This painting by John George Brown, called “Color No Objection,” was purchased for the 100th anniversary of the museum. Courtesy Muskegon Museum of Art
There are 100 years of history behind the Muskegon Museum of Art, and the organization is still making history as it prepares to spin off from Muskegon Public Schools as an independent entity.
At a news conference in early September, the museum revealed details of INSPIRE: The Investment Campaign for the Future of the Muskegon Museum of Art, a $7.5 million campaign to fund the museum into the future, when it is on its own.
An announcement from the MMA states that the campaign is the largest capital campaign ever conducted in Muskegon County, and the museum has already obtained commitments for $5.7 million, according to Judith Hayner, its executive director.
Hayner said officials at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County have reported that the museum campaign is the largest known in the county, “and nobody has stepped up to tell me I’m wrong. So I’m standing by that story,” said Hayner, with a laugh.
Joking aside, the MMA was cautious in its approach to announcing such an ambitious campaign. Hayner said that, as is done in many large capital campaigns, the museum did much advance work behind the scenes to line up commitments, and only went public after reaching a certain point in the goal.
There is “a fabulous committee working on this and amazing donors who are willing to step up,” added Hayner.
“I have been blown away by the support of our region,” she said. “People along the lakeshore recognize how important the arts are to a thriving community.”
Volunteers have actually been seeking foundation, corporate and individual charitable support for the MMA for more than six months.
Hayner said the support of Muskegon County, northern Ottawa County and Grand Rapids has all been tremendous. An endowment fund has been established at the Grand Haven Community Foundation, and the Frey Foundation of Grand Rapids has issued a challenge grant of $350,000 to be realized once the campaign hits 80 percent, or $6 million.
The three leaders of the INSPIRE Campaign are Larry Hines, president of Hines Corp. in Norton Shores and chairman of the board of the Muskegon Museum of Art Foundation; Erick Johnson of JSJ Corp. in Grand Haven and a trustee of the foundation; and Marge Byington Potter, a West Michigan resident who is executive director of corporate affairs at the Continental Rail Gateway project in Detroit.
In the early 1980s, a group of avid supporters of the museum organized to create an independent endowment fund for it and raised $1 million. It was the first organizational endowment fund set up at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, according to Hayner.
“We made history then because we were the first to do that. And we’re making history again,” said Hayner.
The museum could be described as a reflection of the industrial strength of Muskegon. After the Civil War, the city became one of the major lumbering centers in North America, and one of its “lumber barons” was Charles Hackley. Hackley became famous for his civic-mindedness, and when the white pine was gone and the mills were closing in the last years of the 19th century, he was convinced public projects would enable the city to survive and attract new industries. When he died in 1905, he left $150,000 in his will to create an expendable trust fund to be managed by the Muskegon Board of Education.
Hayner said the money was to be used to buy pictures of the best kind. “That’s what the will says — five words: ‘pictures of the best kind.’ I love that phrase,” she said. The pictures were to be hung at the public library, which was part of the school district.
The money became known as the Hackley Picture Fund and led to the acquisition of some of the most treasured and valuable works of art still in the museum’s collection today.
Later, as the school district was acquiring the art, the board decided the best way to honor Hackley’s vision was to build an art gallery.
“When this museum opened its doors in 1912, it was the only building in America built in a city of 30,000 or less expressly to hold art,” said Hayner.
As of June 30, 2014, the museum will be completely independent of the school district, a joint decision made by the school district and the Museum Foundation board two years ago, on a four-year time line. Hayner said she is very grateful to the school district for its help with the planning and its understanding that “nothing like this happens fast.”
“We have been part of the district for 100 years. Well, in two years, we’re going to be doing our own payroll,” paying for “all the nuts and bolts that have to be put in place to be an independent organization.” Hence the capital campaign, which will be for “bolstering and improving the financial ground that we stand on,” she said.
Five million of the $7.5 million will go into an endowment fund for annual operation of the MMA, and $1.5 million for improvements to the facility.
“It’s a 100-year-old building,” said Hayner, explaining that there are the usual issues with the mechanical system, roof and electrical system that would be expected.
The lead donors so far in the campaign are the Hines Corp. and Community Foundation for Muskegon County, both of which pledged to contribute $1 million. Larry Hines, according to Hayner, “is certainly in the Charles Hackley mold.”
Hines Corp. is a holding company that has been acquiring and improving underperforming industrial companies since 1985, using its management team’s operational experience and financial discipline. West Michigan companies it owns include Bennett Pump, Johnston Boiler, Michigan Spring & Stamping and Pacific Floor Care.
Hines, who earlier spent 16 years in management positions at major corporations, has demonstrated his philanthropic commitment to Muskegon a number of times. He donated $100,000 toward construction of the new home of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, $100,000 to Mercy General Health Center for cancer care and $50,000 to Harbor Hospice.
Being its 100th year, the MMA has just published a lengthy history of the museum that reflects its impact on the West Michigan region. Some noteworthy recent exhibitions include one early this year called “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” which was prepared by the Smithsonian and featured art sponsored by government funding during the Great Depression.
“We were the only museum in Michigan to host that show and we were very proud of that,” said Hayner. “There was a real connection between that exhibition and our collection,” she said, adding that the best works in the MMA collection are also from the Depression era.
A major show created by the MMA will open in December featuring textile and fiber arts from the best artists across the country.
“We’re traveling that show to New York, Colorado and Kentucky,” said Hayner.