Private Funding at a Smithsonian

  • Arts & Culture
  • 2016

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.