the participants were given opportunities to develop original film projects with guidance from experienced writers and directors, while getting advanced training in practical areas like editing and storytelling.

Since that time, Sundance’s Feature Film Program has supported more than 300 additional feature films, and 500 films have been supported by the institute’s Documentary Film Program. In 1984 a Theatre Program was added, which has since supported the development of more than 200 plays. The institute also took over a pre-existing film festival staged in Park City, Utah, and turned the January event into the nation’s most important festival for presenting independent movies. Festival features have included productions like Reservoir Dogs, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, American Splendor, An Inconvenient Truth, Little Miss Sunshine, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Many significant filmmakers, like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, received their first prominence at Sundance.

All of this is heavily supported by philanthropy. Contributions to the institute totaled $20 million in 2014. Ticket and fee income, meanwhile, came to under $15 million. Donors thus carry most of the group’s expense load. They range from small individual contributors to foundations like Annenberg, Ford, and Gates.

Ted Arison knew something about building small chances into big successes. He had grown Carnival Cruise Lines from a single ship into the largest and most profitable cruise line in the world (by far, with revenues of over $2 billion a year). When he took up art philanthropy, he founded the YoungArts program and the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. Rather than focus on the display or creation of art, Arison wanted to start an organization that focused on young artists themselves, building them up with encouragement and support. Since Florida hosted several of Carnival’s major hubs, Arison opted to locate the program in Miami, a city he believed was in need of a stronger arts presence.

Since its founding, YoungArts has supported the careers of thousands of budding artists through education programs, financial support, awards, and more. One of its programs, YoungArts Week, brings 150 of the nation’s best young artists to Miami for a week each year, providing them with encouragement, training, and networking opportunities with their peers and with established artists.

Gian Carlo Menotti was a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Italian-American composer who had a passion for introducing popular audiences to opera. In 1958, he had founded the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, a festival that drew hundreds of thousands of people to see and hear music, theater, and dance performances. In the 1970s, he decided he wanted to bring the same experience to America, and got other composers and music-lovers on board. A search led them to Charleston, South Carolina, as the perfect city in terms of setting and amenities.

The first Spoleto Festival USA in 1977 was a success, and Charleston became its permanent home. Since then, the festival has become a 17-day phenomenon, with more than 700 events attended by up to 80,000 people. It has become one of the world’s leading music festivals, presenting more than 200 world or American premieres, and hosting budding artists who later become acclaimed, like Joshua Bell, Renée Flemming, and Yo-Yo Ma.

Philanthropy has made the festival possible from the beginning. Today, ticket sales provide half of the event’s revenue, and an equal amount (more than $3 million per year) comes from donations large and small. Major gifts come from a pool of more than 600 annual donors. Private giving is likewise central to the physical plant that hosts the musical and theatrical performances. The city-owned auditorium which is the festival’s largest venue recently got a $142-million renovation with exactly half paid for privately.

Joseph Hirshhorn’s parents brought him to America from Latvia in 1907, as an eight-year-old. When he reached 13, he dropped out of school to get a job, and by 15 he was working on Wall Street. He saved $255 and used it to become a teenage stockbroker. He had a knack for making money, and used it to start collecting art, beginning with two small works by Albrecht Durer he purchased at age 18.

By the 1940s, he had become rich thanks to some mining investments, and had begun to quietly accumulate a substantial collection of modern sculpture. He made friends with many living artists. After he loaned some pieces to the Guggenheim Museum in 1962, galleries began to vie for his collection.

Particularly aggressive in courting Hirshhorn was Smithsonian president Dillon Ripley, who offered a location on the National Mall. The museum opened in 1974, in an unfortunate new building designed by Gordon Bunshaft. The structure became “known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable of the New York Times. She described the structure as “born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern…not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden.”

Hirshhorn’s collecting impulse, however, was not dead. He kept acquiring, and left another large bequest upon his death in 1981. Today, the museum houses over 12,000 works.

Featuring cellist Pablo Casals as honorary president, the inaugural Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival launched in 1973, with 14 artists performing a handful of Sunday concerts. Today, its six-week season in July and August brings thousands of people to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to partake of more than 80 musical events staged in auditoriums around the city. Since 1980 the festival has also commissioned more than 50 works from contemporary composers, adding significantly to the modern chamber-music repertoire. And the festival supports a strong year-round music-education series for K–8 school children in the Santa Fe area.

Americans all across the country who’ve never had a chance to attend the festival have also been soothed and aroused by music from Santa Fe. Since 1981, hundreds of festival performances have been broadcast nationally by the WFMT radio network. From its inception, the festival has relied heavily on hundreds of private donors. In a typical recent year, ticket sales brought in $538,000, while voluntary contributions totaled $1,150,000.

Kay and Velma Kimbell were among Texas’s first major art collectors, and it all happened virtually by accident. They attended a 1935 exhibit of paintings at Fort Worth’s downtown library, and bought one of the works. The exhibit’s organizer, Bertram Newhouse of New York, told them Texas needed more great art, and that they should start collecting. They did. Kay was a bit of an Anglophile, so their initial purchases focused on eighteenth-century British art, but they quickly branched out.

When Kay died in 1964, the entire family fortune was given to the Kimbell Art Foundation, with instructions to create a first-class art museum in Fort Worth. The project was begun in 1966, beginning with the Kimbell’s own collection of some 350 items, ranging from antiquity to the present. Since the collection was so diverse, there was no question of focusing on a particular era or art form; the organizing criteria was simply that the collections must be of the “highest aesthetic quality.”

The building itself met that same criteria. Designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1972, it won numerous awards and is admired for creating one of the fine interiors of the twentieth century. The museum expanded in 2013.

“You have many parks for recreation, but you have nothing in the performing arts,” Catherine Filene Shouse told the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. “Do you want Wolf Trap?” Heiress to the Filene’s department-store fortune, Shouse was offering her family’s farm located just outside Washington, D.C. Soon, Congress accepted the gift of 100 acres of land plus funds to build a 6,800-seat open-air theater, and in 1971 the venue opened just in time to capitalize on the massive expansion of Washington’s Virginia suburbs. Ten years later Shouse donated additional lands and money to create an indoor theater, made by connecting two eighteenth-century barns moved from upstate New York, so the park could host performances year-round. Wolf Trap is run by a private nonprofit foundation set up to program its music and dramatic events, handle marketing, develop educational programs, and raise philanthropic funds so ticket prices can be kept affordable. The National Park Service owns and maintains the grounds and buildings. Still the nation’s only national park dedicated to the performing arts, Wolf Trap has become a favorite cultural venue in the national capital region.

In 1967, a 26-part BBC adaptation of “The Forsyte Saga,” John Galsworthy’s book series following an upper-middle-class British family, premiered on American television. Stanford Calderwood, president of the Boston PBS station WGBH, loved the idea of regularly putting classic dramas on TV, and asked the BBC about a deal to allow his station to play more such British-produced shows. Talks went on, but money, as it so often is, was the problem. Calderwood explored several ideas for the show’s format and funding, and eventually found himself standing before Herb Schmertz of Mobil (later ExxonMobil).

Schmertz, a savvy intellectual, handled Mobil’s corporate gifts. Calderwood asked him if he had seen “The Forsyte Saga” and Schmertz said he had loved it. Calderwood asked if Mobil would consider funding similar BBC programming via a modest investment of $375,000. Schmertz was interested enough to find out what Calderwood was talking about, and eventually able to get the go-ahead from Mobil’s chairman.

In 1971, Masterpiece Theatre aired its first show (“The First Churchills”). Over the years, the series presented many beloved programs, bringing works of classic and recent literature to U.S. television—many of them unknown to American popular audiences. Notables included “Jeeves and Wooster,” “Upstairs/Downstairs,” “Wives and Daughters,” “I, Claudius,” and “Downton Abbey.” Over a 32-year period, Mobil/ExxonMobil would give $250 million in support of Masterpiece Theatre, ending its sponsorship in 2004. The series was supported by PBS viewer donors until 2011, when Franklin Templeton Investments became the next of several corporations to become sponsors.

Esquire magazine began giving annual Business in the Arts awards in 1966. A year later, David Rockefeller launched a national task force of CEOs dedicated to increasing arts philanthropy. In 1968, the two programs were combined into one project to recognize firms making significant contributions to the American arts.

Rockefeller believed that modern corporations had a major role to play in patronizing culture, filling the place that rich individuals occupied in Renaissance Europe. He hoped that the awards would play a role in encouraging corporations to step up. One of the earliest winners, the department store Abraham and Strauss, was honored in 1968 for funding revitalization of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In later years, IBM, Polaroid, and other companies were celebrated for sponsoring museums, performances, telecasts of art events, and more.

In 2008, the Business Committee for the Arts merged operations with Americans for the Arts to form the largest-ever private-sector advocacy organization for the arts. By that time, the business community’s art philanthropy had grown from an estimated $22 million in 1967 to over $3 billion in 2006.

When Mary Flagler Cary inherited a great deal of money from her wealthy parents, there was no doubt but that she would use much of it for the flourishing of music. Her father, Standard Oil investor Henry Flagler, had been president of the New York Philharmonic, her family’s rich music collection would be valued in 2005 at $100 million, and artists and musicians had been around the house for her entire life. When Mary died in 1967, she left a $72 million charitable trust focused on two purposes: New York City musical organizations, and national and local groups devoted to nature conservation. There was one catch: the trust must be depleted within 50 years.

Nearly a third of the trust’s gifts went to music. There was a focus on all five of New York City’s boroughs, and on many gifts to small organizations rather than big gifts to large entities. The trust made grants in performance, modern music, and music education, funding small orchestras and opera companies, ensembles, youth symphonies, and the like. The Cary Trust wound down by 2009 as methodically as it had operated, at the end making big gifts and setting up endowments so that its grantees would not be left in the lurch. In its lifetime, the Cary Trust distributed over $330 million.

  • Waleson, Heidi, “A Trust Fulfilled: Four Decades of Grantmaking by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust” (The Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, 2009)

By the time he endowed the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911, Andrew Carnegie had already given away some $43 million and started five charitable organizations. But he was 76 years old, and the day-to-day strain of managing his own philanthropy was getting to him. After consultation with friends, he gave $125 million to start a trust to distribute funds in his name. Additional sums were transferred upon his death.

One of the corporation’s lasting achievements was in the area of public television. In 1964, a conference on educational television led Boston civic leader Ralph Lowell to pitch Carnegie president John Gardner on the idea. Gardner checked with the Ford Foundation, which had up to that point dominated the field (eventually spending $300 million over 25 years to support local educational TV stations). He got only encouragement from Ford.

In 1965, the Corporation used $500,000 to establish and fund the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, to establish precisely how Americans used their televisions and make recommendations about how the technology could be used to spread learning. The commission included prominent figures like author Ralph Ellison, pianist Rudolph Serkin, and a number of businessmen and academics in technology-related fields. In 1967, the commission made its recommendations in “Public Television: A Program for Action.” Their central provision called for the establishment of a corporation for public television with a mix of public and private funding.

The report quickly made headlines. It sold 50,000 copies in a few days, and was mentioned by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address. In November of 1967, the commission’s top recommendation became reality with the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act. This eventually led to a Public Broadcasting System airing everything from Sesame Street (which premiered in 1969), to adaptations of classic literature, to various current-events shows. In the 1970s, the same framework led to creation of National Public Radio.

In the years since, the Carnegie Corporation has remained a major supporter of arts and education broadcasting on both TV and radio.

Avery Brundage is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Olympic movement—he was a track-and-field competitor at the 1912 Stockholm games, and led the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972. He grew up penniless, after his father abandoned the family, and was once described by Sports Illustrated as “the kind of man whom Horatio Alger had canonized—the American urchin, tattered and deprived, who rose to thrive in the company of kings and millionaires.” After his sporting career, Brundage made a fortune in construction, developing commercial buildings in fast-growing early-twentieth-century Chicago. During the Depression he would sometimes take an ownership interest in properties in lieu of cash payment—which paid off handsomely after World War II.

Brundage used a big part of his wealth to accumulate a collection of Asian art that Life called “one of the largest and most important in private hands in this country.” Its works spanned the continent, coming from not only Japan, Korea, and China, but also Southeast Asia, India, Tibet, and Persia. They included jades from the neolithic period to the modern era, as well as hundreds of bronzes, and an eclectic mix of ceramics, scrolls, paintings, prints, and textiles.

In the 1950s, Brundage offered to donate his treasures to the city of San Francisco. His unabashed goal was to help “the Bay Area become one of the world’s greatest centers of Oriental culture.” The new Asian Art Museum opened in 1966, with Brundage’s collection at the core. By the time he died in 1975, Brundage had given 7,700 artworks to the museum, and prodded it to increasing heights in public presentation and scholarly authority. Since then, other philanthropists have opened great collections of Asian art to the public—for instance, the Sackler and Freer Galleries in Washington D.C., and the Crow Museum in Dallas. Asian art is thus no longer uncommon in the U.S. Yet America’s preeminent repository of creations from across the Pacific remains the one gathered by the urchin from Chicago.

John Dorrance and William Murphy, chairman and president of Campbell Soup Company, had soup in their blood. Dorrance was the son of the founder of Campbell’s, and Murphy had worked there for nearly three decades. Not content with just making soup, the men wanted to showcase the fanciest crocks in which people served it. In 1966 they began collecting soup tureens and servers, and eventually founded a museum in Camden, New Jersey, to house hundreds of exquisite objects. In their enthusiasm, the men pulled together items of great and eclectic beauty: china, metalwork, and glass items, some of them dating back to the early 1700s.

During the 1990s, Campbell’s leadership decided its collection needed better care than they were able to provide. They found a willing partner in Winterthur, the lavish museum of American decorative arts located on the du Pont estate in Delaware. Winterthur already housed an impressive collection of nearly 100,000 art objects, and in 1997 added the 300-piece Campbell donation to a specially designed gallery. The collection is one of Winterthur’s most popular attractions.

Unlike some philanthropists, Ima Hogg’s first challenge wasn’t getting rich—it was getting around her comical name. The daughter of the governor of Texas was part of a high-powered family, and never lacked for stature or money, especially when oil was discovered under the family land she had inherited. From a young age, she played a major role in her father’s political and business affairs, and when she became an heiress in 1906 she turned her wealth to philanthropic purposes.

While she is perhaps best known for her work in mental health, she had an equally powerful interest in the arts. She had been a musician herself, having studied in New York, Berlin, and Vienna. She was a key figure in the creation of the Houston Symphony (which played its first concert in 1913). She outdid herself in 1966, though, when she gave her plantation home to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, including its magnificent main building, sprawling gardens, and impressive collection of American furnishings. The property, Bayou Bend, is now the museum’s American decorative arts center, and houses “one of the finest showcases of American furnishings, silver, ceramics, and paintings in the world.” It draws thousands of visitors each year.

  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,
  • Virginia Bernhard, Ima Hogg: The Governor’s Daughter (Texas Monthly Press, 1984)

When renowned Hudson River School painter Frederic Church bought his Olana property in 1860, he originally lived there in a small cottage. Following extensive travels in Europe and the Middle East, he and his wife Isabel had a grand house built. It would be “Persian, adapted to the Occident,” as Church described it. The family moved into the building in 1872 and stocked it with thousands of items from great world civilizations—tapestries, paintings, sculptures, etc.—along with Church’s own wall stencils, room colors, and furniture and textile designs. Church simultaneously shaped the landscape around the house, considered by some to be among his most beautiful creations.

The property remained a project for the rest of the artist’s life; he had it more or less the way he wanted it by 1891, nine years before his death. When he passed away in 1900, the home stayed in the family, preserved by the fierce efforts of his daughter-in-law Sally. When she died in 1964 her nephew opted to auction off the property. Art historian David Huntingdon begged for time to raise funds to buy the house outright. He formed Olana Preservation and convinced some of the biggest names in the art and philanthropy worlds, including Lincoln Kirstein and Henry Hope Reed, to lend their support. The group was able to buy the 250-acre property, the house, and the furnishings in 1966. It is open today as a historic site and art museum, one of the most popular tourist sites in upstate New York. Even Church’s original cottage remains much as he left it.

Architectural legend Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house known as Fallingwater for the Edgar Kaufmann family in 1936. The Kaufmanns owned a department store in Pittsburgh. The challenge they gave Wright: build them a house next to a waterfall on their remote property in the mountains far outside Pittsburgh. Wright upped the ante, saying the house should be meshed with the waterfall instead of just looking upon it. He produced an architectural marvel that doesn’t appear to be grounded in the earth at all; it hovers over the cascade, and the water’s sound is part of the home. The 5,300 square-foot structure was completed in 1939 for just over $150,000. It made the cover of Time magazine.

It remained the family’s vacation home until 1963, when Kaufmann’s son, recognizing the home’s artistic and architectural significance, donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The nonprofit opened it as a museum in 1964; the only Wright-designed building to be open to the public with its original furnishings and artwork. In 1988, 1995, and 2002, major repairs were conducted due to structural problems. The museum remains open to the public and sees about 150,000 visitors per year (4.5 million since opening).

Several other Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces have also been saved over the last generation by the intervention of generous donors and public-spirited volunteers. Wright’s own favorite design, the Darwin Martin House near Buffalo, New York, was rescued by the Martin House Restoration Corporation, a nonprofit founded in 1992 to bring the deteriorated site back to its former glory. Many individual and corporate donors collaborated to purchase the several buildings on the site, undertake exterior renovations and re-creation of removed structures, and launch interior renovations—eventually to include restoration or re-make of all of Wright’s original custom furniture for the home.

Harvey Lavan Cliburn, better known simply as Van Cliburn, shocked the world in 1958 when he traveled to the Soviet Union and won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at a peak of the Cold War. Cliburn was in debt and unable to afford the trip, but a $1,000 grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music program made his participation, and ultimate triumph, possible. The acclaimed pianist subsequently played for Reagan and Gorbachev at the White House, for the New York Philharmonic’s 100th anniversary, and at other momentous occasions. Nearly as popular in the Soviet Union as in America, he became a performing ambassador for the universality of classical music in a divided world.

In his honor, certain of his friends and some music teachers in Fort Worth, Texas, raised funds to create the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962. Held every four years as a kind of Olympiad for young pianists, the competition awards large cash prizes and three years of concert management services to its champions. Since its inception as the funder and organizer of the competition, the Van Cliburn Foundation has sought to bring the highest-quality music to audiences around the world.

Thanks to support from corporations and foundations, the organizers have also been able to broadcast the competitions, stream them live on the Internet, and produce documentaries behind the scenes. In addition, in 1999, the foundation launched an international piano competition for outstanding amateurs over age 35. The Van Cliburn prize has become one of the most sought-after competition awards in all of music.

Lincoln Square in Manhattan was badly blighted in 1955. An informal committee that met to discuss what to do with it quickly elected John Rockefeller III as chairman. Rockefeller and his entire family became convinced that what the area—and New York City generally—really needed was a musical center. So he began raising funds to build one. Altogether, Rockefeller would raise nearly half of the $185 million used for the project, with various Rockefeller foundations and family members contributing heavily. The first building was 1962’s Philharmonic Hall, renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973 after a donor, and then David Geffen Hall after a renovating donor. The New York State Theater followed in 1964, and the Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1966. The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was incorporated as home of the New York Philharmonic, Juilliard School, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, and dozens of other performing-arts organizations.

Philanthropy played as impressive a role in later expansions of Lincoln Center as it had in the founding. By the 1980s, the center had run out of space, and between nervous neighbors, inflexible zoning codes, and high costs, expansion in its crowded neighborhood was a long shot. Frederick Rose was a successful real-estate developer who served on the center’s board. He loved music, and frequently entertained his fellow members on the piano after board meetings. Rose also loved making things happen, and volunteered to pick a team of lawyers, architects, and consultants who could overcome the barriers to expansion.

Rose handled negotiations with property owners and the city, and raised $100 million, including giving more than $15 million himself. By 1991, an impressive array of new facilities was complete, including the 31-story Rose Building that allowed the center’s performing tenants new room. This work was completed remarkably quickly and efficiently. In a further 2004 expansion, Frederick Rose Hall was named in honor of the man who gave not just money but expertise to achieve what others could not.

By the turn of the millennium, the State Theater of New York, one of the center’s original buildings, was showing its age. David Koch, one of the wealthiest businessmen in America and a major philanthropist, had been attending ballets and concerts at the theater since it was built. Inspired by financier Stephen Schwarzman’s recently announced $100-million donation to the New York Public Library, Koch offered to donate $100 million to renovate and maintain the State Theater. The project was completed on schedule in 2009.

Then in 2015, the cycle of modernizing improvements began again. Entertainment mogul David Geffen announced he was donating $100 million to help renovate the symphony hall. The New York Philharmonic’s home had long since been surpassed in acoustic quality, and the new construction, scheduled to begin in 2019, will solve that.

Art and music lovers Allan and Sandra Jaffe were driving back home to Philadelphia from a Mexico City honeymoon when they decided to make a stop in New Orleans to listen to jazz musicians in the beautiful French Quarter. Sandra later related, “When I heard the music for the first time, it felt like a total transformation. We found this whole new world…the music was just so wonderful.”

They decided to stay in New Orleans for a few more days in order to hear the (mostly elderly) musicians again. Then they stayed a little longer. Then the owner of the art gallery hosting the musicians, Larry Borenstein, told them the building was for sale. Worried that this could mean the end of the fading New Orleans style of traditional jazz music, the Jaffes never left the city. They started renting the premises in June, and in September 1961 opened it as Preservation Hall, dedicated to preserving and deepening New Orleans jazz.

Allan went around town rounding up musicians, and Sandra employed her journalist skills to market the offerings. What started as a few performances per week eventually turned into one of the most respected jazz music series in the country. They quickly added a touring band, which began to travel the nation in 1963. A 501(c)(3) foundation was created to maintain a jazz archives and offer young players in New Orleans lessons with jazz masters. Now directed by the Jaffes’ son Ben, the hall has been credited with saving New Orleans jazz.

Some of America’s best art and history isn’t found in big cities or major institutions. It’s located in places where formative events took place. Many of these community museums were created by local donors who weren’t trying to make names for themselves on the national stage, yet embodied true excellence.

In the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York, for instance, civic-minded donors and residents pooled their resources to create the Adirondack Museum in 1957, which now houses more than 30,000 objects, 10,000 books, and 70,000 photographs that document the region’s rich culture, art, and history. A bit to the north in Ogdensburg, New York, the boyhood home of Frederic Remington houses a deep collection of his paintings, sketches, sculptures, and personal memorabilia, all created and sustained by generous local friends (see 1923 entry). And to the south, the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, displays in its bucolic small-town setting more than two dozen portraits by John Singer Sargent, among other treasures.

In 1971, a conservancy started by concerned local citizens and many generous foundations and individual donors resulted in the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. It houses a beautiful collection of American paintings and sketches by locally rooted artists like Andrew Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and N. C. Wyeth, and offers tours of the nearby studios of some of these great artists. Further down the Brandywine Valley lies the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. Henry du Pont’s rural estate is now one of the greatest decorative arts museums in the country.

A sequence of bequests from the Speed family and other local philanthropists have made the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, both a very fine national gallery and a great regional museum. Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, created by philanthropist Electra Havemeyer Webb, combines glorious Americana and folk art with astonishing Impressionist pieces and other international glories. The Wolfsonian in Miami presents the spectacular decorative-arts collection of founding donor Mitchell Wolfson. In 1985 William Morris III endowed the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, as a rich repository of Southern painting.

In other communities all across America, local philanthropy has created, underwritten, and sustained hundreds of other similarly superb institutions. These educate and edify nearby residents on art, culture, and history, and in the process enrich and anchor local identities.

When Harper Lee decided to try to make it as a writer, she relocated (like many before her and since) to New York City. When she got there she found (like many before her and since) that she was so preoccupied with paying her rent—by working at an airline office and bookstore—that she had little time left over to focus on her writing. Fortunately, some attentive and generous acquaintances figured this out and changed the course of U.S. literature with some very personal philanthropy.

Lee spent Christmas 1956 with her close friends Michael and Joy Brown and their two young boys. Michael was a Broadway lyricist, and the year before his musical House of Flowers starring Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll had been a hit, so the family was enjoying a burst of unanticipated prosperity. Toward the end of their gift exchange that holiday, the Browns handed Lee an envelope. Inside was a note that said: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

Harper Lee later explained: “They’d saved some money and thought it was high time they did something about me…. Whether I ever sold a line was immaterial. They wanted to give me a full, fair chance to learn my craft, free from the harassments of a regular job. Would I please accept their gift?… What made them think anything would come of this? They didn’t have that kind of money to throw away…. I went to the window, stunned by the day’s miracle…. A full, fair chance for a new life…Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”

During that gift year, Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and became one of the most influential American books of all time.

Columbus, Indiana, a town of 44,000 people about an hour south of Indianapolis, is one of the world’s greatest troves of contemporary architecture. It is ranked by the American Institute of Architects as the sixth most architecturally innovative American city—behind only Chicago, New York, Washington, Boston, and San Francisco. The city is home to dozens of notable buildings, sculptures, and landmarks, including a public library by I. M. Pei; Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church; North Christian Church and Irwin Union Bank designed by Eliel’s son Eero; a downtown shopping center by Cesar Pelli; Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church; and a firehouse by Robert Venturi. Other architects and artists who have designed projects in Columbus include Henry Moore, Richard Meier, Kevin Roche, and Gunnar Birkets.

What brought these architectural giants to little Columbus was private philanthropy. Irwin Miller, chairman of the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company, was an architecture enthusiast. In 1942, he commissioned a new design for his home church from Eliel Saarinen. The church became an instant landmark, and Miller saw a role for philanthropy in beautifying his hometown and raising its worldwide profile. He became a major patron of civic architecture in 1954 when he struck an innovative deal with the people of Columbus: any time a new public building was needed, Cummins would pay the commission for any first-rate architect selected from its own list.

Miller expanded his program to cover both municipal structures and private buildings with public purposes, such as churches, banks, and malls. And his own house, designed by Eero Saarinen, is a National Historic Landmark. “By the 1960s,” Radley Balko has written, “Columbus had become a world-renowned magnet for privately financed modernist design.” Miller’s vision continues today: architectural grantmaking in Columbus and its surrounding area remains a central interest of the charitable arm of Cummins Inc.

“Twentieth-century barbarians cannot be transformed into cultured, civilized human beings until they acquire an appreciation and love for art,” pronounced the cranky J. Paul Getty. Born in 1892, the immensely wealthy oilman spent much of his time in Europe, and collected predominantly European art created prior to 1900. Unlike many great art philanthropists, he was less interested in the creators of his day than in the great artists who had already claimed their place in history. These were precisely the kinds of artists he felt residents of his native southern California did not adequately appreciate. It should not be surprising, then, that Getty bucked several trends when he decided to start a museum in Los Angeles.

His approach mixed elitism and populism in the same ways that many nineteenth-century museums did. He firmly believed he had acquired truly excellent art that could be appreciated by all, and just as firmly believed that most ordinary people would need to be taught to understand it. He didn’t house the art in one of the bleak modernist buildings of the sort that were popular in his time. Starting in 1954, Getty displayed items in a wing of his own house that was open to the public without charge.

When he decided to expand the exhibit to a proper museum, he built a fastidious re-creation of a Roman-style villa on the same Malibu seaside grounds, providing a powerfully immersive sense of the rich artistic and physical environment experienced by a ruling family living on the Mediterranean at the peak of the Roman Empire. Getty himself closely oversaw the meticulous building process, and spared no expense to create his perfect time capsule. The Getty Villa opened in 1974.

Getty left a fortune and set of guidelines that allowed an enormous expansion of his museum after his death. The second nearby campus, the so-called Getty Center, comprises a large set of striking modernist building arrayed across a hilltop site with rich gardens and astonishing views. Since 1997 it has been home to all of the Getty’s non-classical art, a vast collection that continues to grow. The $1.2 billion Getty Trust also supports an extensive group of art research and conservation facilities. All of the museums remain free and open to any barbarians seeking to be edified.

Sometimes the most significant successes of even the biggest foundations come down to one person.

By the 1960s, the Ford Foundation was the largest entity making grants to the arts in the U.S. The man who had made most of that happen was McNeill Lowry. Under Lowry’s leadership, the foundation expended millions in arts funding, became the first foundation to support dance, and offered lifelines to scores of individual creators. The amounts were small by Ford standards, but huge to the organizations and individuals who received them. In 1957, $105,000 produced an entire year of performances by the New York City Opera. In 1963, eight major ballet companies were bolstered with $7.7 million, because Lowry had decided dance was underfunded.

Lowry’s influence was particularly crucial in locating the individual artists the foundation funded. Lowry, who started running Ford’s arts and humanities program in 1957 and became a vice president in 1964, had the final say on who got the money and who didn’t. This practically made him America’s kingmaker in the 1950s and ’60s when it came to cultural production.

With individualized grantmaking, a savvy personal touch was needed more than a rigorous application process. An example: novelist James Baldwin was in his mid-thirties and struggling financially in 1959, when he was having difficulty finishing Another Country. He exchanged letters with Lowry on his literary ambitions for the novel. Very shortly after, Baldwin received word that he’d been awarded a two-year, $12,000 fellowship from Ford. He completed Another Country and published it in 1962, thanking Lowry in an impassioned note saying that the book might have been torn up and abandoned absent the timely grant.

Playwright Tom Stoppard was another writer who received a Ford grant at a crucial time. His fellowship allowed him to spend five months in a Berlin writer’s studio where he wrote the first draft of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play made Stoppard’s career, and won a Tony award.

McNeill Lowry retired in 1974, perhaps the most influential figure of his generation in arts philanthropy.

The Ford Foundation inaugurated public broadcasting with a 1951 grant that developed programming to air in a few cities the next year, as National Education Television. Over the following decade and a half, Ford paid for the development of additional new styles of TV, and for the gradual weaving together of nonprofit stations from different regions into a nascent system.

In 1964, the president of the Carnegie Corporation, John Gardner, was pitched on the idea of turning these emerging educational television efforts into a publicly funded network. His foundation earmarked $500,000 to create the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television the next year. It studied how Americans used their televisions, and made recommendations on how the technology could spread learning. The commission included prominent figures like author Ralph Ellison, pianist Rudolph Serkin, and a number of businessmen and academics.

The Carnegie Commission’s report, published in 1967, called for the establishment of a corporation to guide public television, with a mix of public and private funding. It made headlines, sold 50,000 copies within a few days, and was mentioned by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address. In November of 1967, Carnegie’s central suggestion became reality with the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act.

During the formative years from 1968 to 1972, while the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS were just finding their way, it was primarily the Ford Foundation that kept educational television developing toward something practical. Ford shoveled more than $90 million into public TV in those few years alone. Over its 50 years as godparent, the Ford Foundation provided more than $435 million to raise public broadcasting to maturity—underwriting new arts programming like adaptations of classic literature, filmed live performances, music, and children’s shows. The Carnegie Corporation was also a steady supporter.

A classic example of a corporation doing philanthropy that only it could carry out, the Corning Museum of Glass was very unlike most corporate museums. It was opened in 1951 by Corning Glass Works (later known as Corning Incorporated), and located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. While many corporate museums are centered on the company, the Corning Museum focuses on a product—glass—in all of its many historic, artistic, and technological incarnations.

And calling this facility a museum is a bit like calling Yankee Stadium a field. Its mission is to preserve and expand the world’s knowledge about glass. It opened with an impressive display of 2,000 glass products and descriptions, housed in an international-style glass building designed by Wallace Harrison. But it is also a research library, an auditorium, a science hall with information about glass technology, and an artisan workshop with opportunities to watch actual glassmaking.

After several expansions and renovations, the museum today features more than 50,000 objects created over 35 centuries. These include ancient glass pieces from 1500 B.C., scientific and industrial uses of glass, contemporary art glass from around the world, hot glass demonstrations, and today’s most comprehensive store selling objects and books related to glass. After its latest $64 million expansion, in 2015, the spectacular museum is able to handle half a million visitors every year.

Walter Paepcke made his fortune as a corporate executive in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century before launching a career in philanthropy. The town of Aspen, Colorado, owes its international identity to Paepcke. Organizations he endowed to support the arts and debates over ideas and public policy have turned Aspen into a cultural brand.

Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, were originally drawn to Aspen by their love of nature. As a trustee of the University of Chicago and a sometime participant in its Great Books program established by Mortimer Adler, Walter was an advocate of classical learning. In 1949, the Paepckes staged a celebration of the German writer Goethe that drew many prominent artists and humanitarians to their small adopted alpine town. They subsequently established the Aspen Music Festival and School in 1949, created the Aspen Institute (a major politics and education nonprofit), and built the Aspen Skiing Company during the 1950s.

The early Aspen events united nature, art, music, and ideas, and set a template for subsequent celebrations of the arts and intellect. The Aspen Institute has become one of the nation’s most important venues for consideration of ideas and public policy, with a campus in Maryland as well as Colorado. And the Aspen summer music festival and school now presents more than 350 classical music events each summer—performances, seminars, and master classes. The festival attracts 100,000 annual visitors, and music students and masters from all over the world come to perform, learn, and be rejuvenated—with two thirds of the students receiving financial aid thanks to generous donors.

Until the 1930s, American ballet dancers had to rely on touring foreigners for teaching. Heir, cultural impresario, and donor Lincoln Kirstein, who came from a wealthy family of clothing retailers, dreamed of an American ballet school that would allow young dancers to learn from the greatest masters. In 1933, he invited Russian veteran George Balanchine to come to New York and help him start the school as the choreographer. In 1934, students were enrolled, and performances by various offshoots began. But financial struggles and the Second World War postponed any prominent success by the company.

After the war, Kirstein promised to have the best ballet company in America within three years. In 1948 the New York City Ballet was formed out of his school, and it was a triumph. It remains the largest dance company in America, with over 90 performers and a repertoire of 150 works. The associated School of American Ballet enrolls around 350 students from around the world and has become, true to Kirstein’s vision, the gold standard for American ballet instruction.

Albert Wells was an executive in the thriving American Optical Company of Southbridge, Massachusetts, built up by his father. In 1926, A. B. (as he was called) went antique hunting with some friends, and quickly became a thoroughgoing collector of old New England artifacts. Anything from a bowl to a plow could catch his interest, and his collection grew quickly.

By the 1930s, there was no room left in the house he’d been using as a museum, and a family meeting was held to decide what to do with their New England antiques. Historical preservation was coming into vogue at the time. Other wealthy Americans were beginning to gather together pieces of the past that were threatened by the rapid scramble of change underway in the 1920s and ’30s. But when A. B. proposed a multi-building museum, his son stunned him with an even more ambitious idea: recreate an entire nineteenth-century village. Don’t just erect buildings, but set costumed staff to work at what villagers would have been doing—living history. A. B. bought the idea, and work began. The family asked major landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff to help them design the premises, and by 1946 they had dirt rural roads, barns, shops, and homes. Period farmers were cropping, craftsmen were creating. Old Sturbridge Village was a functioning microcosm, and open to visitors. The village grew into a thriving historical attraction of nearly 60 buildings.

Across the state of Massachusetts, Henry Hornblower II was undertaking a similar labor of love. A Bostonian who had made his money in finance, he’d always enjoyed history, and the story of the Pilgrims’ seventeenth-century plantation at Plymouth especially fascinated him. He was particularly interested in the complex relationship the English settlers had with the Wampanoag Indians who lived nearby. He had studied archaeology and history at Harvard, and later financed several archaeological digs in the area, seeking historical artifacts.

Then Hornblower got a really bold idea: to recreate the Plymouth settlement as a living-history museum. He believed full immersion was the most powerful way to educate Americans about their important historical moment in the 1620s, and set about convincing others. In addition to his own money, his first outside donation of $20,000 came from his father. Hornblower managed to get “Plimoth Plantation” launched as a nonprofit in 1947, with two model cottages from the period. It grew steadily, with the addition of a replica Mayflower in 1957, an entire English village in 1959, the Wampanoag village in 1973, and a visitor center in 1987, two years after Hornblower’s death.

Today, with seven decades of living history under their belts, Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation—each incorporating pioneering standards of historical accuracy that were far ahead of their time—remain beloved cultural attractions in New England.

Thomas Gilcrease, whose parents had Creek ancestry and whose first wife was Osage, grew up on Indian lands within present-day Oklahoma. Oil was eventually discovered under 160 acres he had been allotted as a tribe member. He proved an astute businessman, and built his own substantial oil company.

At a time of scant appreciation for art coming out of the American West, Gilcrease began acquiring paintings, sculptures, historical documents, Indian handcraft, contemporary Indian art, and archaeological items (many from digs he financed himself) associated with his home region. In 1943 he opened the first version of the Gilcrease Museum, focused on Western art, at his oil company’s headquarters. In 1949 he built a grand villa for displaying the growing collection on his estate near Tulsa. He eventually conveyed the museum to the city of Tulsa, along with oil revenue to maintain it—buildings, contents, and 23 acres of grounds landscaped thematically with plants important to different Western peoples and time periods.

The Gilcrease Museum represents one of the largest and richest collections of fine art, artifacts, archives, and flora associated with the American West. It helped give legitimacy to its field, and inspired other collectors of Western art and culture.

Amon Carter was a classic self-made Texan. He was born in a log cabin 65 miles from Fort Worth in 1893, and raised with no access to the arts and high culture, but a series of sales and advertising jobs eventually led him to majority ownership of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and several radio and TV stations. Carter was also an early evangelist for the oil and gas industry. After drilling 90 dry holes himself he eventually discovered a large reservoir he sold to Shell Oil in 1947 for $17 million. These funds became the basis of the Amon Carter Foundation.

Carter became an energetic booster of Fort Worth, and of the West in general. One of his best friends was comic Will Rogers, with whom he shared a passion for American pioneer history. He began to collect Western art aggressively, and when he died in 1955, his will provided for a major Western art museum that opened in 1961 with an impressive array of Frederic Remington’s art, and an almost complete collection of Charles Russell sculptures. It also holds one of the great collations of American photography.

Sid Richardson was another Texan who made a million dollars in oil in 1919-20, lost most of it, then struck it rich (again in oil) in 1933. He gave generously to churches, hospitals, and schools in his home region, and developed an appreciation for the art of the West after he took up ranching in the 1930s. In 1982 his Sid Richardson Foundation opened an art museum to display his collection, free to the public, in downtown Fort Worth.

One of the finest museums in this genre is the American Museum of Western Art, created by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. It is surely the most comprehensive. Its Anschutz Collection begins with expeditionary art created by the West’s first explorers, includes examples from the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain painting schools, the Taos and Santa Fe schools, Regionalist painters, New Deal art, right up to works of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism with Western links. All are housed in the historic Navarre Building across from the Brown Palace in downtown Denver.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was one of America’s seminal artists and craftsmen, known for his shimmering leaded windows, rainbow-colored lamps, sparkling jewelry, sinuous curves of blown glass, and immersive environments like entire chambers that he designed from floor to vaulted ceiling. Though Tiffany lived and worked in New York, the most spectacular trove of his work is now located in Winter Park, Florida—thanks to two philanthropists.

Tiffany built a spectacular home, known as Laurelton Hall, in suburban Long Island. He installed there some of his greatest masterpieces, along with a freestanding art museum, an art school, elaborate gardens, and more. When he died, Tiffany left an endowment so the property could remain open to the public as a gallery of his life’s work, and a training center for a new generation of creators. But fate intervened, the money ran out, and eventually much of his estate was abandoned. Then a disastrous fire swept the premises. This was a calamitous end to the career of one of America’s most beloved designers and artists.

Preparations were made to bulldoze the rubble. That would also have buried much of Tiffany’s reputation. But Jeannette and Hugh McKean leapt into action to save Tiffany’s treasures for future generations.

Jeannette was the granddaughter of the great American industrialist and donor Charles Hosmer Morse. Her husband Hugh had studied art himself at the Tiffany estate during the 1930s. Both of them loved Tiffany’s revolutionary glass and gorgeous decorative work. Shortly after the Laurelton Hall burn, the philanthropists offered the Tiffany family a payment for the right to salvage whatever they could from the ashes. They picked through the wreckage, retrieved soot-covered objects, and transported them to their home region in Florida for conservation and reconstruction—a classic act of philanthropic derring-do.

Today, some of Tiffany’s highest achievements can be seen in the museum the McKeans created and named in honor of Jeannette’s grandfather. The Charles Hosmer Morse museum highlights Tiffany’s lush windows of stained glass, blown glass, mosaics, ceramics, wondrous lamps, ambitious landscape structures influenced by Islamic and Asian motifs, and the full prayer chapel that Tiffany created for the 1893 world’s fair.

These Tiffany treasures are concentrated and shown to particular advantage in a new museum wing opened in 2011 thanks to funding from the Hosmer descendants. The Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation still owns the museum and all of the Tiffany works it rescued from destruction. It makes this art available to the public without any government funding.

John Rockefeller Jr. was an ardent antiquarian and historic preservationist (as indicated by the money and energy he poured into recreating Colonial Williamsburg—see 1927 entry). These interests extended to the area around his home in Westchester County, north of New York City, which has a rich history and architectural and artistic heritage. In 1940 Rockefeller acquired an eighteenth-century Dutch-English farm and restored it for public visitation to offer a glimpse into life in a northern colonial manor house. In 1945 Rockefeller bought and opened to the public Sunnyside, the romantic, rambling Hudson-Riverside home of America’s first internationally prominent writer, Washington Irving, creator of the Sleepy Hollow legends. A few years later Rockefeller purchased the nearby colonial home of a prominent Dutch family to save it from destruction. Later, other historic properties were added—including the Rockefellers’ own family home for four generations, Kykuit, along with its spectacular art and gardens. All of these sites are managed by the nonprofit Historic Hudson Valley with an acute eye toward historical accuracy and public enjoyment and education.

In the 1940s, donors established two major collections of rare books at America’s most significant libraries. In 1940, Albert Berg, a New York surgeon from a Hungarian immigrant family, donated a very special 3,500-volume collection to the New York Public Library. A lifelong bachelor, Berg had assembled the books in concert with his older brother Henry—also a bachelor physician in New York City.

The brothers Berg filled the East 73rd Street rowhouse they shared with their unmatched collection, which included heavy representation from Dickens (Albert’s favorite author since his boyhood job as a page at the Cooper Union library), Thackeray (Henry’s favorite writer), Walter Scott, Goldsmith, Lord Byron, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Among their rarest objects were a first edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s second folio, a first edition of Milton’s Poems, and a “perfect copy” of a 1786 edition of Burns’s Poems. Berg also acquired for the New York Public Library collections put together by publisher W. T. H. Howe and RCA founder Owen Young. These added more than 30,000 items to the Berg collection, including a copy of “The Raven” inscribed by Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and John Keats’s final letter to Fanny Brawne.

Another great book lover who was determined to make his collection available to others was Lessing Rosenwald, who served from 1932 to 1939 as chairman of the Sears, Roebuck company that his father Julius Rosenwald had built up. After retiring, Lessing devoted himself to collecting rare printed objects, gathering together an exceptional trove of items in the ensuing decades. His assemblage of works by William Blake is the finest outside of Britain. Prized books from England’s great printer William Caxton, illuminated manuscripts from the medieval and Renaissance periods, and a superb assortment of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century woodcut books are among his treasures.

Rosenwald opened his home, published facsimile versions, and took other measures to make sure that experts and the public could have access to the items he purchased. In 1943, he began a series of gifts of books to the Library of Congress. These culminated shortly after his death in 1979, when his remaining volumes were donated to the library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The approximately 3,000 books donated by Lessing Rosenwald continue to rank among the most valued and heavily used rare books in the Library of Congress collection. One highly visible gift is the Giant Bible of Mainz, which Rosenwald presented to the nation in 1952, one year after acquiring it from a private European collection. It is one of the last hand-written and illuminated Bibles, created at almost exactly the same time, and perhaps in the same city, as the first Gutenberg Bible produced with moving type. Rosenwald’s Giant Bible is permanently displayed directly across from one of the first Gutenberg Bibles in the main building of the Library of Congress.

The Metropolitan Opera had been founded in 1883 by a group of wealthy New York City businessmen who wanted to run their own theater. From its inception it attracted top talent, but frequent changes in management and America’s rapidly shifting artistic appetites made for a tumultuous life as a for-profit enterprise. By 1966, when the opera signed on as a constituent of the brand-new Rockefeller-propelled Lincoln Center arts center, it had already been transformed by philanthropic intervention into a national artistic and educational force.

The opera had experimented with radio broadcasts in the 1920s, but the Great Depression made funding difficult to come by. Then in 1940 Texaco stepped in to sponsor nationwide Saturday radio broadcasts of opera performances. For 63 landmark years these concerts were anxiously anticipated in communities across America. They continue to this day with different corporate donors. The Met eventually expanded into television, satellite radio, HD television, movie-theater broadcasts, and Internet streaming. But it was the Texaco radio partnership that kicked it all off and turned the Met into a national icon.

One of the most unusual museums in New York City, or anywhere in America, is The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art located in far northern Manhattan. The structure is a unified assemblage of pieces of five separate medieval monasteries that were moved from France to the United States. The site is surrounded by elaborate gardens built precisely as described in medieval manuscripts, and housed inside are several thousand priceless objects created during the Middle Ages, including tapestries, manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, liturgical objects, ivory sculptures, and furniture.

The Cloisters is the product of one generous man: John Rockefeller Jr., who drove the idea, and its execution, and provided nearly all of the resources. It began when Rockefeller purchased for the Met the remarkable collection of medieval art assembled by George Barnard. It soon became clear some special place would be needed to display the objects. So Rockefeller spent $6 million to acquire a large stretch of land and create a park overlooking the Hudson River in upper Manhattan (including portions of New Jersey on the opposite shore to protect the views). He donated the park to the city, and situated The Cloisters at its heart. The philanthropist hired architect Charles Collens to create a unified design that incorporated elements from the five cloistered abbeys (dating from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries), after they had been taken apart, stone by stone, and transported to the U.S.

The complex amalgamation and rebuilding, then landscaping and decorating, took place during the 1930s and cost Rockefeller $16 million in Depression-era currency. To cap the undertaking, Rockefeller donated works from his own collection, including the famous “Hunt of the Unicorn” Netherlandish tapestries. He also provided an endowment that allows the institution to continue to acquire objects illustrating the many remarkable qualities of life in medieval Europe.

(Photo by Mat McDermott) 

Under the influence of his friend Henry Frick, Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon had begun collecting art in the 1910s. During years of great instability in Europe, he acquired a remarkable number of masterpieces, including at one point a group of Rembrandts, Van Dycks, and Botticellis sold by Russian boss Josef Stalin himself. Mellon donated the paintings to his own foundation, with the stated intent of starting a national museum. In 1934 he hired architect John Russell Pope (with whom Mellon had already worked on construction of the National Archives) to design a museum building located in Washington, D.C.

Mellon died in 1937, leaving his art collection to the United States as promised. His foundation funded the creation of what is now known as the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and President Franklin Roosevelt accepted the furnished museum in 1941. Mellon had hoped that his donation would inspire others to make similar gifts, and his hope was rewarded in subsequent years. Many prominent donors gave large collections to the museum, including Samuel and Rush Kress, Joseph Widener, Chester Dale, Lessing Rosenwald, Edgar William, Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, and Mellon’s own daughter, Ailsa Mellon Bruce.

Mellon’s impact on the National Gallery of Art extended long after his death, as the Andrew Mellon Foundation continued its support of the museum. In 1978, a second building (the East Building) was completed, funded by the foundation and several of Mellon’s descendants. The new building focused on special exhibits, offices, and facilities for conservation. In 1999, an outdoor sculpture garden was added on the west side of the original building (funded by the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation).

Together, the museums offer one of the largest and broadest collections of world art anywhere. Today’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, given its current structure by Mellon’s two children, donates about $240 million a year, with art restoration and the development of junior and senior museum staff among its leading areas of interest. The foundation offered a $30 million challenge grant to the National Gallery in 2016, structured to generate a sum of $75 million in private gifts to the museum as it celebrated its 75th anniversary. This pledge brought the Andrew Mellon Foundation’s cumulative support for the NGA over the years to $123 million, without adjusting for inflation.

Solomon Guggenheim was born into a wealthy mining family, and expanded his fortune through his own mining ventures. He turned primarily to philanthropy after the First World War. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was launched in 1937 “to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, and other manifestations of visual culture, primarily of the modern and contemporary periods, and to collect, conserve, and study the art of our time.” It opened its first museum in 1939, showcasing samples of Guggenheim’s unusual collection. The foundation consistently promoted Solomon’s interest in the current, the abstract, and the unusual, even in its buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design a larger home for the museum in 1943. New York City’s Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959. A spiraling cylinder, the building is one of the most iconic of modern structures.

The collection continued to grow through the ’50s and ’60s, and during the 1970s Peggy Guggenheim (Solomon’s niece) added her own considerable collection of abstract and Surrealist art. Upon Peggy’s death in 1978, the foundation began to expand to sites around the world—Venice; Bilbao, Spain; and Abu Dhabi have permanent bases, the latter two in flamboyant buildings designed by Frank Gehry. Today, the collective aggregate of what is colloquially known as The Guggenheim represents one of the most formidable assemblages of modern art and architecture in the world.

Members of the Clark family, heirs to much of the Singer Sewing Company fortune, have resided in the bucolic village of Cooperstown, New York, since the mid-1800s. When the Depression damaged the area’s prosperity, Stephen Clark and other representatives of the Clark Foundation (founded in 1931) sought to revive local business and tourism by creating a baseball museum. In 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its inaugural class of five members: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.

The hall went on to become a classic of American culture, and the progenitor of many other museums. It attracts 300,000 visitors a year, has an $11-million annual budget, and employs 100 full-time staff in a village of a little more than 2,000 people. The current chairman of the board of directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is Jane Clark, who is also president of the Clark Foundation.

In the decades before and after the founding of the Hall of Fame, Clark relatives and foundation members were also instrumental in building up other cultural institutions in the Cooperstown area—including the historic Farmers’ Museum, the Fenimore Art Museum, the New York State Historical Association, and the Glimmerglass Opera. The foundation also spends millions in the Cooperstown region on annual scholarships for children, village beautification, land preservation, local sports, the regional hospital, and the historic Otesaga and Cooper inns.

With half a billion dollars in assets, and nearly $20 million of annual giving, the Clark Foundation has funded many projects. In its support for the various cultural complexes in Cooperstown, however, the family has created an entire community of museums and art, and a true center of Americana.

William Walters and later his son Henry made a great deal of money in railroads, and beginning in the 1860s poured much of it into collecting art in Europe. In 1874, William decided to share his bounty with the public. Every April and May starting in 1878 he began opening his house to visitors each Wednesday, charging a 50-cent admission fee which he donated to the Baltimore Association for the Improvement in the Condition of the Poor. These openings became eagerly anticipated events in his hometown of Baltimore.

When William died in 1894 he bequeathed his collection to Henry, who greatly expanded it, including purchase of the entire contents of a palace in Rome that contained more than 1,700 pieces including classical antiquities, early Italian paintings, and Renaissance and Baroque art. Henry created a complex of buildings in downtown Baltimore to display all the Walters’ art, and opened it to the public in 1909. When he died in 1931 he bequeathed the institution and its contents to the city for “benefit of the public.”

The Walters Art Museum opened its doors for the first time as a public institution in late 1934. Today, the collection has grown to more than 35,000 objects, from ancient Egyptian mummy masks and medieval armor to Asian sculpture and European paintings. It is a beloved Baltimore institution.

  • William Johnston, William and Henry Walters, The Reticent Collectors (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)
  • Walters Art Museum,

Edward “Ned” McIlhenny, who ran the Louisiana Tabasco-sauce company founded by his father, racked up some major accomplishments as a preserver of rare birds and plants (see 1892 item on our list of achievements in Nature philanthropy). A man of very wide interests and a willingness to study and devote resources to causes that interested him, McIlhenny also helped save another endangered species: the Negro spiritual.

McIlhenny had grown up with an African-American nanny who took him to her church every week during the decade or two after the Civil War—where he often heard mesmerizing songs that he came to love. Later in life he realized this music was disappearing. When he took up his preservation project in his late fifties, he could remember only about 30 tunes, and just one or two verses of each. So he began visiting old acquaintances, and located two elderly residents of the area who could remember the songs in detail. McIlhenny enlisted the help of a New Orleans musicologist and they set to work in 1930 writing down the lyrics and melodies of 125 spirituals.

They took great pains to notate the tunes and phrasings exactly as presented. The songs were performed again and again over many days so notes and words could be transposed to paper, and “no air was considered finished until it was sung back to the original singers and approval given as to its correctness,” writes McIlhenny in his introduction to the collection. Being music that was handed down orally, often by illiterate performers, many of these songs had never before been committed to print. Others were recorded in detail for the first time.

Only four of the spirituals in McIlhenny’s 325-page book are known in the same form in other songbooks. Fully 80 songs are wholly different from any other printed source, and half again as many are different in part. Musicologists have thus described the book, titled Befo’ de War Spirituals and published in 1933, as “a real treasure.” It preserved for history many elements of slave music and culture that would otherwise have been forgotten.

One of the favorite places that Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald ever visited with his family was the Deutsches Museum in Munich—which (then as now) was the world’s foremost exhibit of technology and science. The inspired Rosenwald resolved to give America its first great science museum, replete with a full-size re-created mine, huge machines, and clever interactive exhibits. To bring the project to fruition during the 1920s and ’30s he pledged $3 million of his own money (ultimately increased to $5 million).

Even more crucial than Rosenwald’s inspiration and funding was his steely determination and executive resolve—every ounce of which was required to translate his dream into reality in the face of municipal incompetence, cost overruns, staff disputes, neighborhood resistance, engineering disasters, and myriad other roadblocks. Yet Rosenwald fiercely rebuffed every effort to place his name on the museum, reasoning that the people of Chicago would be more likely to feel they “owned” the institution—and thus be willing to expend effort to keep it healthy and fresh over the decades ahead—if the institution was simply identified with the city, not its main patron.

Rosenwald seems to have calculated right, as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has continued to be updated and improved in dramatic ways. Today it remains the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, and the second most popular cultural attraction in its home city.

  • Peter Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (Indiana University Press, 2006)
  • Museum of Science and Industry,

In 1879, Henry Folger was a senior at Amherst College, which he attended with financial aid from generous private individuals. That year he attended a lecture on Shakespeare given by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It sparked a lifelong fascination. His wife, Emily, came to share the bug, eventually writing a master’s thesis on the Bard.

Starting as a clerk, Folger built a career in the oil industry. He ended up as president of the firm eventually known as Mobil Oil. A few years out of college, Henry bought his first Shakespeare facsimile text for $1.25. During his working years, he and Emily built up the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials, including rare antique folios and supporting publications of all sorts.

When Henry retired in 1928, the couple devoted their full energies to planning the library that would house their collection. Henry died unexpectedly in 1930, just after the 1929 stock crash wiped out most of his fortune. Nonetheless, in 1932 Emily offered the elaborate library, along with several millions of dollars in endowment, as a gift to the nation—planting it in Washington, D.C., adjoining the Library of Congress.

Thanks to the Folgers’ support, the library was able to steadily expand its holdings to become the premier center for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England. Its exhibitions, lectures, and publications, plus Folger Theatre productions, early-music concerts, and poetry and fiction readings, make it one of the cultural gems of our nation’s capital.

The Cleveland Orchestra, today one of the top symphonies in America, had humble beginnings. It was founded in 1918 by a group of local citizens led by Adella Prentiss Hughes, a Cleveland pianist. It began its existence as a traveling orchestra, performing throughout the eastern U.S., because scheduling conflicts and an inadequate facility prevented it from performing often in the city’s Masonic Auditorium.

In the 1920s, John Severance, president of the orchestra’s board, offered more than a million dollars toward the construction of a building to permanently house the orchestra. The project was of particular interest to his wife, Elisabeth, and when she died in 1928, Severance poured himself into the project in her honor. He ended up giving nearly $3 million of the total $7-million cost. Severance built a whole series of industrial companies and distributed his wealth liberally to bolster not only the orchestra but also the Cleveland Museum of Art, several universities, and a medical school and hospital in Korea.

The orchestra’s new home was designed to be compatible with the traditional architecture surrounding its site in Cleveland’s beautiful University Circle area. Severance Hall was built with a Georgian exterior, and incorporated a variety of more modern styles inside. When it opened and the Cleveland Orchestra gave its first concert to rave reviews in February 1931, it was one of the most advanced concert facilities in America. As the facility aged, it had its acoustics upgraded in 1958 (at the demand of music director George Szell, who brought the orchestra to prominence). The hall later underwent a two-year, $36-million restoration that ended in 2000. By then, the Cleveland Orchestra had become one of the top orchestras in the country, beloved not only regionally but across the globe thanks to recordings and broadcast performances. And Severance Hall, which put the ensemble on its path to prominence, is commonly considered one of the most beautiful concert halls in the country.

In the 1920s, a group of public-spirited women became interested in preserving the lands where George Washington had been born, and erecting a Tidewater plantation house similar to the one the Washington family had occupied until it burned in 1779. The Wakefield National Memorial Association pieced together land that was donated and purchased around the home site, then interested John Rockefeller Jr. in cementing the property with a larger land acquisition. Rockefeller bought 273 acres of the old Wakefield plantation and signed it over to the U.S. government in 1930 at about the same time the Association transferred its 100 acres. Almost 400 acres of land was designated as George Washington Birthplace National Monument, and the Wakefield National Memorial Association was given permission to erect an eighteenth-century-style brick home. Furnished with period artifacts and appropriately landscaped, the home was opened to visitors in 1931, a few months before the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John Rockefeller Jr., fell in love with Modern art quite early. Though her husband had entirely different tastes, and indeed actively disliked most Modern art, he offered his wife an allowance to pursue her different artistic interests. With those funds and some inheritance, she acquired works by many young, struggling artists.

Eventually, Abby and her friends Lilly Bliss and Mary Sullivan decided that a separate museum devoted wholly to Modern art was needed. They co-created New York City’s Museum of Modern Art late in 1929 and opened it in a small rented building. The museum moved three times into progressively larger, temporary quarters. Seeing his wife’s enthusiasm, John Rockefeller Jr. allowed her to spend what she pleased on contemporary works. In 1939 the MoMA moved into the building it occupies today.

When Abby died in 1948, her husband honored her memory with additional gifts to the Museum of Modern Art. A long string of other donors has also made benefactions to the institution. These include David Rockefeller’s $100 million gift in 2005, another $100 million from film producer David Geffen in 2016, and a $40 million unrestricted pledge from hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin in 2015.

Today the MoMA collection includes 150,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, photos, and other objects. It owns 22,000 films. It has expanded many times and occupies several buildings.

  • Suzanne Loebl, America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astounding Cultural Legacy (Harper, 2010)

  • Museum of Modern Art,

Mystic Seaport, in Mystic, Connecticut, had been an active seaport since the 1600s—filled with ships either being built or sailing in and out on merchant business. Between the late-eighteenth and early-twentieth centuries, its yards built more than 600 sailing vessels.

By the 1920s, the port was fading fast. In 1929, three Mystic residents took it upon themselves to preserve their town’s vibrant past. Lawyer Carl Cutter, industrialist Edward Bradley, and doctor Charles Stillman formed the Marine Historical Association (known today as Mystic Seaport), and rapidly filled a one-building museum with donated photos, books, and maritime artifacts. Then in 1941 the men managed to purchase the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining U.S. wooden whaleship. Buildings followed, and the recreated Mystic Seaport began.

In the 1970s, the du Pont family got involved as donors, and the entire shipyard was recreated. By the 1990s, Mystic had become the nation’s leading maritime museum. In 1998, it built an eighteenth-century schooner from scratch, with an educational program surrounding the building process. Mystic is still growing, thanks to a $35-million expansion and renovation effort. Scholars have access to its impressive archives and 300,000 visitors come each year to see the 40 acres of 500 boats, one million photographs, and two million artifacts.

Philanthropic giant Julius Rosenwald (president of Sears, Roebuck) started the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917 “for the well-being of mankind,” but devoted much of its philanthropic power to improving the welfare of black Americans. The fund’s directors operated with a sense of urgency, as Rosenwald had directed that the fund be liquidated within 25 years of his death. When the fund was reorganized in 1929 it was one of the largest philanthropies in the country.

One of the fund’s several high-profile achievements was a fellowship program that supported artists, writers, and historians, most of them black, to take year-long breaks to further their education or pursue projects. The fund’s list of recipients includes most of the greatest names in African-American art and literature in the 1930s and ’40s: Jacob Lawrence, Marian Anderson, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Bunche, John Hope Franklin, Franklin Frazier, W. E. B. DuBois, and others. Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man on a Rosenwald fellowship. When the fund closed in 1948 as Rosenwald had instructed, it had provided fellowships to nearly 600 black artists.

Samuel Kress realized his philanthropic dreams by bringing great art to Main Street. He started with one five-and-dime shop in 1896, which he expanded to 264 stores by the 1930s. While he was stocking his outlets with attractive retail goods, Kress also “envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape,” according to one observer. To distinguish his stores from competitors Woolworth and Kresge, he hired on-staff architects to design landmark buildings—from Gothic revival to Art Deco—that helped to beautify and unite American downtowns. Many former Kress stores are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But Kress’s greatest philanthropic achievement was the creation and disposition of the Kress Collection, comprised of more than 3,000 works of European art, mostly Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures. (By comparison, Andrew Mellon’s founding gift to the National Gallery of Art included less than 200 pieces.) Kress’s collection included masterworks by Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Duccio, Filippo Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bernini, and Tiepolo, as well as non-Italian artists such as Dürer, Holbein, Cranach, El Greco, Rubens, and Goya. During the Great Depression, Kress toured 50 of his greatest pictures through 24 American cities, and he made many gifts to regional art museums. He was intrigued by Andrew Mellon’s invitation to other collectors, when founding the National Gallery of Art, to donate their artworks. Kress became one of the first to respond to Mellon’s challenge. He made a gift of nearly 400 pieces—enough to stock 34 galleries—to the National Gallery.

After World War II, Kress had an opportunity to distribute his benefactions more broadly. He (who died in the midst of this project, in 1955) and his foundation donated a total of 700 Old Master paintings to 18 regional museums across the United States—most in cities where Kress had a retail presence, and predominantly in the South and the West. Thanks to Samuel Kress, art museums in Birmingham, El Paso, Denver, Houston, Memphis, Tucson, Tulsa, and other medium-sized cities enjoy high-quality cores in their collections. Kress’s collection was ultimately divided among 90 institutions in 33 states. By foregoing the creation of a single spectacular museum, Kress elected not to receive the eternal fame that often accompanies such acts. Instead his gifts spread a rich legacy of artistic appreciation among millions of Americans living in communities all across our heartland.

In the mid 1920s, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and her husband, John Rockefeller Jr., were contacted by Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, an instructor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Goodwin was also the rector of Williamsburg’s historic Bruton Parish Church, and had spearheaded a campaign to restore the building for its 300th anniversary. Goodwin was disturbed by the loss of historic structures in the area, and proposed a restoration of all of Williamsburg similar to what had been done with the church. The town was full of historic colonial-era buildings that were deteriorating and in some cases endangered.

The Rockefellers initially weren’t interested. Nor was Henry Ford. After seeing the parish church during a visit to Williamsburg, however, the Rockefellers agreed to start a modest restoration project of a few buildings. Work began in 1926. The project quickly expanded to eventually include 85 percent of the original town. Keeping their plans secret in order to hold prices down, the Rockefellers and Goodwin quietly bought property after property, eventually revealing their intentions at town meetings in 1928 (to some disquiet).

Ultimately, 720 non-colonial buildings were demolished, and today’s Williamsburg is comprised of about 500 buildings, 88 of which are original. Some of the most significant buildings, like the capitol and the governor’s mansion, had been destroyed and had to be re-created. The initial project was completed in the 1930s with the addition of retail shops.

Among its many other exhibits and cultural features, Colonial Williamsburg is home to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Built on the personal collection of Mrs. Rockefeller, the institution has grown dramatically over the years. It is today the nation’s leading center for preservation and display of craftwork by self-taught artists.

The Rockefellers remained personally involved and invested in the preservation and operation of Williamsburg until their deaths. Colonial Williamsburg operates today as a private foundation, subsequently supported by many major donors, notably Lila and DeWitt Wallace (founders of Reader’s Digest), and thousands of annual supporters. More than 100 million visitors have immersed themselves in Colonial Williamsburg since 1932.

At a time when film was often viewed as crude and vulgar entertainment, George Eastman was adamant that it could become a respectable art form. Between the projection of movie reels at his Eastman Theater in Rochester, New York, snatches of ballet or operatic music were often presented to the audience.

In 1925, an avant-garde dancer who had broken with classical ballet, named Martha Graham, was hired to train dancers for these interlude performances. Mr. Eastman was generous with her, and she had wide opportunities to develop her new art. Graham created entirely novel techniques for her Rochester students, and presented them not only locally but also in an April 1926 performance in New York City where she and three of her acolytes danced 18 numbers. A month later, a work created by Graham called the “Flute of Krishna” was itself turned into a 12-minute film in the Eastman School’s Kodak studio.

Martha Graham then returned to Manhattan and went on to create much of the aesthetic and physical language of modern dance. She would be remembered as one of the most influential American artists ever.

  • Elizabeth Brayer, George Eastman: A Biography, (University of Rochester Press, 2006), p. 466-7

Manhattan financier Spencer Trask was one of Thomas Edison’s principal backers, and provided money that supported development of the light bulb, telephone, phonograph, trolley car, electric grid, and motor car. He also gave a propulsive shove to America’s twentieth-century artistic and literary output by establishing one of the country’s most productive artistic retreats.

In 1881, Trask and his wife—poet, novelist, and playwright Katrina Nichols Trask—bought an estate in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York, which their youngest daughter nicknamed “Yaddo.” A series of tragedies struck the Trasks, and by 1900 all four of their children had died at young ages, two taken by diphtheria, two by other early maladies. The heartbroken, heirless Trasks decided to turn Yaddo into an artist colony, following a vision by the bereft Katrina of “generations of talented men and women yet unborn walking the lawns of Yaddo, ‘creating, creating, creating.’”

With the additional support of the Trasks’ friend and business partner George Foster Peabody, the first artists took up residence at Yaddo in 1926. Since then, more than 5,500 artists have nurtured their creativity there, including 67 Pulitzer Prize winners, 61 National Book Award winners, 108 Rome Prize winners, and one Nobel laureate (Saul Bellow). Yaddo’s additional luminaries include John Cheever, Aaron Copland, Jonathan Franzen, James MacPherson, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, Leonard Bernstein, and William Carlos Williams.

Today, Yaddo continues to rely on private philanthropic support. One third of its funding comes from gifts from its alumni artists, reflecting their views of the institution’s efficacy and importance. The “permanent home” that Spencer Trask sought to create for “authors, painters, sculptors, musicians, and other artists” to do “good and earnest work” has lived long. The procreativity denied to him and his wife resulted instead in a bloom of creativity benefiting all Americans.

Albert Barnes had been raised in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, with experiences to match. Fistfights, not painting, dominated his childhood. Ferocious determination became one of his most characteristic traits.

His academic performance earned him a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, and he emerged a physician. He went into business manufacturing pharmaceuticals, and by age 35, in 1908, was worth $24 million in 2015 dollars. Gradually, as his business consumed less of his energy, he turned to art. His mother had taught him to appreciate it as a child, and now that he had money and leisure time, he threw himself into collecting as aggressively as he had into entrepreneurship.

Barnes enlisted high-school friend William Glackens, a painter, as his art buyer, and quickly became known in contemporary art circles. Right through the Great Depression he employed his business savvy to buy magnificent works for far less than their market value, taking them off the hands of the formerly rich who could no longer afford the pieces. His collection includes more than 40 works by Matisse, 60 by Picasso, and no fewer than 180 by Renoir. Yet Barnes never paid more than $100,000 for a painting. His trove of more than 2,500 works is currently valued at an astonishing $30 billion (the approximate worth of the entire Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

Barnes then became intensely involved in interpreting his collection to the world and erecting a building to house it. When a Philadelphia exhibit of a few of his works was panned by local critics, Barnes furiously withdrew his art from the city. Rather than let the Philadelphia Museum of Art touch it, he opened the Barnes Collection as its own institution in suburban Merion, Pennsylvania, in 1925—and not merely as a museum, but as an educational center designed to help adults and children understand and appreciate art (as he believed the Philly elite were unable to). As much as for the remarkable quality of the works, the collection became famous for Barnes’s detailed and iconoclastic requirements on how the art should be displayed for popular edification—by color, shape, craft, or similarity of effect, rather than chronology or other traditional criteria.

Barnes died in 1950; the last stewards of his collection who had known him were gone by the 1980s; soon one after another of his highly specific instructions for the disposition of his collection were being violated. In 2012, the whole lot was moved to a purpose-built museum in downtown Philadelphia, bringing one of the most impressive art collections in the world to a city its collector had pulled away from.

Mary Louise Curtis Bok, daughter of the family that published the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal, was a volunteer at a south Philadelphia settlement school devoted to “Americanization among the foreign population of Philadelphia.” This charitable work convinced her that there were significant numbers of children among the poor immigrant families of the day who could perform music at a very high level, given good training. So she gave the school $150,000 to start offering classes, then consulted with musical friends like conductor Leopold Stokowski and pianist Josef Hofmann on how best to boost up promising young musicians.

In 1924 Bok put up $500,000 to found a new institution in Philadelphia that would provide top-notch higher education for music students. In 1928 she announced that all of the students at the new Curtis Institute (named in honor of her father) would be admitted on merit and could attend completely tuition free—which she made feasible by providing a $12 million endowment. She recruited a superb faculty of prominent artists, and purchased three mansions and had them joined together and renovated into teaching, practicing, and performance space. Bok remained intimately involved in guiding the school for the rest of her long life, even serving as acting director in various stints. Her second husband, violinist Efram Zimbalist, was artistic director of the college for many years as well.

Today, Curtis continues to provide nonpareil musical training to all of its students, entirely free. It is currently the most selective institution of higher education in America, accepting less than 5 percent of applicants. Alumni have included notables like Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Alan Gilbert, Lang Lang, and Hilary Hahn. At major symphonies like those in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh, a quarter or more of the musical principals are Curtis graduates.

Amazingly, more than half of the Curtis Institute’s operating revenues continue to come from the original endowment established by Mary Louise Bok. But to preserve and extend its remarkable zero-tuition policy the college has undertaken broader fundraising in recent years. While Gerry Lenfest was chairman of the board from 2006 to 2014, he and his wife Marguerite gave approximately $70 million to Curtis. His successor, Nina von Maltzahn, donated about the same large amount after “falling in love” with the school.

In 1890, when his father died and left him the family’s London banking house and millions of dollars, J. Pierpont Morgan began collecting on a grand scale. Over the next three decades he spent $60 million (nearly a billion dollars today) on books and art. “Morgan’s collecting tastes could only be described as encyclopedic—what he amassed in such a short period encompassed virtually the full range of artistic and human achievement in Western civilization, from antiquity to modern times,” explains today’s Morgan Library and Museum.

Morgan’s scholarly nephew and a young librarian he hired helped guide him through many extraordinarily savvy purchases. Initially he kept, and displayed, his manuscripts and artwork at his homes. Eventually he outgrew those quarters, and so he asked the architect Charles McKim to design “a gem” of a building next to his home in New York City, for publicly displaying his gathered objects.

When Morgan died in 1913, up to three quarters of his enormous net worth was tied up in his book and art collection. He left the disposition of these objects to his son, Jack, with the requirement that the objects be “permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people.”

Jack was forced to sell some objects to pay taxes. Others were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Morgan’s collections of books, manuscripts, and drawings, however, remained intact and became the core of the Morgan library when it opened in 1924 as a public institution, with its own board, private endowment, and one of the world’s most impressive set of documents.

The beloved painter, sculptor, and illustrator Frederic Remington was the progenitor of America’s famed school of cowboy art. Remington was not a westerner, however, but an upstate New Yorker, born and buried in the far north country near the U.S.-Canada border, where he gloried in the local hunting, fishing, swimming, camping, and horse riding. His widow Eva was from the same area, and when she returned to Ogdensburg, New York, after her husband’s death, she brought his personal collection of paintings, sketches, bronzes, western artifacts, and private memorabilia with her, along with Frederic’s papers and effects. She tried to offer the Indian-related items to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, but reversed course when she learned that the museum would break up the firearms, clothing, saddles, and other items into separate displays.

Thus did one of America’s great troves of Western art end up in the custody of the Ogdensburg Library in 1915, within a revolver shot of Canada. Local businessmen and philanthropists John Howard and George Hall offered the library $100,000 to erect a proper building to house the treasures, and these two patrons eventually provided the means to have the collection installed in the 1810 home where Eva lived out the end of her life, suitably renovated and opened to the public in 1923. In the years since, locals have continued to generously support the beloved museum, allowing it to add many additional items, and to expand into a second building.

Today, the “benefactors and supporters” page of the Remington Museum’s annual report lists ten full pages of area boosters—hundreds of individual donors plus regional businesses like the Heritage Clock Shop, the Busy Corner Café, and the North Country Savings Bank. Along with an active mix of teas, raffles, BBQs, and replica sales, these local angels sustain a top-flight art collection in a rural New York locale that remains nearly as wild today as it was during the formative years when Frederic Remington rambled its woods and streams.

George Eastman had raised himself from poverty to wealth by founding Eastman Kodak, pioneering much of the science and art of photography, and building his company to world dominance through a combination of inventiveness and enormous stamina. His creation of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester required much the same combination of traits.

Eastman had adored music since childhood. In fact, music was such an important part of his life that when he built himself a mansion (finished in 1905), he had a large organ installed in the music room and paid his own organist to wake him with the instrument every morning, then serenade him with fugues and toccatas until Eastman had finished breakfast. By the mid-1910s, Eastman had decided his native Rochester needed a high-level conservatory. “Without the presence of a large body of people who understand music and get enjoyment out of it, any attempt to develop the musical resources of any city is doomed to failure,” he pronounced.

Eastman wanted to create a music school that included not just international-level training for university students, but also major community elements and preparatory training for children and adults—an unconventional notion at the time. He also aspired to celebrate high music and popular music alike, and to resist practices that reduce the audience for classical music. In 1918, he presented his ideas to University of Rochester president Rush Rhees. It soon became clear that Eastman would have to shoulder almost the entire burden of making the project happen. So he put his legendary ingenuity and determination to work and overcame one objection after another.

Starting from scratch would be difficult, so Eastman bought the property and practice of the existing D. K. G. Institute of Musical Art. He then purchased more land around it and closely supervised every detail of the design of a campus and magnificent main building, insisting that it include one of the most glorious auditoriums ever built for music, dance, and film screenings—the 3,100-seat Eastman Theater. Ground was broken in 1920, and the school (with 32 instructors) opened to 104 students in 1921. Buildings and students were added with the passing of years.

Today, 500 undergraduate and 400 graduate students are enrolled in the collegiate division of the school. They are taught by almost 100 faculty members, whose numbers have included seven Pulitzer winners and numerous Grammy awardees. Eastman’s vision for community education and engagement is alive and well; the Community Music School enrolls around 1,000 students (children and adults) each year. Eastman alumni now fill important roles, from musician to conductor to manager, at many of the world’s greatest musical entities, and the Eastman School’s graduate program is regularly ranked first in the nation.

Duncan Phillips was the son of a Pittsburgh businessman, and had a passion for art along with family economic means. In 1914, six years after his graduation from Yale, he published his first book, The Enchantment of Art. He then managed to talk his parents into giving him a “collecting allowance,” so he could start assembling works he admired.

He and his mother were shattered by the death of Duncan’s father in 1917. They channeled their grief into the founding of a memorial to the senior Phillips: America’s first museum dedicated to modern art. The Phillips Collection, said Duncan, should be “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station.” The cadre of artists whose work was gathered included Degas, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and many more.

The museum opened in 1921, originally located in the Phillips’ home in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, which the family eventually vacated to make its full space available for art. Phillips worked with his wife to extend and organize the collection, and continually built friendships with living artists. He remained involved in directing the museum until his death in 1966. It has grown through building expansions in 1989 and 2006, and remains one of the finest privately owned museums in America..

The Huntington Library is one of the world’s great cultural, research, and educational centers. It was founded by Henry Huntington, an upstate New Yorker who came to California and built rail lines, and eventually served on 60 corporate boards. Huntington’s railroad building helped drive the explosive growth of the Los Angeles area, and his library gave the raw new city a great institution of research, art, and scholarship.

During his lifetime, Huntington amassed one of the finest private libraries in the world, established a splendid art collection, and created a stunning array of botanical gardens. At the age of 60 he retired to focus on his collections and the landscaping of his 600-acre ranch. Huntington’s wife, Arabella, was herself one of the most important art connoisseurs of her generation, and highly influential in the development of the collection now displayed in their former mansion. It includes many masterpieces, and the botanical garden of 120 acres features more than a dozen different specialized gardens, including the Desert Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, the Chinese Garden, and subtropical, herb, jungle, and palm gardens.

The library has on display some of the finest rare books and manuscripts of Anglo-American civilization, and includes about 6 million items in total, including a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, and a superlative collection of the early editions of Shakespeare’s works. The Huntington is also among the nation’s most important centers for the study of the American West, including the pioneer experience, the Gold Rush, and the development of southern California. Much important research has been conducted in the library.

In 1919, Henry and Arabella Huntington transferred their San Marino home and collections to a nonprofit educational trust. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens now host more than 500,000 visitors each year. An extensive education program serves about 12,000 school children annually.

Henry Clay Frick was a Pittsburgh industrial magnate who made his money in coal and steel. He built an impressive mansion in New York City that was designed, from its earliest planning, so that it could serve as an art museum after he died.

At his death in 1919, Frick bequeathed the house and most of his art collection to establish a gallery for “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts.” His gifts included sculptures, prints, furniture, silver, rugs, Chinese porcelains, and more. The Frick Collection was both diverse and impressively deep. Its 131 paintings formed its core; there were eighteenth-century English portraits, van Dykes, Vermeers, and Rembrandts.

Along with his art, Frick left an endowment of $15 million for operation and upkeep. After his wife died in 1931, the home was transformed into the museum he had ordered. Thanks to investment growth of the endowment the collection was gradually expanded, and by 1995 it had grown to more than 1,100 paintings. Today it is considered one of the finest small collections in the world.

At Joseph Pulitzer’s death, the self-made Hungarian immigrant who built the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later the New York World into hugely successful newspapers left $2 million to Columbia University to found the Columbia School of Journalism and create (with one quarter of the bequest) the Pulitzer Prizes.

Pulitzer explained in his will that he hoped to attract into the writing professions individuals “of character and ability, also to help those already engaged in the profession to acquire the highest moral and intellectual training.”

First awarded in 1917 by an advisory board he created for the purpose, the prizes aimed to encourage excellence in both journalism (four awards) and literature (with prizes for best American novels, plays, histories, and biographies). Prizes for poetry, music composition, and photography were introduced later. Winners are announced in April of each year.

Charlotte Mason was a wealthy white widow who in the 1920s thought black art had a spirituality and “primitive energy” that nothing else mustered. She was a controversial figure even then, bearing the classic marks of the old-style patron: demanding loyalty from her artists, meddling with their work, and holding a very specific vision of what Negro art should and shouldn’t be. One of her bemused artists wondered if she realized he’d been born in the Bronx and not the Sudan. As one might imagine, some of her artistic relationships didn’t end well. Langston Hughes, for example, relied on her for support from 1926 to 1930 (at $150 a month), but broke with her in 1930 over her efforts to control his work. (He later tried to reconcile.)

Yet in other ways, Mason was different from the original Renaissance patrons. For one thing, she stayed out of the public eye. For another, she was truly devoted to the art; her meddling was usually due less to her desire to make the art fit her whims than to her determination that the art should be authentic.

Whatever her quirks, Mason’s energy, passion, and major financial involvement earned her her favorite title: “godmother.” Many of the Harlem Renaissance artists and writers could not have accomplished what they did without her support. Among the individuals whose artistic creativity she supported were Alain Locke, Aaron Douglas, and Zora Neale Hurston.

George Heye (pronounced “hi”) was raised in a wealthy home in New York City, and despite finishing college with an electrical-engineering degree in 1896, opted in 1901 to start an investment-banking firm. The considerable amount of money he eventually earned from this successful venture funded what had become his real passion: Heye was fascinated by Native American customs and handcraft. We don’t know the origins of his interest, but he was soon traveling all over the country looking for artifacts. By car, train, or boat, Heye would end up in the most remote places, dig up or buy whatever he could, and send it back to New York. He even bankrolled archaeological digs in Central America. In just a few years, he amassed over a million Native American items; the largest collection ever assembled by a single person.

Heye established the Museum of the American Indian in 1916 in New York to display his collection. After he died in 1957 the museum’s fortunes rose and fell until 1989, when by an act of Congress a National Museum of the American Indian was added to the Smithsonian Institution. Heye’s collection became it’s backbone. The materials he gathered now span three facilities—the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan, which opened in 1994, the main National Museum of the American Indian located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., since 2004, and the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, which houses the museum’s conservation and curatorial work.

A book from the Loeb Classical Library is instantly recognizable. Each of the 518 hardbound volumes is uniformly sized and sports a minimalist cover—red for works in Latin and green for those in Greek. Inside is a layout that has not changed in 100 years of publication. On every left-hand page runs the original text, with a near-literal English translation running on the right-hand page.

The books preserve and popularize an enormous body of ancient wisdom: early dramas, novels, and poetry, histories by the likes of Herodotus and Josephus, scores of works from philosophers like Aristotle and Seneca, works of mathematics, Greek and Roman political speeches, biographies, and early Christian texts.

The series is a pure product of philanthropy. James Loeb was a son of the founder of one of America’s earliest investment banks. He worked for the family business until illness forced his early retirement, then dedicated himself to a life of quiet scholarship and giving. Loeb was lead funder of what would eventually become the Juilliard School (see entry dated 1905). He sponsored psychiatric research, charitable hospitals, and convalescent homes. And he personally financed the translation, production, and publication of the Loeb Classical Library.

When he left Harvard money in his will to complete the series, Loeb directed that profits from sales of the books should be put toward scholarships in the classics. To this day, the library’s proceeds support Harvard graduate students. The Loeb Library also inspired three similar large efforts to present great literatures in a consistent high-quality format: a series of crucial works from the Renaissance, a medieval library, and a trove of the classical literature of India. These also relied on philanthropy.

The scene (during the French and Indian War) of the bloodiest battle in America until the time of the Civil War, Fort Ticonderoga on the New York shore of Lake Champlain went on to become one of the most important historical sites in the birth of America. Several crucial U.S. victories in our Revolutionary War were centered on Ticonderoga, including Ethan Allen’s seizure of the fort’s cannons, which were then used to drive the British out of Boston, Benedict Arnold’s heroic Battle of Valcour, and the seminal British defeat at Saratoga in 1777.

In 1820, the crumbling fort and its 546-acre grounds were acquired by New York City merchant William Pell, a wealthy importer of mahogany and marble, for $6,008. Thus began his family’s almost single-handed preservation of the historical battleground. In the early 1900s, Pell’s great-grandson Stephen Pell proposed a thorough rebuilding of the fort, and asked his father-in-law Robert Thompson to finance the construction. A Naval Academy graduate who earned a fortune in copper and nickel mines (and later became chairman of the American Olympic Committee), Thompson replied, “Have it done, and send the bill to me.” He pledged $500,000 to the project, which commenced in 1909.

Stephen Pell and his wife assembled the museum’s collection of weaponry, historical documents, and accoutrements of all sorts, and in 1931 established the private Fort Ticonderoga Association to maintain the site as a national shrine open to the public. Many visitors assume it must be a national park, but it is instead a product of philanthropy. Leading military historian Eliot Cohen describes the current privately preserved site as “a standard setter in terms of reconstruction and presentation.”

  • Fort Ticonderoga,
  • Eliot Cohen, Conquered Into Liberty, (The Free Press, 2011)

Tucked into the woods surrounding the quiet town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, there is a powerhouse of explosive creativity. The MacDowell Colony was founded in 1907 by the composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian to foster “enduring works of the imagination.” It attracts and supports 250 promising American artists every year, both the famous and the unknown, in fields from architecture to theater to music composition. A MacDowell residency, which may last from two weeks to two months, allows the artist to focus on a project without distraction, while drawing inspiration from the beautiful New England environs.

Edward MacDowell, an inaugural member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, realized toward the end of his life that the tranquility of his New Hampshire summer home had enabled him to compose many of his best pieces. As he was dying, Marian hoped to extend his legacy by offering the same opportunity to other artists. With the support of Andrew Carnegie, J. Pierpont Morgan, Grover Cleveland, and others, she converted the property into a retreat, with (ultimately) 32 individual studios scattered through the 450-acre forest, and a common dining area and library. Among the signature features of the colony are the lunches delivered silently to artists’ doorsteps in picnic baskets every day, and the tablets inside the studios inscribed by everyone who has worked there before. The Colony was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962.

In the century since its founding, MacDowell Colony has not only supported more than 6,000 artists, but inspired similar colonies across the nation and the world. Dozens of the works created at MacDowell have gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize or similar award, including Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which was modeled on nearby Peterborough, setting “the village against the largest dimensions of time and space,” Wilder wrote, in an attempt “to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life”).

Frank Damrosch was born into music. His father was a conductor and his mother a singer; his godfather was composer Franz Liszt. The household moved from Germany to America when he was young, and he stuck to the family trade. His efforts to teach music to the poor in New York earned him, in 1897, the position of head of music education for New York City’s public schools.

Musical ignorance was common in America’s schools at the time, and the best musicians had to either come from Europe (as he had), or study there. Damrosch firmly believed American musicians should not have to go abroad to become masters. He wanted to create a conservatory that rivaled the great European music schools.

Money remained the problem until he met banker James Loeb—who agreed to finance a conservatory in memory of his mother, Betty. It was originally known as the Institute of Musical Art, and opened in 1905. Thanks to Loeb’s generosity the school was freed from pressure to please tuition-paying students, and instead focused on inculcating demanding standards of musical art.

In 1919, a rich textile merchant named Augustus Juilliard (who led the board overseeing New York’s Metropolitan Opera) made the largest bequest ever for the advancement of music. A sum ultimately totaling $12.5 million was used to create the Juilliard Graduate School. Just a few years later, in 1926, the two superb training academies built by these donors merged to form the Juilliard School of Music.

The Juilliard School is today one of the world’s leading conservatories, and supports instruction in dance and drama as well as music. Juilliard continues to benefit from powerful support by many of America’s most devoted philanthropists, most recently hedge-fund billionaire Bruce Kovner. In the late 1960s, Kovner left a Ph.D. program at Harvard, felled by writer’s block, and took up driving taxis, working on political campaigns, and studying the keyboard at Juilliard. The school made a mark on him, and he later became long-serving chairman of its board, not to mention its most generous giver. In 2006, he donated a priceless collection of manuscripts to the school (original sheet music by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and many others). In 2009, he began supporting the school’s Historical Performance Program, which encourages authentic presentations of music created from 1600 to the early 1800s. In 2012, Kovner donated $20 million to fully fund the program—providing total scholarships for all students. In early 2013 he offered $5 million to the Juilliard drama program. And at the end of 2013 he gave $60 million, the largest gift in the school’s history, to allow 52 of the music conservatory’s most accomplished students to be given full-ride scholarships every year.

When some relatives approached Andrew Carnegie in 1903 about supporting their church, he balked. Instead of money, he offered to provide it with an organ. Even skeptics like himself could be inspired to become better men by the beauty, power, and solemnity of sacred organ music, he believed. He testified that listening to an organ was to him a devotional experience, and sometimes quoted an old verse: “O Music, sacred tongue of God, I hear thee calling, and I come.”

Soon word of Carnegie’s gift got around, and requests for organs began flooding in—as many as 3,000 in one year. Carnegie quickly standardized the application process. He would only pay for half of the organ’s cost, and the church had to prove it had exhausted other options before coming to him for financial assistance.

Ultimately, between 1903 and his death in 1919, Carnegie was responsible for the addition of nearly 8,000 organs to churches around the world. There were 4,092 provided in the United States, including a hefty 1,351 instruments in the donor’s own state of Pennsylvania. Carnegie spent $6.2 million on this cause during his lifetime. As a result, the music that even now fills thousands of houses of worship on Sunday mornings owes much of its beauty to a man who was only a sporadic churchgoer himself.

  • Waldemar Nielsen, Inside American Philanthropy (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), p. 34
  • S. N. D. North (ed.), A Manual of the Public Benefactions of Andrew Carnegie (Google eBook: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1919); p. 301-303, 320

As one of America’s foremost female patrons of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner was determined to open a museum that would be available “for the education and enrichment of the public forever.” Her father had made a great deal of money as a trader, and she spent the 1880s and ’90s rapidly collecting art, antiques, jewelry, and rare manuscripts. She and her husband, Jack, traveled extensively through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, snapping up objects wherever they went.

In 1898, Isabella bought a plot of land on the Fenway, former marshland in Boston. She worked with architect Willard Sears to design and build a mansion large enough to house a museum, yet imbued with the intimacy, light, and warmth of a Venetian palazzo. In 1903 Gardner’s museum was launched with thousands of pieces of American, European, and Asian art, a million-dollar bequest, and the blissful new building to house it all. It opened to the public amidst a fanfare of Baroque and classical music played by musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, another institution supported by Gardner.

This musical opening was no anomaly. Gardner wanted her intimate space to be a home for music and dance as well as the visual arts. Choreographer Ruth St. Denis, renowned soprano Nellie Melba, and many other performers lent their talents to the museum.

The art collection, though, was the greatest achievement. Gardner owned works by scores of masters including Titian, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Sargent. An infamous 1990 heist resulted in the theft of 13 paintings valued at up to $500 million. They remain lost. Yet Isabella Gardner’s museum continues to thrive, the rich personality she injected into it through its building, location, displays, room uses, and combinations of art remaining the hallmark of the institution today.

Like so many other great philanthropists, Andrew Carnegie was raised poor. He started work at age nine and steadily progressed upward, making it big in railroads, oil, mining, steelmaking, and more. By 1901, when he sold his last business to J. P. Morgan and dedicated his life to philanthropy, his business was worth $480 million (in 1901 dollars).

Carnegie insisted that giving a beggar a dollar was destructive. Investing in things that would help the beggar pull himself up, however, was help worth offering. So it’s hardly surprising that much of his money went to the causes of education and self-improvement.

Carnegie’s native Pittsburgh was an industrial region that lacked the intellectual and cultural amenities he thought distinguished great cities from the merely good. So in the 1890s he commenced to provide Pittsburghers with a string of great facilities. During the decade he built an art museum, a natural history museum (one of the largest in the nation), a grand music hall, and the central branch of the Carnegie libraries in Pittsburgh. The four structures sprawl across a contiguous four-block portion of the city’s Oakland neighborhood. Carnegie being Carnegie, the sandstone buildings themselves were works of art.

Carnegie’s goal at his Museum of Art was to collect and encourage “the Old Masters of tomorrow.” In this sense, it was America’s first major gallery devoted to modern art—which at the time meant painters like Winslow Homer and James McNeil Whistler.

  • Waldemar Nielsen, Inside American Philanthropy (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), p. 34-5
  • S. N. D. North (ed.), A Manual of the Public Benefactions of Andrew Carnegie (Google eBook: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1919), p. 1-70

Waldemar Nielsen called Andrew Carnegie “an extremist in every sense.” When Carnegie gave, he really gave.

And the man who had started life as a poor immigrant considered libraries the single most valuable gift that could be given to a city. He had relevant family history. His father had helped build a little collection of library books back home in Scotland. And in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the young Carnegie had delighted in his access to a generous patron’s personal library. The avid reader had dreamed of giving the same free access to other working boys some day.

In 1881, Carnegie offered Pittsburgh Mayor Robert Lyon $250,000 for a public library building, if the city would fill it with books and maintain it. Lyon pulled together the necessary support. Carnegie, though, was just beginning. He later informed the city leadership that Pittsburgh had grown in size and significance and needed more libraries. He gave an additional $1 million to create eight branch libraries, with the condition that a board of trustees be appointed to see that they operated well. (Henry Frick, of later Frick Art Collection fame, was the first treasurer of the board.)

Nearly 100 architects vied to design Carnegie’s buildings, which ended up being high achievements in themselves. The main library was three stories in a modified Italian Renaissance style, trimmed in bronze and decorated with references to the great creators whose stories could be found inside (Bach, Galileo, etc.). The branch libraries were built soon after in a similarly rich style.

This story would be repeated over and over across the country. Requests for libraries poured in from all around the U.S., and 2,811 libraries were eventually built. Carnegie demanded the cities prove they would sustain the libraries, and most of the collaborations were roaring successes. During his lifetime Carnegie gifted $60 million to this cause, and at one time more than half the libraries in the United States were products of his munificence. Nearly a century later, more than 90 percent of Carnegie’s buildings still existed, and nearly two thirds were still in active use as libraries.

While the scale of Carnegie’s gift is without precedent, other American donors have also created marvelous libraries for public use. In 1857, Baltimore merchant George Peabody donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a combination art gallery/music school/library “which is to be maintained for the free use of all persons who desire to consult it.” The stunning “cathedral of books” remains open to use by the general public. A brilliantly conceived chain of public libraries was later given to Baltimore by Enoch Pratt (an inspiration to Carnegie).

Splendid libraries combining books with art, historic maps, and other rarities were created and eventually given to the public by Henry Huntington, J. P. Morgan, and J. Paul Getty. And in our own day, great libraries continue to be given to America—like the $100 million George Washington library opened in 2013 at Mount Vernon with major support from the Smith family, the Donald Reynolds Foundation, Karen Wright, David Rubenstein, the Mars family, and other donors.

  • S. N. D. North (ed.), A Manual of the Public Benefactions of Andrew Carnegie (Google eBook: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1919), p. 293-301, 311

After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the city’s art scene was devastated. It was Chicago philanthropists who rebuilt it. One notable funder was Charles Hutchinson, who founded the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hutchinson’s father had made and lost fortunes in determined pursuit of money. The younger Hutchinson was a savvy businessman himself (he was running a bank before he was 30, and was president of the Board of Trade by 34), but he also had a civic drive. He said everyone should put as much into a city as he gets out of it.

His philanthropy started early. Having watched his father’s own example, he thought Chicago was becoming too materialistic. The fire, and the renewed interest in culture that it created, presented him with an opportunity to put a spotlight on creations of the human spirit that might counterbalance runaway materialism. At age 28, Hutchinson led a drive to start the Art Institute. It opened in 1879, and moved to its permanent home in 1883. He used his business connections to build the organization, convincing family friends to donate or bequeath their private collections to the institute. Determined to influence all types of Chicagoans, he insisted that admittance to the museum be free three days a week. The institute also housed an art school—one which would produce great artists like Georgia O’Keefe. A research library was added in 1901, and a modern wing in 2009. In between those dates, the institution grew into one of the premier fine-art museums and schools in the country, housing a permanent collection of more than 300,000 works.

William Corcoran was a D.C. native, having been born in Georgetown in 1798. He started his first business by age 19, lost it in an economic downturn by age 27, and was running another by 33. In 1837, he got into the stock market, and quickly became wealthy, then began collecting art.

Soon his art collection was so good, he felt obliged to open his house twice a week to visitors eager to see it. As he became active in philanthropy in the 1850s, he decided to construct a building specifically to house his art, and work commenced in 1859 on a property that is now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery across from the White House. Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer who retired to Europe to wait out the Civil War, returned after the war to finish the museum, and leave it (and its collection, valued at $100,000 in 1865 dollars) to a board of trustees.

The Corcoran Gallery officially opened in 1874. Unlike the other museums in the District of Columbia, the Corcoran was particularly committed to art education (and remains so to this day). Corcoran gave a further donation in 1878 specifically to establish a college of art and design, which is fully integrated with the museum. From the start, per Corcoran’s instructions, the gallery charged a small entrance fee most of the time but followed his tradition of opening for free two days per week.

In 1897 the Corcoran moved to a large new Beaux-Arts gallery built to house both its burgeoning collection and the college. Additional artworks contributed by other private donors necessitated further expansions. With more than 17,000 pieces of art, and the only accredited school of art and design in Washington, D.C., (offering undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as youth classes and extensive continuing education), the Corcoran operated for decades as a rare privately funded museum competing with the free National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian branches.

Then in 2014 that all changed. After years of indecisiveness by its board, the Corcoran announced that it was donating most of its art collection to the National Gallery. The Corcoran art school and building, meanwhile, would be taken over by George Washington University.

On July 4, 1866, a number of well-to-do Americans in Paris are celebrating Independence Day with a fancy dinner. The group includes Mr. Bigelow, the American ambassador; Mr. Fox, assistant secretary of war; and several prominent pastors and businessmen. Lawyer and philanthropist John Jay has been invited to address the group, and, to their surprise, Jay uses the occasion to propose the founding of a “national institution and gallery of art” in New York.

Several men in the audience liked the idea, and they soon asked the Union League Club of New York (of which Jay was president) to take the lead in organizing the worthy endeavor. The club’s art committee concluded in 1869 that both the state and federal governments would be “utterly incompetent” to fund or lead such an institution. They also cautioned, though, against putting such a complex project in the hands of one powerful individual. Instead, a large private committee was appointed, and in 1870 the Metropolitan Museum of Art was incorporated and its first officers appointed, with railroad tycoon John Johnson selected as president.

Johnson was an aficionado of ancient art, and indeed was in Egypt when the committee cabled asking him to come back to New York and take the lead. He donated a Roman sarcophagus and most of his own art collection to the institution, and insisted that as one of the largest cities in the world, New York should have a museum to match, with a collection spanning the whole history of world art. Initial fundraising was difficult, and much of the launch goal of $250,000 was covered by Johnson himself, along with William Blodgett, who got the museum’s collection started with audacious acquisitions of two major European art collections that were endangered due to war between France and Prussia. The city of New York agreed to provide a building on Fifth Avenue, and in 1872 the museum opened.

Johnson and the museum’s board made clear their seriousness in the early years, as they rapidly acquired works from ancient Rome and major European artists. By the time of Johnson’s retirement in 1889, the museum was already among the best in the world. It moved to its current location in the early 1900s, and today, after more than a century of devoted support from legions of philanthropists, the museum houses more than two million objects.

While the building is still owned and partially supported by the city, the museum remains fiercely privately operated, and centered on philanthropy. A private corporation of just under a thousand benefactors owns the nonprofit, which has an endowment of over $2 billion and raises more than a hundred million dollars every year in fresh donations. The admission fees of 5 million annual visitors cover more than a seventh of the operations budget.

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art,
  • Winifred Eva Howe and Henry Watson Kent, A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Gillis Press, 1913)

Mount Vernon was the legacy of one great man. Preserving it was the work of many great women.

The Mount Vernon estate had been in George Washington’s family since 1674. Our first President grew up there, and managed the classic Federal-style house and large surrounding farm after inheriting it in the mid-1750s. He toiled hard and much improved both the home and the estate.

After Washington’s death in 1799, though, the property started to go downhill. His descendants didn’t have his management skills, endurance, or success. By 1853 they had given up on the place.

Some outsiders were unwilling to see Mount Vernon go to wrack and ruin. Ann Cunningham, a South Carolinian who had grown up on a plantation herself, was shocked and saddened when she saw the state of Mount Vernon during a family sail up the Potomac River. If America’s men could not keep this founder’s home in repair, she thought, perhaps the women of his country could succeed.

Cunningham sent a letter to a Charleston newspaper in 1853, appealing to the women of the South to save the estate. In 1854 she founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. By 1858, despite tensions along the Potomac just prior to the Civil War, she had raised enough money to try to buy the house. John Washington (the President’s great-grandnephew) refused. Undeterred, Cunningham met with his wife, and promptly completed a sale for $200,000. Thousands of Americans donated to fund the purchase price, and the association took possession of the nearly empty home in February 1860.

Resisting suggestions to turn the estate into a memorial park, Cunningham wanted to restore and preserve it as it had been in Washington’s day (an unusual idea at the time). With an impressive campaign of fundraising and publicity, the ladies’ association was able to raise large sums of money, jumpstarting America’s historic preservation movement. Over time, as restoration techniques have improved and the collection of furniture and décor has grown, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has been able to very closely re-create the house’s appearance in 1799, the year Washington died.

Today, the association remains a case study in effective grassroots conservation. It still manages the estate, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit governed by a board of regents (all women) from almost 30 states, without any funds from federal, state, or local governments. It employs 500 staff and 400 volunteers, raises and manages an annual budget of $45 million, and has domain over approximately 500 of the original 8,000 acres of the plantation. Mount Vernon is the most popular historic estate in the country, hosting an average of one million guests per year—and over 80 million since it was opened to the public.

In 2012, a new National Library for the Study of George Washington opened on the Mount Vernon grounds, funded by private donors including the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation—which has committed $69 million in recent years for projects at Mount Vernon, including a museum and education center in addition to the new library.

James Smithson was a British scientist with no obvious connection to the United States. He had no family in the New World, had never visited, and had built his successful professional life entirely in Europe as a chemist and geologist. It came as a surprise, therefore, when in 1836 President Andrew Jackson informed Congress that Smithson had bequeathed half a million dollars to the government of the United States.

Smithson had inherited the money from his aristocrat mother, and in the absence of an heir he left instructions to build, “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson was active in the Royal Society of London, and had close friends who were interested in the education of the lower classes. But why he planted his learned benevolence in America, we don’t know.

Whatever the reason, Congress accepted the bequest, and after nearly a decade of wrangling, established the institution in 1846. The Smithsonian would operate independently, being governed by a board of regents and a secretary, and would be a relatively unique hybrid of museum and research institution. The phrase “national university” was frequently used, although the debate over what precisely that meant was heated. Ultimately, an act of Congress allowed for the creation of a building that would house an art gallery, a lecture hall, a library, two laboratories, and a science museum. Renowned architect James Renwick was commissioned to design the building, which still stands on the National Mall today. Over time, further philanthropy allowed for the creation of additional buildings, museums, libraries, laboratories, art and science collections, and programs for popular education and elite investigation.

Today, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest complex of the type, comprised of 19 art, science, and history museums, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. Many donors have followed Smithson’s lead and enriched the art and scientific collections, and physical campus of the organization. Yet more than 200 works from Smithson’s personal library still sit in the heart of the institution.

An atheneum, in nineteenth-century parlance, was a cultural institution broadly devoted to art, books, science, history, and other fields, often broadly combined in a mix of library, gallery, scientific rooms, and lecture spaces.

Hartford, Connecticut, resident Daniel Wadsworth was a relative of painter John Trumbull, friend of landscapist Thomas Cole, amateur painter and architect himself, and one of the first important American patrons of the arts. He originally hoped to give his city “a Gallery of Fine Arts,” but was persuaded instead to create a broader Wadsworth Atheneum. In addition to its art gallery, it originally housed the Connecticut Historical Society, the forerunner of the Hartford Public Library, and a Natural History Society.

The institution officially opened in 1844, making it the oldest public museum of art and culture in the U.S. Like many philanthropic creations it was built up, broadened, and deepened by generations of succeeding donors. Watkinsons, Goodwins, Colts, Averys, Sumners, and other donor families added whole new elements to the museum. Hartford native J. P. Morgan gave the Morgan Memorial, and in 1917 his son J. P. Morgan Jr. donated many ancient, Renaissance, and seventeenth-century items from his father’s personal holdings.

The Morgans later purchased for the Atheneum a preeminent collection of Pilgrim furniture and decorations. This was fitting given that Wadsworth’s ancestors were some of the first Pilgrim settlers in Connecticut. (Daniel’s father, Jeremiah, generated the family’s wealth—as a trader, manufacturer, banker, and insurer.)

The Atheneum has been a remarkably catholic center of culture. It hosted the first performance of Russian choreographer George Balanchine’s American dance company. It organized the first surrealist exhibit in the U.S. It premiered an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. In addition to housing 50,000 works of art, the Atheneum continues to present dramas, dance performances, literary lectures, historical exhibits, textile shows, concerts, storytelling and poetry readings, films, and other cultural events. And matching the museum’s many distinct nooks and divisions are extraordinarily deep boards of donors, hundreds strong, who guide and support each branch.

Thomas Jefferson sometimes argued that the earth belonged to the living and that each generation owed little to those before or after it. At times he lived his own life that way. Fortunately his heirs had different views.

When Jefferson died in 1826, he left over $100,000 in debts, badly encumbering the next generation of his family. They were forced to sell most of his eclectic collection of furniture and artwork, hundreds of acres of his estate, and, in 1831, his beloved home itself, Monticello. Jefferson had designed Monticello with his own hands; he called it his “essay in architecture,” and it was full of the Greek, French, and Roman influences that had shaped his political philosophy. Franklin Roosevelt would later say he had never seen a historic home that was such a perfect expression of the personality of its builder.

It was an aspect of Jefferson’s legacy that would ultimately save the historic house. Uriah Levy was the first Jew to serve a career as an officer in the United States Navy, and he had gone on to a successful career in real-estate speculation. A passionate believer in the freedom of religion that America had offered his family, he was grateful to Jefferson for the role he had played in extending that landmark liberty.

After his acquaintance the Marquis de Lafayette inquired about Jefferson’s home, Levy found that it was in disrepair. In 1836 he bought and restored it as a tribute to its creator. Upon Uriah’s death his family lost control of the estate, and the house again deteriorated. The not-accidentally named Jefferson Levy, Uriah’s nephew, regained possession in 1879. The younger Levy was also a successful speculator, and a three-term New York congressman. He put hundreds of thousands of dollars into restoring the house to its former glory.

In all, the Levy family owned the home for nearly 90 years—far longer than Jefferson himself. They eventually transferred the structure to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to preserve it indefinitely. Since 1923 the private nonprofit foundation has operated the home as a museum, historic site, and research center—a testament to the way generations should honor those who come before and after.

  • Marc Leepson, Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built (University of Virginia Press, 2003)
  • Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,

The Library of Congress was established by an official act in 1800 as a modest reference library for America’s legislators, and composed primarily of law books. The collection was destroyed in August 1814 when the British army captured Washington and burned the Capitol building. Former President Thomas Jefferson then offered his extensive personal book collection as a replacement. This historic in-kind donation (for which Jefferson was later paid) changed the course of America’s library.

Jefferson’s nearly 6,500 books represented one of the finest collections anywhere. They included (in his words) “everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science.” Jefferson had long been a collector of manuscripts, artwork, experimental logs, machinery, and other products of the human intellect that he viewed as having significance. If he wasn’t studying something, he was combining eclectic pieces of existing knowledge to create insights of his own—fresh ideas, new architecture, technical inventions, and expository writing. A longtime proponent of a national university, Jefferson believed strongly in the importance of an educated citizenry.

So when he reconstituted the Library of Congress through his personal gift to the nation, Jefferson didn’t have a mere reference collection in mind. “There is in fact no subject,” he argued, “to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” And there was no backtracking at the Library once Jefferson had placed his magnificently diverse works at the core of the collection. Today, the library houses 144 million items—books, maps, works of art—that touch on virtually every aspect of human inquiry.

In 1999, a million-dollar gift from philanthropists Jerry and Gene Jones allowed the library to largely re-create Jefferson’s original assemblage of books—pulling together the surviving volumes from numerous specialized sections, and purchasing matched period books wherever one of his original volumes had disappeared or been destroyed. The resulting library is now exhibited in a single room, and may be browsed in a spiral bookcase by visitors, much as it would have been experienced by its donor. This visiting room is in the magnificent main structure of the Library of Congress—which is called, appropriately, the Thomas Jefferson Building.

The oldest art museum and art school in America was built up through many decades of private support, particularly from Philadelphia business leaders. With George Clymer—a revered Pennsylvania merchant and banker who had been a primary financer of the American Revolution—as the lead monetary backer, and artists Charles Willson Peale, William Rush, and Rembrandt Peale providing the inspiration, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805. A small clutch of talented painters had by then become established in America, but a desperate shortage of art schools and museums meant that most had to go to Europe to develop their craft.

Soon after its launch, the Pennsylvania Academy began to benefit from repeated acts of private largesse. In 1811, wealthy local merchant William Bingham donated Gilbert Stuart’s beloved George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait). That same year, Napoleon Bonaparte contributed 24 books of European etchings. In 1813 a large gift of paintings, casts, books, and engravings (probably the most important art collection then owned by an American) was given to the academy by philanthropist Allen Smith. Many other masterpieces, particularly by American artists, were donated over following decades.

The academy had a financial crisis in the 1830s, from which it was rescued by public contributions. By mid-century it was the major force in American art. Thomas Eakins, who had been a student at the Academy, returned to teach, and became the director in 1882, installing an original curriculum that mostly remains today—two years learning the fundamentals of drawing, painting, and sculpture (with an emphasis on anatomy, dissection of natural subjects, and extensive sketching of the nude), followed by two years of guided independent study. Other prominent artists like William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt, and Alexander Calder were also tied to the academy, as were great donors like Joseph Harrison and Albert Barnes. The academy continues to operate today as one of the country’s most august artistic nonprofits.

In 1799, a group of sea captains and traders formed the East India Marine Society in Salem, Massachusetts, to share valuable knowledge about how to safely transport merchandise to and from Asia. To be a member you had to have sailed beyond either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Members were also required to contribute artifacts, art works, and natural curiosities acquired on the other side of the globe to build up a viewable collection. This grew into America’s oldest continually operating museum, merged with a museum funded by the great philanthropist George Peabody, and ended up as a treasure trove of Asian, Oceanic, and African culture, and one of the greatest extant gatherings of maritime art and history. Holding 840,000 works of art, more than 400,000 rare books, two dozen historic buildings (including a Chinese Qing dynasty house disassembled and carried the the U.S. in a ship), a half-million square feet of space, and an endowment over $600 million, what is now known as the Peabody Essex Museum ranks among the top 10 American museums. Contributions of $650 million for an expansion and enhancement that will be completed in 2019 came from the latest generation of a deep, long rank of private donors who have built up the museum.

Arts & Culture

Private philanthropy has created and continues to sustain America’s culturally rich and artistic activities.


More philanthropic donations are channeled to education than any other sector except religion.

Local Projects

An overwhelming percentage of American philanthropy takes place locally – bounty sharing among neighbors.

Medicine & Health

Medical philanthropy has a long history, from charity hospitals to the development of life-saving therapies.

Nature, Animals & Parks

National parks, urban green spaces, zoos and aquariums, and wildlife protections have been created by private givers.


Americans have built a reputation as charitable neighbors, providing assistance beyond their own borders.


Fighting poverty is one of the oldest charitable imperatives and requires tackling the sources that lead to it.

Public-Policy Reform

Donating money to modify public thinking and government policy has become a constructive branch of philanthropy.


Religious giving is a pillar of belief and conformity with divine intentions, expanding faith and bringing enlightenment.

Arts & Culture